The Fabulous Grace Moore Collection In Knoxville

  • Saturday, July 22, 2006
  • John Shearer

Put away in basement cabinets and drawers at UT-Knoxville’s Frank H. McClung Museum are some of the most prized items belonging to the world-renowned opera singer and actress Grace Moore, whose family lived in Chattanooga and owned Lovemans department store for a number of years.

Here one can find the late star’s costume dresses and wigs she wore for some of her most famous operatic performances, as well as medals she was presented by representatives of the different countries in which she performed. The collection also has music books and sheets, several of which Miss Moore marked with her own words and notes.

Miss Moore’s items are not only protected in a humidity-free, air-conditioned environment, they and the other items are also behind two security doors.

The basement and out-of-view location is ironic in a symbolic sense because, throughout her professional career, Miss Moore was both on top and in the public eye.

Born in Del Rio, Tn., in Cocke County near Newport in 1898 to Col. and Mrs. Richard Moore, Miss Moore was reared in Jellico, Tn., along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, due north of Knoxville. While in Jellico, she developed an aspiration for a singing career, despite her father’s objections.

She slowly rose to prominence and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in 1928. From then until her tragic death in a plane crash in Copenhagen, Denmark, in January 1947, she was one of the more famous singers in America and the world.

She also pursued an acting career and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the musical, “One Night of Love.”

About the time she was gaining stardom, her parents permanently settled in Chattanooga. For years, they lived in a home on Hillcrest Road in Riverview that has since been remodeled.

Although Miss Moore never lived in Chattanooga permanently, she often visited her parents and siblings here.

After her tragic death in 1947, she was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery at the foot of Lookout Mountain following a service attended by a large number of people at the now-razed First Baptist Church at the corner of Oak Street and Georgia Avenue.

Elaine Evans, the curator of the McClung Museum and an employee since 1971, said that following Miss Moore’s death, many of the items were given to the Museum of the City of New York due to Miss Moore’s connection to the Metropolitan Opera.

However, they were later given to UT. Cards on file at the museum say that the items were given to the school in 1949 by James Moore Sr., Miss Moore’ brother. He was an executive of Lovemans for a number of years, as was his brother, Richard Moore Jr., and son, James Moore Jr.

For many years, a representative of the Moore family served on UT’s board of trustees.

After the items were given to UT, they were both on display and stored at UT’s Hoskins Library along Cumberland Avenue. When the McClung Museum, which is located near Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena, opened in the early 1960s, the collection was moved there.

Periodically, many of the items are put on display at the museum and elsewhere for special exhibits. But most of the time, the majority of the collection sits in the large storage room among Native American bones and other Tennessee-related treasures.

Ms. Evans recently granted a private tour of the collection, meticulously using white gloves to handle the items.

“The younger generation has no idea about who Grace Moore was,” said Ms. Evans. “But she is an interesting figure to people of a certain age.

Among the items she pointed out were hats, shoes, and petticoats, all of which were worn in her performances, not in private life.

One of the music sheets in the collection is for the famous song, “What’ll I Do,” written by her friend, Irving Berlin. Miss Moore is shown on the cover of the sheet.

The museum also has the original manuscript of her autobiography, “You’re Only Human Once,” as well as period posters promoting her performances.

Her dresses hang under plastic in a couple of metal armoires, while the other items are stored in drawers in metal cabinets in another part of the room. In a separate room in the museum is the extensive collection of Grace Moore photographs, including one autographed for her by Clark Gable.

Despite the vast collection, the museum has not been able to share it for the most part, Ms. Evans said.

“Here we don’t have anything (of Miss Moore’s) on display,” Mrs. Evans said. “We were never able to show it really.”

She did say that some of the items are on loan and currently on exhibit in a civic building in Newport. And the McClung Museum also had a major exhibit in the early 1970s titled “Memories of An Operatic Star” as well as smaller subsequent exhibits in connection with the Grace Moore Scholarship competition coordinated by the UT Department of Music.

Some items were also loaned to the Tivoli when former manager Clyde Hawkins held a special showing of “One Night of Love” in the 1970s. Richard Moore Jr. took part in that event.

Ms. Evans jokingly said that one fact she came across when doing research on Miss Moore is that the singer was actually born in 1898, not 1901 as publicity material said when she was living.

But one fact for sure is that this lady who was nicknamed the Tennessee Nightingale soared to great heights in her career.

“She was a great musical figure,” said Ms. Evans. “It was a delight to hear her sing. And she was so pretty. In appearance she was fragile but in substance she was formidable to do what she did at a time she did it, when most women were concerned with domestic duties. One has to give her credit for her courage and dedication and focus.”

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