The Tennessee Theatre and its Executive Director Tom Cervone recently welcomed four members of the United Kingdom Cinema Theatre Association, an organization of movie theatre enthusiasts from London. The group traveled to the United States for the 2013 Theatre Historical Society of America Conclave, a four-day conference and tour of historic movie palaces in New England.
The group stopped in Knoxville while traveling south from where the conclave ended in Connecticut on June 22 to the American Theatre Organ Society Convention at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on July 2, visiting and documenting historic movie theatres along the way to share with the Cinema Theatre Association upon their return.
“It’s wonderful to have guest come who are so knowledgeable about movie palaces and preservations,”said Cervone. “When I see the awe and wonder on the face of those visiting the Tennessee Theatre for the first time, especially historic theatre enthusiasts, I am reminded of what a majestic national treasure we have here in Knoxville.”
One member of the group, Tim Hatcher, said it was about his 25 movie palaces, but it was his first time in the Tennessee Theatre. He was especially excited to see the Tennessee Theatre because of its Chicago-based architects Graven & Mayge. The troupe was also making a stop at the Tennessee Theatre’s sister theatre, the Alabama Theatre, a Graven and Mayge work built one year earlier in 1927.
In total, the group has visited more than 40 movie palaces. Hatcher pointed out several unique features of the Tennessee Theatre that set it apart from other theatres he had seen. The Tennessee Theatre is completely symmetrical and stretches out wider than it is deep. Most movie palaces are deep and narrow, but according to Tennessee Theatre Technical Director Tim Burns, the architects chose thisdesign in order to fit 2,000 seats into the limited auditorium space adjacent to the Burwell Building. No seat in the Tennessee Theatre is more than 100 feet away from the stage.
Hatcher also remarked on the quality of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The piping is authentic to 1928, but uses a modern uniflex relay to connect the organ keys to the antique pipes. The unusually shaped auditorium sends the sound out into the expansive room rather than trapping it into a small box like other movie palaces. Hatcher and his companions stood on the orchestra pit as the Mighty Wurlitzer played by house organist Bill Snyder rose into the auditorium.
“It almost made me cry,” Hatcher said of the experience. “In a place like this, it’s almost heart stopping.”
In all his travels, Hatcher said that Tennessee Theatre is one of the best historical restorations of a movie palaces that he has seen. Many historic theatres around the country have been renovated with historical inaccuracies or modernized with new décor, but the Tennessee Theatre was restored to look exactly as it did when it opened 85 years ago in 1928.
“The quality of the restoration is absolutely amazing,” said Hatcher. “Your theatre is easily one of the best ones we’ve seen, but it’s difficult to be objective with a facility that’s so emotive.”
In the United Kingdom, the group remarked that movie theatre preservation has been overlooked because of the depth of history available in Europe. “History in England dates back thousands of years, and because of that, 20 things that are 100 years old are historical.”
According to the theatre historians, the saving grace for the movie hall in England was bingo. Many historic theatres were converted into bingo halls in the 1960s and therefore, saved from demolition. Several others have been turned into churches or other mixed uses.