Chester Martin Remembers Tivoli Insider Bill Miller

Friday, May 6, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Bill Miller
Bill Miller

Bill Miller was a co-worker of mine at one of the several poster companies here in Chattanooga. Bill was a jovial person, always fun to be around and had a quick wit that could brighten a bad day instantly. He had been a graphic artist all his working life before I knew him, and the Tivoli Theater had been his second home for years. He knew every inch of the place and all the details inside that building which you would never dream of. He called this second home, the "Big House".

The Tivoli building had a full staff of expert tradesmen and craftsmen who kept the building in tip-top shape at all times. Engineers,electricians, painters, and air-conditioning specialists worked constantly at "preventive maintenance" to help insure that no equipment broke down unexpectedly, especially during show-times.

Bill Miller was in charge of all the considerable graphic art inside the building.

In a telephone interview with his daughter, Marilyn, she has just given me a great description  of Bill's life there. As a child, and with at least one other sibling, she had watched her dad enlarge small negatives into gigantic display pictures which could be seen a mile away. She and her brother had gotten to help Bill post those enlarged pictures in the specially designed glass display cases as a kind of weekly family activity. This was a lot of fun for young children and they admired their dad. Bill's darkroom where he did the enlargements was deep down under the sound stage where the huge speakers were housed.

In the poster company, (where I knew him), Bill worked at his artist's desk across from mine and would frequently reminisce out loud about his good old days spent at the "big house". He would describe how it was the first building in town to be air-conditioned, and how the a/c feature was an attraction all by itself as many a street-weary person would buy a ticket for the first show of the day, and remain  inside in the cool air all day. In those days, shows were continuous and the screen never went blank. A person could buy one ticket and stay all day - perhaps buying some snack food at the concession stand for lunch. Marilyn told me how her father had both designed and built that concession booth. Bill also used to tell how the a/c was so strong that when you opened the street door the jet of cold air would almost prevent the door's closing again.

Other items I remember in the lobby were two small "fairy-tale" type houses, about three or four feet square, that were located near the walls on the wide entrance hall. There were two small planting urns which stood empty in front of each house.  Mr. Emmett Rogers, theater owner, liked such features as these little houses, thinking that they added a bit of atmosphere to make the theater-goer feel like he was entering a special wonderland. For whatever reason, I had remembered those two little houses with the orange lights inside and Bill Miller told a story - years later -  about them. An innebriated person, it seems, had "used" one of the little urns, and it was Bill's unpleasant duty to do the cleanup. Theater life could be full of surprises!

I had never been able to see all the ornamentation inside the Tivoli until one of my the high school graduation of one of my grandsons a few years ago. With the lights on, It is far more ornate than I had realized, and it was the in-house staff's job to keep it pristine. Much of the design is Italianate, and downstairs in front of the men's room door is a kind of smoking room - with seats around the perimeter. An ornate plaster plaque bears one enigmatic word, "Sebilla", and I never knew the significance or meaning of that word. In a very general way, the decoration of the Tivoli's interior is reminiscent of the New York City subway stations which were decorated by imported Italian craftsmen over a hundred years ago. Traces of those hand-laid mosaics have been preserved. The small  oblong dome above the Tivoli's main floor seating was always one of my favorite bits of decoration - like an architectural element which might be found in Florence, Italy. Fine original oil paintings, framed and under glass, hung on one of the long interior walls at the entrance to the auditorium.

But Bill Miller, our Tivoli "insider," is interesting in his own right. He was in the U.S. Navy during WW2 and was always using Navy nomenclature for everything: a "wall" was a "bulkhead", a "hallway" was a "gangway", and when he expected our boss to be angry about something, he would ominously (but tongue-in cheek) say, "stand by for a ram"!  Bill related how the ship on which he was stationed carried supplies to the beaches of Normandy, off-loading them at a safe place before turning around and heading back to the USA only hours before the big Invasion! Bill saw duty not only in the Atlantic and Mediterranean (Gibraltar), but in the Pacific as well. He would also tell us about working for Mr. Rogers at the much newer Rogers Theater and how he had started out in the Display Department at Miller Brothers department store. That is where he learned to do brush lettering, qualifying him for the later theatrical work. Bill's abilities with the brush led him to inadvertently design Miller Brother's last logo; the company bosses liked the swashes he put into the initials "M" and "B" so well that they adopted it for all their advertising.

The mention of the name "Bill Miller" never failed to bring a smile to the faces of all who knew him. ("Our" Bill was of no known relation to the founders of Miller Brothers department store, however).

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )



Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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