Saving the Tennessee Theatre

It’s hard to imagine Gay Street without the magnificent Tennessee Theatre sign illuminating the night, but that’s what nearly happened in 1977 when the theatre closed. If it hadn’t been for a UT professor and a few young alumni, the theatre may never have become the showplace it is today.

In February 1978, UT Film Committee friends Eric Lewald, Mark Edens, Michael Edens, Jack Stiles, and Jesse Long approached economics professor Tony Spiva to form Tennessee Theatre Classics Inc., to help save the threatened landmark.

The theatre’s gala reopening on March 15, 1978, featured a showing of the 1932 film Grand Hotel with nickel popcorn, a ribbon-cutting by the mayor, tunes played on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, and pedestrian traffic directed by Keystone Cops (fictional incompetent policemen often featured in silent movies).

Lewald, then 22-year-old president of Tennessee Theatre Classics group, said they showed 53 classic films, including Ben Hur, From Here to Eternity, Casablanca, King Kong, and Citizen Kane.

“We five had become friends through our love of old movies, which we had programmed for years at UT,” Lewald says. “The Tennessee Theatre was the most stunning movie palace we knew.  When it faced possible demolition, like so many others had before it, we had to do what we could to save it.”

The group sought to turn the theatre, which is now the official state theatre of Tennessee, into more than a movie palace. Plans included renovating long-neglected parts of the theatre so that concerts, plays, and other large-space events could resume. Members of the group did everything from running the movie projector to being janitors.  However, the group’s lack of business experience and start-up capital forced them to close again in October of 1978.

“We were young and naïve about business, foolishly thinking that our hard work and good intentions alone could revive such a magnificent place, but we failed,” Lewald says. “It fell to those with far more resources and business savvy, like the extraordinary Jim Dick, to truly save the theater, and then the city of Knoxville and state of Tennessee to restore it beyond its original glory.  Today, 40 years later, we five ‘young alumni’ would like to think that our enthusiasm, during that short beginning, showed the community that the Tennessee Theatre was worth saving.”

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