Bijou Theatre

The Bijou Theatre is located on the corner of Gay Street and Cumberland Avenue. It is the oldest commercial thoroughfare theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee and is in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, the Bijou celebrated it’s 100th anniversary.

At the heart of downtown Knoxville is a chain of venues set for specific performances. One of these, lying in the middle of the city, is the Bijou theatre. Though it does not have an illustrious exterior appearance, inside is an area for people to perform in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. The Bijou Theatre allows for music and drama to be present directly in the middle of busy city streets, a haven for the arts

The Bijou is at the heart of downtown Knoxville.

With an interior haven for the arts.

With an interior haven for the performing arts.


Setting the stage for 100 more years.

Though the Bijou reached the 100 year milestone just last year, it went through much more to get to that point. The Bijou Theatre was originally built in 1818 by Thomas Humes. It was originally designed as a tavern and hotel. It was operated under numerous different names, but the most commonly known one is the Lamar House [1]. During the Civil War, the hotel/theatre was occupied by Union Troops. It also hosted 5 U.S. Presidents including Jackson, Grant, and Hayes. In 1909, the farthest back wing was turned into a theatre area, and the hotel was renamed the Bijou Theatre [2]. Over the next few years, the Bijou featured performances in Opera, comedy, and vaudeville. By 1974, the building had been threatened with being completely demolished. However, a group of dedicated Knoxville civilians set up a successful campaign and saved the building from being destroyed. Instead, the theatre was simply renovated, and then again 20 years later. By 2005, the building was in danger of defaulting on its mortgage, but was once again saved by local businessmen, and the theatre now strives to stay alive and “set the stage” for 100 more years.

Setting the stage for the UT Opera


The Bijou offers many various types of musical performances, including local jazz ensembles, choral and instrumental groups, opera productions, local musical theatre, acoustic groups, rock groups, and more. The Bijou’s first ever performance was Little Johnny Jones starring George M. Cohan [1]. Some of the other earlier performances the Bijou hosted included the Marx Brothers and Dizzy Gillespie. Examples of recent performances held at the Bijou Theatre include Relient K, Dave Barnes, the UT Opera, and many more. It has also shown movies such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Harold and Maude”. Also, the Bijou hosts Tennessee Shines, a broadcast of music that reflects Tennessee’s culture, every last Wednesday of the month [5]. Based on these performances, it is obvious that the Bijou covers a vast area of various performances for a wide variety of audiences, particularly young adults and adults. However, no matter what performance you attend, you can enjoy a nice meal in the family friendly Bistro by the Bijou before the concert. While both the Bijou and the Bistro are non smoking environments, both sell wide varieties of beverages allowed in the theatre, thus making it more of an adult environment, though many performances are family friendly.


The exterior of the Bijou theatre is seemingly simple. It is simply a concrete building attached to other buildings in downtown Knoxville. In fact, if one were just taking a day time stroll down Gay Street, there is a possibility that it could be passed by. When lit up at night, however, the Bijou becomes more easily noticed as you proceed down Gay Street. Don’t let it’s exterior simplicity fool you, though, because what is inside is the true function of the Bijou. It was not designed to be externally eye catching, but internally entertaining. The interior of the Bijou first welcomes you with a grandeur lobby lined with lights. Past the lobby is an illustrious auditorium in which you are overtaken by auras of red and gold. Numerous red seats line the floor of the auditorium, facing the stage on which the performing arts are displayed. The Bijou has a seating capacity of just over 700 people. Above the main floor are two more balconies which provide more seating for audiences and places for lighting and sound booths. Along the side

THe elaborate interiour of the Bijou

of the main auditorium are two three level smaller balconies, or galleries, in which certain groups may choose to be seated when purchasing their tickets, though they are generally more expensive. Gold lining around the stage and balconies, gold artwork on the ceiling, and gold statues atop the galleries only add to the extravagance inside the Bijou theatre. Many performing artists consider it the best-sounding room in the city of Knoxville.


An interesting fact about the Bijou that many do not know about is that the Bijou is allegedly haunted. During the Civil War, General Sanders died in the bridal suite of the formerly known Lamar House. Many people believe that it could be his ghost that haunts the theatre [2]. There have been reported sightings of the ghost in the second level women’s bathroom. General Manager Tom Bugg claims that in the mid 1990s as he was walking in the auditorium of the Bijou, a piece of plaster fell behind him. When he went to look for where the plaster fell form the ceiling, there was no plaster to be found [3]. In 2006, many of the workers doing the renovations on the Bijou refused to go into the Bijou while it was dark, claiming they had felt things touch them and brush against them whilst they work. The East Tennessee Paranormal Society ran an investigation after alleged reports, and, be it myth or fact, it still adds an interesting element to the old theatre building [4].


A stopping place for flaneurs

As previously mentioned, the Bijou is a great venue for musical performances. With its fantastic acoustics and elaborate interior, it is both a visual and audible joy. It is a haven for performances amongst the city like atmosphere surrounding it. Downtown Knoxville as a whole is an excellent environment for Benjamin’s flaneurs. As you proceed down Gay Street, store after store, restaurant after restaurant, theatre after theatre, you are consistently intrigued, and the Bijou is no different. As you wander down Gay Street, the Bijou is something that may catch your eye and further intrigue such flaneurs. It fits in with the rest of downtown Knoxville as such an area, but also sticks out in its own way. Its location in itself has its advantages, as it is at an intersection of two well known paths. Located right on this node, it is easy for such wanders to be intrigued as to what happens inside of the theatre. Its history alone can make it seem almost monumental, like a landmark. The Bijou theatre is a perfect place for city to meet performance.

-Eric Goins


[1] –

[2] –

[3] – Interview with Tom Bugg, General Manager of the Bijou Theatre

[4] –

[5] –


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