Bijou Theatre: Knoxville’s ‘jewel’ turns 110

Local News

Bijou means ‘jewel’ in French, which sums up the Bijou Theatre for many in Knoxville. Friday, the fixture on Gay Street turned 110. 

Tom Bugg manages both the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre.

“There’s something about this space and I can’t tell you what it is. It’s just intimate. You get it from the artist perspective, from the crowd perspective,” he said. 

Whatever that “something” is, it has brought people to the Bijou Theatre for 110 years.

It’s changed owners over the years – being used as a used car lot and even an adult movie house. It’s also closed many times, in 1927, 1974, and as recently as 2004. 

Local historian Jack Neely said it’s been a popular theater for the majority of its life.

“The sound (acoustics) is nearly perfect. In fact, what the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff said, this is one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve been to in America,” Neely added. 

The theater contains more than 110 years of history within its walls, including secrets of our past.

The second balcony, which is off-limits to the general public today, was originally built with a separate entrance from Cumberland Avenue, for people of color to sit. 

Neely also explained Knoxville is fortunate to still have the venue since it was almost torn down for a parking lot in the 1970s. Due to the efforts of many groups, including what is now the Knox Heritage, it has passed the test of time and maintenance needs.

“There are so many great shows that have been here – 110 years ago and recently – that make the Bijou what it is. It really has a history like no building I know of.”

The Bijou’s development director explained the theater as not just relevant in 2019, but thriving.

From July 2017 through June 2018, the venue attracted more than 58,000 attendees to its seats. 

“The Bijou is not just a performance space, but it’s a platform to talk about and share ideas and concerns happening in our world and our community here,” she said. 

It’s hosted big names including Alison Krauss, the Dave Matthews, and Chris Stapleton. Tim Burns still remembers what it was like working as a stage director at the Bijou in the late 1970s. 

“Bijou is French for ‘jewel,’ and it’s just like a little jewel box and it’s one of the most intimate theaters as far as the audience-performer relationship and of course the acoustics here are legendary,” Burns said. 

Bugg became in charge of the Bijou since it reopened in 2005, following renovations and fundraising, which he credits to then-Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. 

The Bijou Theatre is made up of two buildings – the theater, which is the section celebrating the 110th birthday, and Lamar Hotel, or The Lamar House, is at the front of the theater and was the original building that eventually became the jewel of downtown after renovations.

The Lamar House has a history of its own, going back to 1801, which includes visits by two U.S. Presidents; the death of the only southern-born Union General, Gen. William Sanders in its bridal suite; plus, the Union Army used the hotel as a hospital during the American Civil War. 

In 1909 is when the theater portion was converted from The Lamar House’s ballroom and it eventually became Bijou Theatre. 

The resurgence of downtown helped the theater, Bugg believes, but he also said the theater contributed to downtown’s resurgence. 

Courtney Bergmeier, the Bijou’s development director, calls it an honor to work for a place with many lifetimes before her.

Both Bugg and Bergmeier attribute their success to their strong programming. They report more than 80 productions this fiscal year. In that time frame, the venue was booked between 190-200 days. 

Knoxville itself, Neely explained, has changed in 110 years.

He said per square mile, there were four times more people downtown. He said it was more urban and lively, with chestnut vendors and acrobats on the street. While downtown may have changed slightly, the Bijou has remained unchanged, he said. 

Tim Burns showed up to help out with a ‘Save the Bijou!’ campaign in April 1976, to volunteer for a fundraising event. Eventually, through befriending some of the architects on the cleanup project, he was one of the first two paid employees of the Bijou when it reopened in 1977. 

The theater is hosting a Vaudeville Extravaganza Friday, March 15, to officially commemorate the milestone. They’ll have performances in Vaudeville, Cabaret, Opera, Magicians, Circus Arts, Ballet, and Jazz. 

A beautiful birthday celebration acknowledging its vaudeville past, showing Knoxville its many jewel-like facets. 

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