How the Tivoli Theater Became a Public Good

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 - by Harmon Jolley
Tivoli marquee from a 2009 concert by the Soddy Daisy High band to raise funds for a Rose Parade appearance
Tivoli marquee from a 2009 concert by the Soddy Daisy High band to raise funds for a Rose Parade appearance
- photo by Harmon Jolley

On August 15, 1961 the Chattanooga Times reported, “Tivoli Will Close Aug. 17; Final Use is Still Undecided.”     Two days later, the screen went dark at the majestic theater after a showing of “Snow White and the Three Stooges.”

The Tivoli Theater had operated in downtown since 1921.  At the time of the closing, the picture house was owned by Eastenn Theaters, Inc., which also owned the much newer Rogers Theater in the central city.  The Wilby-Kincey Service Corporation managed the Tivoli and Rogers.

George Deavours, city manager for Wilby-Kincey, said, “We are closing the Tivoli because the theater is expensive to maintain and has a great deal of waste space and we feel that we can serve our patrons much better in the modern Rogers theater.” 

He went on to say that the ground upon which the building was erected was very near the heart of downtown, and was very valuable.  Reports were circulating that the theater would be torn down, and either surface parking or a garage would be built on the site.  Theaters of the Tivoli’s generation were already gone.

The picture had not always been so bleak for the Tivoli.  The March 20, 1921 Chattanooga Times reported, “Thousands are Charmed by its Beauty,” following the grand opening.   The Tivoli had been built by Signal Amusement Company for a cost of $750,000 and was designed by Reuben H. Hunt and Rapp and Rapp of Chicago.  The building was the first in Chattanooga to have an air conditioning system.

Movie and stage production managers attended the unveiling.  Thousands were turned away from the evening show.  Milton B. Ochs, master of ceremonies, praised the civic spirit which had led to the erection of “such a splendid theater.”  The opening picture was Cecil B. DeMille’s “Forbidden Fruit,” starring Mae Murray, who was in town for the opening.

Over the next decades, the Tivoli hosted stage productions and popular motion pictures.  A young Ginger Rogers performed there.  Organists playing the Mighty Wurlitzer provided music.  Though there were ownership changes, the Tivoli remained privately-owned.

Fast-forward back to the 1961 closing, and we find that public sentiment was already favoring a plan to keep the Tivoli operating.  On August 9, 1961, Karl D. Hawk of Signal Mountain wrote a letter to the Times editor.  The letter included details of the Tivoli’s history, and ended with a question – “Can’t our public-spirited citizens conjure up some plan whereby this beautiful show house can be kept for the edification of the citizenry of Chattanooga?”

That question was considered on the “Jaycee Question of the Week,” covered by the August 21, 1961 Times.   Ralph Kelley, who would be elected Chattanooga mayor in 1963, was chairman of the Jaycee committee studying ways to save the Tivoli.   In response to questions of propriety for city government to be involved with the disposition of a privately-owned theater, one panelist said, “Anyone who does business in a community has responsibilities to the community.”

The notion of public ownership or leasing of the Tivoli quickly gained momentum.  The Fine Arts Council was reported in the September 8, 1961 Times as exploring acquisition.  By July 12, 1962, the Times reported that three members of the City Commission were favoring the Chamber of Commerce proposal for leasing the Tivoli.  It was recognized that the city needed a venue smaller than the Memorial Auditorium for some events, and that other cities had similar municipal buildings.

The public lease agreement came to fruition at a City Commission meeting on December 11, 1962.  On March 5, 1963, the Tivoli Theater was dedicated as a community cultural center.  The March 6, 1963 Times reported that only a few of the 1,768 seats were empty for a Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra performance.  

Recognized during the dedication were DeSales Harrison, immediate past president of the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Rudy Olgiati, and others who had worked to convert the Tivoli into a public good, providing benefit to all citizens.

On January 28, 1976, the Times reported that the City Commission authorized the purchase of the Tivoli from ABC Southeastern Theaters for $300,000.  The lease had been costing $22,000 per year, and commissioners agreed that it would be more economical for the city to own the theater.

The Tivoli closed in 1987 for major refurbishing.  It was re-opened in 1989, with folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary performing a spring concert.  Over the years, the Tivoli has hosted many events such as school graduations, dance school recitals including Karen Horton Studio’s “Another Wonderful Year,” and concerts.

I’m sure that I echo the sentiments of many when I say that I marvel at the beauty and craftsmanship of the Tivoli whenever I go there for a show.   It is great to be able to be inside a building from the golden age of theater.   There are so many other things – Cameron Hill before its flat-topping, Union Depot, and various buildings demolished for parking lots – that I wish had been preserved.   It's interesting that the aforementioned more modern Rogers Theater was long ago torn down, but the Tivoli still stands.

If you have memories of the Tivoli’s conversion from private ownership to a public good, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

Reader Feedback

That was going to happen to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Bell South bought the property to turn it into a parking lot, but a group of citizens got together and formed a preservation group called "Save The Fox". They've done a fantastic job in restoring the theater and upgrading it to today's standards, beginning with donations and now it stands on it's own.

 I have so many memories of the Tivoli, from being involved backstage with productions to seeing the Peter, Paul, & Mary performance mentioned in your article. It would be unfortunate for the city to lose the theatre after so long.

 During the 1940's and 1950's, the Tivoli was the "A" run theater. MGM, Paramont, Warners, etc. ran their big films there such as "House of Wax", all t he "Martin & Lewis" films, "Love Me Tender" and all the Elvis films, "East of Eden" with James Dean, etc. When The Rogers opened, they alternated with the "A" pictures (I never realized they were owned by the same company). "Teen Time at the Tivoli" was a wonderful experience in the late 1950's. Fashion shows for the girls, live bands, etc. then a teen themed film. Lots of great memories from the old Tivoli.

 I remember going to movies at the Tivoli as a child, including the first time I sat in the balcony. I saw "Gone with the Wind" there. I have returned many times as an adult. I was so pleased when they rehabbed it many years ago. It has a beauty of its own that isn't built today.  Lots of great memories. I hope they will preserve it; it's a part of Chattanooga that should not be lost.

 I, like you, feel the Tivolli needs to be preserved. The places you mentioned that are no longer here are sadly missed. Chattanooga has not been very good about preserving a lot of it's historic places. For example, the house that housed Grant's headquarters on First street. Think there might be some interest in that now with 150th anniversary of the battles Chattanooga coming up? There is a long list of those mistakes. The City needs to keep both Tivoli and the Memorial Auditorium. Find a promotional company to lease and run them but by no means sell them.

The Tivoli is historic. It was one of the first places in the South to have air conditioning. Living in Knoxville they push the Tennessee Theater. The Tivoli is prettier and has better sight lines and acoustics. Take it from someone who has performed in both.  If some one wants to get rid of the Tivoli, show them pictures of Cameron Hill pre 1960s! Remind them that so called progress isn't always progressive.

 

The 75th anniversary of the Tivoli was celebrated with this souvenir program.
The 75th anniversary of the Tivoli was celebrated with this souvenir program.

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