John Shearer: Happy 100th Birthday To The Tivoli Theatre

Tuesday, March 16, 2021 - by John Shearer

Among the local historic buildings, perhaps none is any more beloved than Chattanooga’s landmark Tivoli Theatre.  


Not only has its detailed beaux arts/French style of architectural ornamentation drawn eyes over the years, but its more temporary features – the live entertainers and movies – have also brought laughter, tears and other strong emotions.


What area resident over a certain age does not have a good memory of attending a certain show or movie, or of enjoying an event there with a special someone?


This March 19, the Tivoli will turn exactly 100 years old, as that will mark the anniversary of when the theater first opened to the public in 1921, with five sold-out showings of the silent Cecil B.

DeMille film, “Forbidden Fruit.”


While normally the anniversary would be celebrated big, the pandemic has curtailed those plans. However, with vaccinations showing signs of finally ending or greatly slowing down the health crisis in the coming weeks, Tivoli Foundation executive director Nick Wilkinson said officials hope to celebrate this year while also announcing a planned renovation/expansion.


“Due to COVID, we are not going to be celebrating on the actual centennial date, but hopefully into the fall in a much bigger way,” he said. “We are in the process of some significant planning for a full restoration of the Tivoli, and look forward to sharing more of that with the community in the coming months.


“We also presume that we will have some sort of signature event in the fall when we can do it correctly that would tie everything together.”


Among the renovation plans are to tie the purchased old Fowler’s furniture building next door in with the Tivoli through an opening in the lobby, he added.


I remember going to a few performing arts events at the Tivoli beginning around the early 1970s, when my Bright School sixth-grade teacher Janet Reeve had a small part in the opera, “Madame Butterfly.” I later attended one or two of the old movies they started showing there in the late 1970s before cable TV stations also showing these movies became too much competition.


But it was after I began working at the old Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1984 that I started taking a special interest in its history and wrote a few stories about it with the help of former theater managers Clyde Hawkins and David Johnson and others.


That culminated with a special five-part series I wrote in 1989 before the theater reopened after a major restoration and remodeling that lasted nearly two years. 


Realizing the Tivoli certainly needed a tribute with its 100th anniversary, I went back and looked at some of those old clippings of my stories as well as numerous ones found at the Chattanooga Public Library to refresh my memories.


And Mr. Wilkinson kindly granted a mask-covered tour last week to help me say hello again to this place I – and many Chattanoogans – consider a dear-old brick, mortar and plaster friend. Although I actually lived in Knoxville for a number of years and also frequented the also-popular Tennessee Theatre there, I had also been in the Tivoli plenty in recent years for symphony concerts with my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer.


I hope to possibly write about more specific aspects of the Tivoli’s history over the course of the centennial year as opportunities allow, but here is an overview of some of its numerous historical facts of note, at least of its first few decades.


The theater had been planned by Chattanoogan Frank Dowler Jr. and his Signal Amusement Co. and was designed by the noted Chicago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. I talked with a great-nephew of the Rapps in 1989, and he said it was the third theater the firm designed in 1919.


He said the Chattanooga theater looked a little like the now-razed Tivoli that was built on the South side of Chicago, although its French style favors the still-standing Riviera Theatre, also in Chicago.


Another famous Rapp and Rapp theater is the Chicago Theatre.


Noted Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt was also said to have supervised the construction of the Tivoli.


When the Chattanooga Tivoli opened that Saturday, March 19, everyone wanted to see this architectural showpiece that many thought was worthy of something to be found in a much bigger city. Only the Howard Theatre in Atlanta, which later became the Paramount before being torn down, was thought to be comparable in the Southeast when lavish movie theater construction was still somewhat in its infancy.


The Tivoli -- named for a town in Italy and which spells “I-lov(e)-it” backwards, manager Mr. Hawkins once told me -- was said to have cost $1 million, and seating at that time was 2,300. All five showings were filled to capacity that first day.


Among the dignitaries on hand were Eugene Zukor, son of Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, and silent movie actress Mae Murray. Considered one of the highest paid actresses at the time, Ms. Murray courteously gave an interview to a reporter from her Hotel Patten room and also spoke at the Tivoli.


A Chattanooga Times story the next day said the out-of-town visitors were impressed with the new Tivoli, quoting them as saying, “It compared favorably with the best moving picture houses in New York, and that it far excelled anything to be found in the South, North and West.”


Also involved with the Tivoli early on was Emmett Rogers, a former Chattanooga Times employee who first handled promotions and would go on to serve as manager most of the time, despite a brief stint with the Publix chain that bought it. He did not retire as Tivoli manager until 1957.


Mr. Dowler lived until 1971. He went on to work for the Publix chain in a traveling capacity and later headed up the Bijou Theatre on Walnut Street, but his children told me in 1989 that the Tivoli was his greatest love.


Another early person was musician Alex Keese. The son of the Bonny Oaks orphanage superintendent, he would lead a group of musicians called the Tivoli Troubadours orchestra that would entertain before a movie. He would go on to be involved in music and radio work in Dallas, Texas.


Other longtime employees during the first few days were projectionists A.C. Kamin and Burson Lowry, who were still there as of 1960.


Vaudeville acts were also common before the Great Depression cut them out, and noted dancer Ginger Rogers came at least once in mid-July 1927 as a youngster. One of her visits was reportedly only the second time she had appeared on stage, one account said.


Ray Bolger, who later gained fame as the Scarecrow on “The Wizard of Oz,” also reportedly came there during the Vaudeville days, one old article said.


Of course, two big stars of the Tivoli in the early days were of the inanimate kind. The Wurlitzer organ, which the theater still has, arrived in 1924 and was said to be an exact duplicate of the one at the Rialto in New York. 


And a Carrier air-conditioning unit was installed in 1926, giving theater goers another reason to go to the Tivoli in the summertime. It lasted until 1977, and the original major parts were finally removed in the late 1980s theater restoration.


Another early feature of the Tivoli was a tall fountain in the outer lobby. It was later removed, and Mr. Wilkinson said he does not know what became of it.


Movies were the main focus of the Tivoli during its first four decades, although initially the theater was closed on Sunday. 


The second and third films to play at the Tivoli – usually for about three days at a time – were “The Kid,” starring Charlie Chaplin, and “The Love Light,” starring Mary Pickford.


Talking movies, or “talkies,” began arriving in the late 1920s at the Tivoli.


On Sept. 8, 1934, the Chattanooga premiere of “One Night of Love” took place. It starred singer Grace Moore, whose parents, Col. and Mrs. Richard Moore, had moved to Chattanooga in 1932 to head the Lovemans department store. 


She was unable to attend due to the New York premiere the night before, but her parents did along with Mayor Ed Bass, and floodlights were even on hand, giving Broad Street a Broadway look.


The movie that created the most excitement ever at the Tivoli, though, was “Gone with the Wind,” the Civil War epic that would win “Best Picture” for 1939. On Sunday, Jan. 21, 1940, the local newspaper announced that tickets would go on sale the next day, and hundreds braved temperatures in the low 20s that Monday morning to get in line.


It played a long six days and then was shown at the State on Market Street and later at the Riviera in Riverview.   


While “Gone with the Wind’s” stature has been debated and downplayed by some in more recent years due to its romantic portrayal of slavery and the Civil War South, “The Wizard of Oz” – another 1939 movie -- has remained a universally popular classic.


It also first played in Chattanooga at the Tivoli from Aug. 27-30, 1939.


Also in 1939, the theater had closed for a few days so that some new seats and other equipment could be installed. And the Tivoli and other local theaters were also closed briefly during a polio outbreak in 1941.


By the time the 1950s arrived, the Tivoli did finally have some competition for screen entertainment. It was not from another theater, but television.


Due to that and the fact the ABC Theater chain that evolved from Publix now had the nearby downtown Rogers Theatre, which had been named for Emmett Rogers, a decision to close the Tivoli came.


Its last day as a movie theater was Aug. 17, 1961. News-Free Press photographer John Goforth was sent there to get a picture of the last person to buy a ticket to “Snow White and the Three Stooges.” But when no one was there to purchase one, he bought it himself, with Tivoli manager George Deavours taking the picture.


For Mr. Goforth, there were sentimental reasons. He had attended the opening show in 1921 at age 13 and eventually became usher and head usher at this theater said to be the first one in the South to have uniformed ushers.


Many other Chattanoogans were somber as well after hearing the quickly announced news of the closing. As Times reporter Keith Fort wrote a few days before the closing in calling it a symbol of pride to Chattanoogans, “They have laughed there in their childhood, courted there in their youth, and whiled away the lonely hours of their old age there.”


What quickly became obvious after its closing was that Chattanoogans wanted to save this beloved old theater and not see it torn down, as was happening to other classic theaters in other cities.


With the help of fine arts and performing arts groups and the Chamber of Commerce -- and a lot of convincing by Mayor P.R. Olgiati -- it would indeed be saved. The city of Chattanooga began leasing the theater in 1963 and eventually bought it from the theater chain in 1976.


The theater has continued as a performing arts center since then.


In 2015 under Mayor Andy Berke, the theater became part of the non-profit organization, the Tivoli Theatre Foundation, with the Knoxville-based AC Entertainment later hired to handle bookings and management.


Executive Director Mr. Wilkinson, while admitting the last year has been hard financially due to the pandemic, is excited for the theater’s future.


He also appreciates its past, personally as well as in the stories he has heard. He said his grandfather took him to see his favorite movie, “Shane,” there when he was a small child, and later learned his grandparents had spent part of their elopement going to a movie at the Tivoli.


He also has a fondness for the theater’s role in the present. While the theater was for whites only in its first few decades due to the segregated times when local theaters for Blacks also existed, he remembered the crowd on hand for the Broadway revival show, “The Color Purple,” on March 7 and 8, 2020.


That was less than a week before the pandemic shut down the Tivoli and much of Chattanooga, but he was touched at how such a great racial and socioeconomic cross section of Chattanoogans were in attendance and enjoying the show as one.


That made him realize how special the theater is to Chattanooga.


“It’s really Chattanooga’s crown jewel in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s one of the few places where the entire community comes together.”


* * * * *

To hear Nick Wilkinson discuss the Tivoli’s importance to Chattanooga, Click here.

* * * * *


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