Saving the Bijou Theatre

Communications Director

Eric Vreeland
evreeland@knoxvilletn.gov
(865) 215-3480

400 Main St., Room 654A
Knoxville, TN 37902

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Saving the Bijou Theatre

Posted: 03/30/2005
Mayor Bill Haslam announced the strategy to ensure the historic Bijou Theatre remains a Knoxville treasure for future generations.

"The Bijou represents an important part of Knoxville history and as a performing arts venue contributes to the growing energy in our downtown," Mayor Haslam said. "Working with members of the Bijou and the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation's board, community volunteers and the Bijou's creditors we have a plan in place to stabilize the current situation and lay the foundation for the theatre's future success."

The announcement followed a vote by the board of directors of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation to manage the 188-year-old landmark, with AC Entertainment overseeing the Bijou's daily operations in addition to the Tennessee Theatre.

An analysis of the condition of the Gay Street building and the theatre's finances estimates that about $2.1 million is needed to stabilize the property. The cost estimate includes construction that addresses structural deterioration, mechanical systems and accessibility issues; eliminates or reduces past liabilities; and creates a two-year operating reserve.

The theatre's board of directors will seek to have a federal grant of $571,000 earmarked for construction costs at the Tennessee Theatre used on behalf of the Bijou. Mayor Haslam will lead a community fundraising effort for the balance.

Mayor Haslam recognized Knoxville businessmen Fred Langley and Sam Furrow for purchasing earlier this year a $731,000 mortgage held by an out-of-town bank. The high-interest mortgage was in default, and foreclosure was imminent. They have significantly reduced the interest rate on the loan and waived interest payments until after the theatre's finances are stabilized.

The Mayor also praised the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation's board of directors for agreeing to provide leadership for the Bijou, on the heels of the very successful reopening of the Tennessee Theatre.

"The Bijou Theatre certainly deserves our support as a historic venue that contributes to the momentum being enjoyed downtown," Mayor Haslam said. "I encourage everyone to get involved in this effort to ensure the Bijou Theatre remains a landmark for future generations."

Bruce Hartmann, chairman of the Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation, said, "This agreement represents hours of discussion, due diligence and a commitment to ensuring downtown Knoxville thrives as the cultural center of our region. The Tennessee Theatre represents what our community can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal, and I know that success can be repeated with the Bijou Theatre."

The building that houses the Bijou Theatre was completed in 1817 and opened as the Knoxville Hotel, with many social gatherings held in its dining room and ballroom. The hotel and its successors hosted U.S. presidents Andrew Jackson, Rutherford Hayes, Andrew Johnson, James Polk, and Ulysses Grant.

In the early 1900s the hotel's ownership changed frequently, and in 1909 the Bijou Theatre opened at the site. Vaudeville took the stage first, followed by motion pictures and then adult films until the theatre was closed in 1973. With the threat of demolition hanging over the building, several concerned citizens rallied to save the theater from being destroyed.

"Knox Heritage traces its own history to 1974 when several concerned citizens stepped in to save the Bijou Theatre and ignited a movement to preserve historic structures in Knoxville," said Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage. "It's gratifying on the eve of our 31st anniversary to see the community unite once again under Mayor Haslam's leadership to ensure the Bijou's future for years to come."