Tennessee Theatre

604 South Gay Street

Knoxville, TN 37902-1603

(865) 684-1200

The Tennessee Theatre is an old classic theatre that retains the majority of its original décor back when the stage was at the pinnacle of its capacity. While it does act as a venue for modern day concerts and entertainment, the theatre illustrates its pride in the restoration of its age-old grandeur by displaying antiquated chandeliers, early curtain and carpet patterns, and the original end pieces of the theatre’s old seats. As a traditional theatre the Tennessee Theatre acts almost as a time machine, taking people to an era that has already passed by.


The Tennessee Theatre is located on South Gay Street in the heart of downtown Knoxville.  It sits in the midst of the looming Farragut Hotel and the flashy Regal Riviera 8.  The box office is easily accessible, as is the parking situation.  Behind the theatre on a parallel street lies a well-used parking garage, utilized by those attending shows at Knoxville’s movie palace as well as those going to see a newly-released Hollywood film at the Riviera.  The accommodating parking arrangements are helpful to the theatre’s intrigue regardless of the audience – no visitor wants to have to walk an indefinite number of blocks in order to see the show they paid to see.


Construction of the Tennessee Theatre began in November of 1927.  Since then, the theatre has changed hands a number of times.  Having hosted a wedding in the midst of premiering black-and-white films, this wonder of a movie palace has undergone three major renovations since its first opening night.  The building was refurbished in 1966, reducing the seating capacity from 1,996 to 1,545.  After a series of closings, the Tennessee Theatre came back to life in 1980 where it was again renovated in time for World’s Fair.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and named Knoxville’s Grand Entertainment Palace, it is home to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks concerts as well as the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The Mighty Wurlitzer.

Closing again for renovation in 2003, aboveground concrete construction began in order to deepen the stage and the dressing rooms were expanded to five times their original area.  In 2005, the theatre proudly outranked the Ryman Auditorium on Pollstar’s list of the World’s Top Theatres for the first time in history.  While the Tennessee Theatre remains the revered movie palace of older times, it now boasts a plethora of live performances targeted at a variety of age groups – home to entertainment anyone can enjoy.


The most recent renovation of the Tennessee Theatre cost a stunning $28 million in 2003, a significant amount of digits when juxtaposed with the $1.5 million it cost to build the theatre in 1928.  Of the theatre’s five levels with an estimated 15 feet in between each level, every antiquity was maintained and restored to its original state.

Original end pieces of the movie palace's old seats.

Restored draperies with original patterns of the theatre.

The carpeting, the draperies, and the end pieces of the theatre’s old seats were reconstructed to honor the theatre’s once grand, Spanish-Moorish décor.  The seating capacity went from 1,996 to 1,545 in an earlier renovation, and the theatre now stands to seat 1,631 people at its maximum.  No patch exists in the restored façade of the Tennessee Theatre today.  Every painted surface was touched up with the authentic shades and colors of the old theatre when it was at its prime.  The incredible, jaw-dropping dome ceiling was repainted a brilliant shade of blue.  The stage set for performances is flanked by urns, and the walls of the theatre are patterned in reds and golds.

The stenciled red and gold décor that greets every visitor who gazes upon the walls of the theatre.

The concessions stand located in the Grand Lobby.

Five crystal chandeliers, each valued at $250,000, hang as decorations in the Grand Lobby.  In the auditorium, the stage extends 45 feet back, leaving ample room for 120 people to dine onstage if need be.  The proscenium arch rising above the Tennessee Theatre’s stage is reminiscent of the arches used in Roman architecture, used to bring about a sense of ancient sovereignty that gives the theatre a slight twist.  A variety of lights were added around the dome and the auditorium to allow the theatre’s atmosphere to be adjusted to the perfect mood.  The most interesting lights around the theatre are the carbon copies of the wall sconces removed long ago.  The ground floor and the Grand Lobby now hold their own concessions stand complete with a full bar.  New restrooms were added, and the red oak-paneled men’s smoking room became the lower-level public elevator exit.


The renovated exterior, statuesque and imposing in height, maintains the original Tennessee marquee look with new LED lights and a twist from the 1950’s.  While the outside of the Tennessee Theatre is grand and impressive in its own antiquated way, it offers no contest when compared to the magnificent opulence existing on the other side of those double doors.  The building itself is an annex to what was considered Knoxville’s tallest building – the Burwell Building – until 1912.  From the back of the theatre protrudes a concrete structure cantilevered some 20 feet above State Street that stems from the addition of the new stage house.

LED lit showtimes and a quaint little box office draw the attention of passersby, curiously requesting they stop and give the theatre a fraction of their time.

The front of the theatre portrays a picturesque image of an older theatre, complete with outdoor box office and lit up announcements above that draws attention of those passing by.

The quaint little outdoor box office so reminiscent of older times.

The overall look of the outside of the Tennessee Theatre, marquee and box office aside, is actually quite bland when gazing upon the structure itself.  It is deceptively plain, never alluding to the five grand crystal chandeliers or the beautiful domed ceiling within.  The grandness of its exterior relies solely on its paramount height, aided by the 1920’s-era Tennessee marquee and its new LED lights.

Types of Performances

From Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” to the folky pop/rock of Barenaked Ladies to the American Idol fan-favorite Adam Lambert, Knoxville’s Grand Entertainment Palace offers a wide variety of events that pertain to a wide variety of audiences.  There are nights where the Tennessee Theatre is swarming with younger generations, Goo Goo Dolls ticket stubs readily in hand, and there are nights where the theatre is overflowing with classy, older generations, awaiting entrance to see the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.  While it is considered a traditional theatre, the Tennessee Theatre offers a modern day venue for those of all age groups whether it is comedy, ballet, Broadway-style shows, or music.


The notable significance of the Tennessee Theatre’s impact on downtown Knoxville and the theatres around it is inspirational to say the least.  As a traditional theatre, it meets all the requirements of elegance and refinement.  As a modern day venue, it serves as a performance stage that is able to catch the eyes of a younger, more alternative generation.  As a spectacle, this majestic movie palace satisfies both the desires and necessities of a wide range of audiences, making it a well-rounded theatre anyone can enjoy.  It stands in between buildings one would find in the Old City and the Regal Riviera 8 – it gives off the archaic vibe of the Old City with its deceivingly basic exterior while integrating the Riviera’s glitziness into its interior décor.  It meshes the aged look of the building with a modern air as the theatre’s events mesh the individuality of its audience.  This is a site any old flaneur ambling down South Gay Street would stop to further peruse.

Overall, the theatre is a grand place to visit. First-timers are always apparent – their jaws tend to drop at the site of the magnificent domed ceiling.

| Arisa Pruttianan


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