Jerry Summers: Unclad At The Tivoli Theater

Thursday, January 13, 2022 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

On January 23, 1992, the patrons of Chattanooga’s famous Tivoli Theater were entertained with the sounds of the “sexually explicit vignettes” from the long running Broadway play in New York City, “Oh Calcutta.”  The show had been “derided by critics, excoriated by censors, but enjoyed by audiences” and had logged 5,959 performances in the theater district of New York City starting on June 17, 1969, closing on August 12, 1972, and was revised in 1976 and finally closed in 1989.

Habitants in the “Dynamo of Dixie” (1992’s city motto) wondered if curious and broad-minded citizens would attend a public showing of conduct which at the least would have to be described as “risqué”.

In 1992 the showing of “Oh Calcutta” did not enjoy a warm reception by the leadership of the city that was then described as “the best midsized city this side of Boston!” (Sound familiar?)

Armed with a new city ordinance that prohibited public nudity and obscene conduct under Tennessee law the legal battle for the show that featured the works of the Beatles John Lennon and others went to the Chancery Court of Hamilton County before the Honorable R.

Vann Owens for an interpretation of “free speech” under the federal and state constitutions.

Ably represented by assistant city attorney Phil Noblett and the city’s legal staff who put up a vigorous legal fight but after Chancellor Owens heard live and specific testimony as to the availability of adult-oriented material in the now “Gig City” he reluctantly allowed the production to be imposed on Chattanooga’s citizens.

The High Chancellor after being informed of the content of the second-longest running play in Broadway history allowed it to be presented at the historic Tivoli Theater in spite of his opinion that “this crude, vulgar and tasteless production has little artistic, literacy or political value” that included nude dancers who frolicked across the state in unclad status.

After being given a warning by local Chattanooga Times columnist, Bill Casteel not to go near the Tivoli he admonished the public that attendance was not compulsory which meant that “you don’t have to go unless you want to,” and a large crowd responded accordingly!

Coincidently the popularity of the Ray Stephens’ song “The Streak” is available on YouTube with its famous line, “Don’t Look Ethel” and is one of the classic comedy songs from that era that relates to the subject of nudity from a different perceptive.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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