History and Performing Arts Permeate Knoxville's Downtown

From a thriving theatrical community to blooming festivals, Knoxville gives residents a glimpse of its creative personality

On Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 10:48

In its early days, Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre drew crowds that rushed for a glimpse of Clara Bow in her exciting new talking pictures. And the Bijou Theatre packed them in for the country’s best vaudeville shows. Today, both historic venues – polished, painted and revamped – are not only still thrilling audiences, but are a symbol of Knoxville’s love for the arts. Those who flock to lively Gay Street for theater, music, films and dance are met with a beautiful array of Knoxville’s culture and charm.

The Show Must Go On

The Bijou has enjoyed several lives since it was built in 1817. Its 758-seat auditorium, known for its splendid acoustics, hosts a variety of live performances and is an integral part of the Knoxville arts scene. Farther down Gay Street, the Tennessee Theatre reigns as Knoxville’s “grand entertainment palace,” for reasons that are evident the minute one enters the building. The ornate building continues to dazzle audiences, who now come to hear pop concerts and bluegrass, the blues and Bach. It is also home to the Knoxville Symphony and the Knoxville Opera.

From the Stage to the Screen

As the art of theater has evolved into modern film, Knoxville has followed that evolution with a film and television production industry that rivals Hollywood. Some production houses specialize in documentaries, while others produce commercials, music videos or industrial films. Television production operations such as HGTV (Home and Garden), the Do-It-Yourself Network, Cinetel Studios, Scripps Productions, rivr Media, and Jupiter Entertainment create hundreds of jobs directly, and many more opportunities for caterers, set construction crews and other local businesses.

Preserving the Past

The history of Knoxville is also a big part of its culture, and the Gateway Regional Visitor Center is a great place to start your history lesson. Gateway to Knoxville’s historic Old City, the visitor center provides colorful, well-marked maps to lead you on a waterfront walking tour. Historic sites within a few blocks include Knoxville’s only national historic landmark, Blount Mansion, built in 1792. The site of James White’s Fort, built by early settlers in 1786, has reproductions of typical buildings and artifact displays as well as the Alex Haley monument in Heritage Square. More modern sites of interest include the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame an authentic, Mississippi-style paddlewheel riverboat and Volunteer Landing Marina.

The Evolving Music Scene

Nashville may be the state's Music City, but Knoxville's musical roots go just as deep. In the fascinating timeline from the city’s early settlement to the present day, musicians have played a special role. The East Tennessee Historical Society Museum on Market Street pays homage to the area’s musical roots, dating back to the days when Scots-Irish traditional ballads made their way across the mountains. Visitors may see one of country music’s great Roy Acuff’s fiddles or behold antique “shape note” hymnals or learn about early musical instruments. They may also enjoy interactive radio exhibits documenting a variety of musical forms and history. The Cradle of Country Music, a 19-stop walking tour from the museum to Market Square, tells the story through historic markers of the city’s connection to such legendary musicians as Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins and others.

Join in the Festivities

In Knoxville, the word "dogwood" is synonymous with the 50-year-old annual festival that has brought as many as 350,000 visitors to town from around the country. Known as one of the Southeast’s premier festivals, it annually involves thousands of volunteers, performers, artists, craftsmen, athletes, gardeners and students, who stage everything from an air show and parade to quilting and crafts exhibits. Also on the agenda is a literary festival at the East Tennessee Historical Society, a window art show and competition in Market Square, and a consolidation of art and craft exhibitors indoors at the former Watson’s department store.