Regal Riviera Stadium 8

Bright Lights and Spirits

Gay Street's Regal Riviera Stadium 8 is a bright spot for downtown Knoxville.

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8 transports visitors back to the golden age of the original Riviera Theatre.  The Riviera’s spectacles of bright lights, prominent signage, and hit movies bring the 500 block of Gay Street back to the movie theater boom of the early 20th century.  The legacy of the Riviera lives on nearly a century after the birth of the Riviera’s name in downtown Knoxville.

History of the Original Riviera Theatre

The early 20th century saw the construction of several movie theaters on Gay Street, with each new theater “surpassing the last in size and grandeur” [18].  In the thirteen years prior to the opening of the Riviera Theater in 1920, downtown Knoxville averaged more than one new movie theater per year [18].  The Riviera was looking to separate from the pack when Paramount Pictures signed on to operate the new project through their subsidiary Wilby-Kincey [4].  The Riviera is rumored to have cost Paramount Pictures $200,000 [18].  The new movie theater was built into an existing Victorian-style building, built in 1886, located in the 500 block of Gay Street, and local architectural firm Monday and Young signed on to design the theater [5/18].  Monday and Young decided on an art deco style for the new theater and added to the stateliness of the two-story brick building by adding columns and decorative molding [18].  The façade of the original Riviera Theatre, similar to the current Regal Riviera Stadium 8, featured a large central bay window [18].

Gay Street - 1920's

The early 20th century was the golden age of downtown Knoxville movie theatres. (Courtesy of C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library)

The architects saw the marquee as an opportunity to really stand out on Gay Street.  The Riviera’s 17-foot marquee was the largest marquee in town [18].  The architects built upon themes of other downtown performance venues, similar to the way the current Regal Riviera Stadium 8 borrowed themes from the original Riviera [18].  The most notable inspiration for the Riviera Theatre was the historic Staub Theater (renamed Loew’s Theater by 1920), Knoxville’s most extravagant live performance venue; the Riviera added to its extravagance by using Tennessee marble in its ticket booth and inside lobby walls [18].  The Riviera Theatre also had more seats with over one thousand than the top two movie theaters in downtown Knoxville, the Gay Theater and the Queen [18].

The Riviera was referred to as the “Shrine of the Silent Art” and featured short live performances between film showings [18].  The Riviera Theatre offered live performers, such as Ginger Rogers, a small stage, a Wurlitzer pipe organ, and an orchestra pit [18].  From 1920 to 1928, the Riviera Theater was downtown Knoxville’s most magnificent movie theater, however the Tennessee Theater took over that role when it opened in 1928  [18].  Despite the success of the Tennessee Theater, the Riviera still managed to draw crowds throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, because the Riviera was able to secure the most popular movies [18].  For example, “Gone with the Wind” premiered at the Riviera and stayed for a record-breaking five weeks [18].  In June 1963, the Riviera caught fire during the showing of the special effects film “Jason and the Argonaunts” [16].  Fortunately, none of the moviegoers were injured [9].  Besides the façade, the Riviera was a near total loss, and the estimated damage at the time was between $150,000 and $200,000 [16/9].  It did not take long for the Riviera to be rebuilt, however.  Only seven months after the fire, the “New Riviera”, as it was referred to, opened to an invited first night audience in January 1964 [6].  The movie for the reopening was “Charade,” with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn [6].

The opening of the New Riviera

The New Riviera opened with the movie "Charade," starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. (Courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel)

The rebuilt Riviera offered an enlarged lobby, new projection equipment, more room for moviegoers, and new air conditioning units [6].

The construction of movie theaters outside the downtown Knoxville district brought rough times to the New Riviera in the 1960’s and 70’s [18].  On January 7, 1976, the Riviera officially closed its doors after a fifty-year run [7].  The following day, the building went up for sale at $213,000 [7].  The owner of the building, George Tate, suggested that, “The building could possibly be converted to a restaurant or possibly used as a community theater” [7].  Several ideas were proposed in the following years for the building, ranging from a multimedia entertainment complex to an office building to a Krystal restaurant [18].  Unfortunately, all the proposals fell through, and the theater was demolished in 1988 [18].  The site became a parking lot until the construction of the Regal Riviera Stadium 8 in 2007 [18].  Fortunately, the façades of other historic downtown buildings were preserved in the construction process [14].  I will provide more in-depth information about the Regal Riviera’s development process later.

History and Future of the Regal Riviera Stadium 8

In August 2007, an invitation-only crowd was invited to the Regal Riviera’s opening night preview screenings of 3:10 to Yuma, Balls of Fury, and The Nanny Diaries [15].  The stage was set for a perfect opening night, while only one small thing was missing – electricity! [15].  The Regal Riviera experienced a power outage on opening night, but the movie goers’ spirits remained high [15].  Needless to say, the remainder of opening week went a little smoother for the Riviera.  They offered one-dollar movies, with proceeds going to local charities [12].  Ever since, the Regal Riviera has been the place to go to watch movies in historic downtown Knoxville.  The future looks promising for the Regal Riviera, as its gross sale projection is expected to reach over $2 million by 2017 [11].

Location

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8 is located in the heart of downtown Knoxville – the 500 block of Gay Street.  The Regal Riviera is situated between the historic S&W building and the Blaufield and Athletic House buildings [14].  In my interview with Mr. Russ Nunley, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Regal Entertainment Group, he told me that the city of Knoxville actually selected the site for the Regal Riviera to do the most good for the downtown area [1].  The city felt that the site on Gay Street would generate much-needed foot traffic for other downtown businesses [1].  Mr. Nunley feels that the Riviera’s presence in “Theater Row” allows the Riviera to complement other downtown performance venues, such as the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou [1].

The Regal Riviera's location on Gay Street

The Regal Riviera is located in the heart of Gay Street.

Development

The idea of opening a new downtown Knoxville movie theater came in the form of a downtown redevelopment plan drafted in 2000 under the watchful eyes of former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe [11].  The following mayor was on the same page.  As one of his first initiatives as mayor of Knoxville, Bill Haslam committed to building the movie theater on Gay Street in 2003 [11].  Mayor Haslam even contributed some of his personal money into the theater project [11].  The next four years proved to be challenging.  According to Mayor Haslam, “I was always fairly confident we were going to pull it off,” but he described the development process as “tortured” [11].  The first challenge was to convince then-chairman and CEO of Regal Entertainment Group, Mike Campbell, to agree to the construction of a new Regal movie theater in downtown [11].  At the time, downtown movie theaters had a weak track record and downtown Knoxville had too few residents and too many surrounding movie theaters [11].  Downtown Knoxville’s resurgence and a financing plan that spread the risk between public and private convinced Campbell to sign on [11].  The financing plan granted ownership of the theater to the city, while Regal leased from the city at varying rates, based on the theater’s gross operating revenues [11].  It was still was major risk for Regal and the city of Knoxville [11].

The Blooming of a New Era for Downtown Knoxville

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8 sparked the growth of downtown Knoxville.

The next challenge for the project was the increased budget.  The initial budget was set at $9 million but increased to nearly $15 million by the completion of the theater [11].  The main reasons for this increased budget were architectural redesigns and hurricane-induced construction price surges [11].  The funding total came in at $14.85 million; the city provided $4 million for construction, Regal paid $2.5 million for equipment and furniture, third-party investors provided $4.25 million, a tax credit provided $2 million, a state grant pitched in $1.1 million, and the final million came in the form of a tax subsidy [11].  The budget obstacles pushed the original opening date of spring 2006 back to November 2006 [11].  They were forced to push the opening date back again, but in November 2007, all the hard work finally paid off with the grand opening [11].  According to a pamphlet for the Riviera’s grand opening, “Regal is proud of [its] supporting role in the renaissance of downtown Knoxville” [10].

Exterior Design

The exterior design of the Regal Riviera Stadium 8 is inspired by the movie palaces of yesteryear.  In an August 2007  Metro Pulse article, the Regal Riviera was compared to a Roman Baroque movie palace.  The colors of the façade are very lively, and the golden embellishments and neon lights of the façade suggest glamour [13].  The three major highlights of the Riviera’s façade are the marquee, the vertical “Riviera” sign, and the arches.  The first highlight of the exterior design is the marquee.  According to Mr. Nunley, the Regal Riviera’s overhanging marquee evokes memories of the original Riviera Theatre’s marquee [1].  The next highlight of the Riviera’s façade is the vertical “Riviera” sign.  This large, double-sided sign draws visitors in with its classy style.  The sign is truly a spectacle in the evening as the sign’s many lights bring it to life.  The last highlight of the exterior is the consistent use of arches.  Arches are very prevalent in the exterior design of the Riviera.  These arches are reminiscent of proscenium arches used to separate the stage from the audience, thus creating an invisible wall through which the audience can witness the action [19].  The Riviera’s multitude of arches suggests performances in the form of movies inside the building.  In this case, the façade is acting as the invisible wall.  The arches can also be looked upon as allusions to the important city gates of medieval towns.

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8 transports visitors back to the golden age of movie palaces.

Design Criticism and Response

There has, however, been some criticism about Regal’s design for the Riviera from many architects [17].  Some of these architects complained that the façade’s historical references seem superficial [17].  Lead architect for the project, Mike Cummings responded to this criticism by explaining, “We took a lot of cues from the old Riviera” [17].  However, he admits that they used many modern materials than would not have been available at the time of the original Riviera’s construction [17].  He explains that they are not trying to fool anybody that it was built back then [17].  An architecture professor from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville weighed in on the issue when he said that downtown movie theatres can succeed as either background or foreground buildings [17].  His criticism of the Regal Riviera was based on the fact that he saw the building as neither a foreground nor a background building, due to the clash of materials and colors [17].  Responding specifically to the Riviera’s colors scheme criticism, Mr. Nunley explained that Regal specifically selected the bright colors to reflect entertainment values [1].  Regal did not want the building to simply blend in with Gay Street’s other buildings; they deliberately wanted it to stand out as an entertainment venue [1].

Another criticism that has been brought up about the Regal Riviera is the inability to read the vertical “Riviera” sign from afar, due to the building being set back from the street [17].  Mr. Nunley explains that the reason for the Riviera to be set back from the street is to prevent the lines of people waiting for movie tickets at the box office from interfering with walking paths to other downtown hotspots [1].  Despite these design criticisms, the architects want to see the Riviera succeed [17].

Interior Design

One of the first things that you notice when you enter the Regal Riviera’s lobby are three large black-and-white photographs depicting the history of Gay Street, featuring the original Riviera Theatre.  The three photos show Gay Street during the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s [12].  The pictures once again demonstrate Regal’s dedication to preserving history.  The bright colors of the exterior are visible inside the theater as well.  The interior of the Riviera stresses convenience with its high-ceilinged lobby, variety of concessions, and availability of restrooms [13].  According to Mr. Nunley, the Regal Riviera is much larger in size than the original Riviera Theater; unlike the original Riviera, the new Riviera stretches all the way back to State Street [1].  This large complex encompasses 40,000 square foot of prime downtown real estate [11].  The theater has eight screens and a total of nearly 2,000 seats [11].

The Interior of the Regal Riviera Stadium 8

The exciting design and color scheme of the Regal Riviera's exterior are carried to the interior.

Performances

From the final scenes of the 19th century’s silent movie era to today’s world of 3-D technology, people had been entertained, informed, and inspired by movies.  The Riviera is all about movies; however, they no longer hold performances in between films as the original Riviera Theatre did.  The Regal Riviera excels in the movie theater business with eight screens, digital sound, comfortable seating, and affordable prices [11/13].  The ticket prices run from $8.50 for adults, $7 for students, and $6 for children [11].

The Art of Gay Street

The stage is set for the Regal Riviera on Gay Street.

The City

The Regal Riviera, through its integration into the city of Knoxville, has transformed the social, political, and aesthetic experience for Knoxville residents and visitors alike.  Socially, the Riviera has brought the city’s residents together, whether it has come in the form of rallying behind a downtown movie theater or simply spending the evening downtown with friends.  Politically, it took the efforts of two mayors and their respective staffs to bring the idea of a downtown movie theater to fruition.  Aesthetically, the Riviera provides visitors with an intriguing façade, one that would invite even the most demanding flâneur, a term used by German essayist Walter Benjamin to describe the city-walker looking to experience the metropolis, inside.  However, the façade has a much deeper, historical meaning to local citizens.  They use the new Riviera to recall the golden era of the old Riviera.  David Mayernik explained this process of mnemotectonics in his article “Rome: The Memory City.”  In his article, he tells how the Greeks and Romans perfected this memory technique of mnemotectonics to use images of buildings to remember ideas [20].  The Regal Riviera can almost be considered a monument, because famous architect Daniel Libeskind explains that, “Architecture and memory are synonymous” [21].

According to Mr. Nunley, there currently is a renewed interest in bringing businesses, especially movie theaters, to downtown districts [1].  He informed me that Regal always looks for the proper balance of housing, retail, restaurants, and strong bases audiences when seeking out potential sites for new movie theaters [1].  In a way, the construction of the Regal Riviera worked in reverse fashion; in the early planning stages, the balance was not yet there, but Regal has brought the much-needed balance back to downtown Knoxville with its successful rebirth of the Riviera.

The Regal Riviera Stadium 8

The Regal Riviera plays a leading role in the revitalzation of downtown Knoxville.

Info Sources

1 – In-person interview with Mr. Russ Nunley, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Regal Entertainment Group

2 – E-mail conversation with Mr. Russ Nunley, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Regal Entertainment Group

3 – “Regal Riviera Stadium 8” – Cinema Treasures website – http://cinematreasures.org/theater/21138/

4 – “Riviera Theatre” – Cinema Treasures website – http://cinematreasures.org/theater/16357/

5 – “Fracas brings Riviera renovation to a halt” – The Knoxville Journal – 9/30/1981 – Robert Jones

6 – “Seats Roomier, Screen Wider: New Riviera to have ‘Comfort’” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 1/12/1964 – Gunby Rule

7 – “Riviera Theatre Sale Offered for $213,000” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 1/8/1976

8 – “Small fire at old Riviera Theatre” – Knoxville Journal – 5/1981

9 – “Adjoining Businesses Damaged by Blaze; One Fireman Hurt” – Knoxville Journal – 6/24/1963

10 – Pamphlet for grand opening of Regal Riviera Stadium 8 – 8/31/2007

11 – “Center City, Center Stage: Downtown theater finally set to open after “tortured” development process” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 8/26/2007

12 – “Knoxvillians can’t resist Riviera” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 9/1/2007 – Hayes Hickman

13 – “Downtown’s Cine-Flex: The New Riviera to Cater to its Crowd” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 8/31/2007 – Betsy Pickle

14 – “New Theater: a milestone on Gay Street” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 8/5/2007

15 – “A Regal Surprise: movie goers greeted by power outage on opening night” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 8/28/2007 – Hayes Hickman

16 – “Riveria is reborn on Gay Street” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 9/13/2006 – Roger Harris

17 – “The Riviera as Art: Local architects and others respond to the new downtown theater’s controversial design” – Metro Pulse – 8/30/2007

18 – “Remembering the Riviera: ‘Shrine of the Silent Art’ was a major player in Knoxville’s movie-house history” – Knoxville News Sentinel – 8/27/2007 – Scott McNutt

19 – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms’ entry on “proscenium arch” – 2004 – http://www.answers.com/topic/proscenium-arch

20 – “Rome: The Memory City” – Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy – David Mayernick

21 – “Memory/Memorial/Performance: Lower Manhattan, 1776/2001” – Performance and the City – D.J. Hopkins and Shelley Orr

Author: Chris Borns

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