John Shearer: Touring Memorial Auditorium And Looking At Its History On Its 100th Birthday

  • Friday, February 23, 2024

Exactly 100 years ago this week, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium opened in Chattanooga.

On Feb. 22 and 23, 1924 – a Friday and Saturday – the auditorium was opened amid a large and festive ceremony and some opera performances featuring some giants in that field. And it has not stopped drawing people with popular acts in the subsequent 100 years.

This structure that has been like Chattanooga’s own collective giant music and game room has formally hosted more VIPs and celebrities than about any place else in town simply due to its longevity.

From Richard Nixon to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Jackie Robinson, songs and words of greatness or wisdom have echoed off those walls for a century.

And don’t forget all those Broadway shows, basketball games before the permanent lower seating, “Holiday on Ice” shows, and, yes, live wrestling with the late announcer Harry Thornton!

To say that Memorial Auditorium is a friend to everyone or has been able to entertain all types of people over the years might be pretty accurate. Chances are most Chattanoogans who have been in the Scenic City for any time have been emotionally invigorated through a concert, show, speech, or event there over the years.

As Tivoli Theatre Foundation executive director Nick Wilkinson, whose group also oversees the auditorium, said this week, “In addition to honoring our war heroes, it has provided a place where people from all walks of life, all races, all different kinds of backgrounds can come together and witness experiences that are important to our community. And it’s been doing that for 100 years.”

He also called it the first large gathering place the Chattanooga community had, and said that officials hope to have some kind of official centennial celebration this fall, perhaps in relation to Veterans Day.

In connection with the centennial, I thought it might be fun to gather a brief historical overview, while knowing Chattanoogans in recent years have had plenty of opportunities to learn the auditorium’s history. That has come from newspaper articles by such people as Linda Moss Mines and the book, “Hello, Chattanooga!” by David Carroll from Local 3 News. As many know, Mr. Carroll has painstakingly outlined in his book nearly every show that has played there over the years.

And with the help of Mr. Wilkinson and his staff, I was also given a VIP-like tour of the unique building.

When the building opened in 1924, it was the star attraction. According to a commemorative historical booklet evidently put out when the building opened, the idea for an auditorium to replace the old city auditorium that had burned in 1916 had its fruition with the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club.

As World War I was winding down, club member Dr. Harold Major, who was the pastor at First Baptist Church, had suggested a memorial to the fallen servicemen at a club meeting in 1918. Fellow member Frank Mahoney suggested a few days later that the memorial should be in the form of an auditorium.

The city and Chamber of Commerce soon got behind the efforts, and with a city referendum that showed local citizens wanted an auditorium constructed by a 3-1 margin, efforts were soon underway to build a first-class facility for this medium-sized city.

A Memorial Auditorium Commission was formed and chaired by Z.W. Wheland, with George Patten serving as secretary. Mr. Wheland was said to have spent more time helping get the auditorium built than any other Chattanoogan.

Although a number of sites were considered, including one on Broad Street, some land belonging to James Caldwell on McCallie Avenue was selected.

The official ground-breaking ceremonies were held on Jan. 18, 1922, while the cornerstone-laying ceremony took place on Nov. 11, 1922, at both the one-year-old Tivoli Theatre in town and the construction site. Placed in a time capsule in the southeast corner of the building in the front were such items as a Bible and a copy of the Chattanooga Times from that day.

The architect was Chattanoogan R.H. Hunt, who had been selected in 1919 during the early stages of the planning. The general contractor was Parks & Co., with the Fred Cantrell Co. holding the contract for the heating and ventilation work.

Some artistic relief work – perhaps the rosette-like collection of patterns around the front door entrances – was done by sculptress Belle Kinney. She had also done the now somewhat politically debated statue/bust of Confederate Gen. A.P. Stewart still standing on the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn.

The dedication of the auditorium was held on the morning of Friday, Feb. 22, with overflow crowds packed inside, and automobiles kept a block or so away from the building entrance to perhaps let everyone get into the building more easily. It was a plan different from today, where automobiles let people out at the front door. But perhaps many still traveled on foot or streetcar in those days.

As part of the ceremonies, a telegram was read from President Calvin Coolidge. On hand were Tennessee Gov. Austin Peay and the featured guest, Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler. At the time, Gen. Butler was the safety director in Philadelphia, but he had uniquely received two Medals of Honor for his bravery at Veracruz in Mexico in 1914 and for capturing a stronghold in Haiti in 1915.

Others speaking and taking part were U.S. Sen Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, Chattanooga Mayor Richard Hardy, and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Manning.

And, of course, area veterans were recognized, and the auditorium featured various displays to America’s military.

A luncheon at the Hotel Patten (now the Patten Towers building) was also part of the festivities that Friday.

The opening events also included three shows by the Chicago Civic Opera of “The Jewess.” Among those taking part were accomplished singers Mary Garden, a native of Scotland, and Polish native Rosa Raisa. Ms. Garden was considered a diva in the classic sense and was idolized by future opera star Grace Moore, whose family headed Lovemans department store in Chattanooga.

On Feb. 12, 1925, less than a year after the building opened, the Austin pipe organ was dedicated, with Edwin Lemare on hand to play it as the city’s official municipal organist. The organ was said to have been dedicated “at great cost and after much labor,” the Chattanooga Times reported.

The Chattanooga Music Club had been supportive of the auditorium as it was being planned and had pushed for a nice organ to be part of the facility to help bring both additional revenue and more sophisticated culture to Chattanooga.

Considered by some to be the highest paid and most accomplished organist in the country in his life, the native Englishman Mr. Lemare was described as being able to make the organ dance. He had been the city organist in San Francisco and Portland in Maine before coming to Chattanooga.

He would stay here until 1929, when he moved to Hollywood in California and became involved in efforts to place an organ in the Hollywood Bowl. The Great Depression that hit about the time of his move affected his work, and he died in 1934 after a series of heart attacks and heart problems.

In contrast, Memorial Auditorium about this time was showing that its figurative heart was improving in a positive way as viewed in hindsight in racial relations. A December 1930 Chattanooga Times article said that a change was made to allow blacks to begin using the front entrance to attend shows instead of the cumbersome previous way of entering through the back and going directly to the section in the balcony reserved for them. They could enter through the left door and buy tickets at a separate booth on the left.

While still viewed as segregation in today’s eyes, it was evidently considered very progressive and a step forward in civil rights for the Chattanooga of 1930. And an interracial committee was even involved in the planning and said it would improve black attendance, which had reportedly been spotty at the auditorium before then.

According to Mr. Carroll’s book, such noted black performers as Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald and noted tenor Roland Hayes, formerly of Chattanooga, would perform over the next decade to both black and white audiences that were still seated separately.

As another war, World War II, arrived, Chattanoogans continued to find relief and respite in auditorium events, just as they did at all the popular movie houses like the Tivoli, State, and others.

A 1942 Times article said that the auditorium was doing well, with wartime gas rationing preventing much traveling outside town. Manager Tommy Thompson, who was photographed in his office amid pictures of entertainers who likely appeared there, said the auditorium was doing well.

He said wrestling at the time was its most consistent moneymaker, with Golden Gloves boxing also popular in addition to noted entertainers. Flower shows, dog shows, and athletic events were also popular.

As a bit of trivia, Georgia played a basketball game there at least once around this era or shortly afterward, and its coach was future Auburn football legend Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

Yes, despite the well wishes and efforts of those who brought the opera to Chattanooga at the building’s opening in 1924, this town in a collective sense still liked its ‘rasslin and sports. But there was something for everyone, which is the mission statement of about any such facility.

As the unknown Times’ writer stated in the 1942 story, “The Memorial Auditorium’s wide range of features has been its greatest service to the county as a civic center. There is something being offered in the auditorium on an average of four nights per week throughout the year.”

Unknown to the community, though, as peacetime arrived, Memorial Auditorium and its caretakers would go through their own battle trying to make the building more appealing and vibrant.

In 1950, some exposed wiring and other issues created a crisis until it was fixed. The acoustics were also made better, and the building was given a paint and touch-up job with the help of architect James Gauntt, whose other buildings include DuPont Elementary School. It was all completed in time that year for the Cotton Ball.

But the issues did not end there. With the construction of the Warner Park Fieldhouse suitable for some local sports events and school auditoriums like that at City High on Third Street preferable for some music presentations, the auditorium was starting to lose money. Symphony official Mrs. William Montague also called for the auditorium to be sold, and the money be applied to a nice and new cultural or perhaps performing arts center.

However, several events came together to save and extend the life of the beloved old Memorial Auditorium. In 1959 plans by Hunt-Caton and Associates Architects were announced to improve the facility in many ways – including with escalators, better acoustics and air-conditioning, and more rooms for meetings – to help the auditorium make more money.

Also helping with events like symphony and other fine arts performances was that the city was able to begin leasing the Tivoli Theatre in 1963 after it closed as a private movie theater in 1961.

And a remodeled auditorium could also host events like car and boat shows in the lower exhibit area.

This was all completed, including a ramp on the west side, in 1966, with dedication ceremonies on Nov. 5 and 6 of that year. The event included performances by the Chattanooga High band and the U.S. Army band.

An unusual part of the renovation work – and one I could not find information about – was why some of the pretty windows on the outside were covered up. It was likely done to aid lighting for shows, but a historic preservationist might cringe a little that some of Mr. Hunt’s windows are gone.

Chattanooga in the late 1960s into the 1970s would have quite a few rock ‘n’ roll shows and countless other musically related events. Everybody from the Who to the Carpenters, to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bruce Springsteen played during this time. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were perhaps close to the only two who did not in that mid-century era.

The auditorium also had the unfortunate Wilson Pickett concert in 1971, when a dispute over payment led to Mr. Pickett not performing. As a result, black Chattanoogans started a protest throughout Chattanooga that had its seed in other issues as well.

The McKenzie Arena came along in 1982, and Memorial Auditorium had further competition and challenges again. But with people like manager Clyde Hawkins and former Mayor Robert Kirk Walker leading the way, the auditorium was closed and underwent a major renovation from 1989 to 1991 to make it into primarily a performing arts facility.

The work, done I believe under Selmon T. Franklin Architects, included expanding the stage and putting in permanent seating in the lower level, where basketball games – including those between Howard and Riverside highs -- once were.

And in 2015, the auditorium and Tivoli became part of the Tivoli Theatre Foundation. Mr. Wilkinson said some additional work of recent years included greatly remodeling the corner hallway concession stands and taking out some seats in the back to create a better sound barrier between the upstairs Walker Theatre and the main auditorium hall.

As those on the Tivoli Foundation’s email list know, a number of shows are being booked these days for Memorial Auditorium and the Walker Theatre, with the Tivoli currently closed for renovation and expansion work. Mr. Wilkinson said they are able to book plenty of shows, in part with the resources of Live Nation, and also give reduced rental rates to local events like the Chattanooga Symphony, Chattanooga Ballet, local graduations, etc.

I had asked Mr. Wilkinson if I could get a quick tour of the auditorium. He kindly agreed and when I arrived on Wednesday afternoon – its last day in double figures before turning 100 the next day – he also had key staff members Courtney Keene, the COO for events and operations, and Sam Fort, the technical director, on hand, with marketing official Brittany Adcox later joining us. And then we ran into assistant technical director James Durham, who has only been employed since working his first show when Jeffrey Osborne appeared in 1985.

They were all kind and helpful and enthusiastic about the auditorium, and each one would be worthy of an individual story about their job and some unique perspectives they have had. Ms. Keene, for example, used to follow her staff member father, Chris Keene, into the auditorium as a child and would even interact with some of those appearing in the shows.

As we walked around for more than an hour, though, they were the lead characters in this history and architecturally themed show. They pointed out such places and tidbits of facts as that the escalators no longer work due to parts not available, and that the old flat floor used for numerous events is visible in a beverage storage room below the frames of the lower seating built 30 years ago.

Other interesting sights included the less-than-1,000-seat Walker Theatre and its pew-style individual seating and how it seems to defy logic with how it fits into the upper front part of the auditorium building in a way that does not seem plausible when viewed from outside. It also has some interesting small dressing rooms next door now for other uses.

And there are countless rooms for those involved in shows in other parts of the building, as well as assembly rooms, one or two of which are used for patrons of the Tivoli Theatre Foundation. In fact, the tour through this surprisingly cavernous facility reminded me of once visiting the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, N.C., when I kept seeing rooms upon rooms.

Some of the rooms are built into parts of the old exhibit hall older Chattanoogans might remember visiting for car shows and other exhibits. Although the building once had a food storage area, a full-service industrial kitchen has been built in recent years to provide food, in part because finding caterers after midnight when those involved in shows and performances needed feeding was sometimes hard, they said!

Besides the numerous out-of-public-sight rooms, Memorial Auditorium also has some interesting pieces of history. One, of course, is the restored Austin organ that sits up to a viewer’s left of the stage and was played briefly by Mr. Fort.

And I was surprised to find a couple of out-of-the-way pieces of important history, too. One was an old lectern that had evidently been used at the Tivoli, while another was an old Strong spotlight that hinted of the glamor days of entertainment during yesteryear.

Seeing those and all the rooms started me thinking about some of the shows I had seen there over the years. What are some you remember seeing?

For me, I recall seeing Johnny Cash, “Holiday on Ice,” and the Harlem Globetrotters at separate times about 1970 when I was only about 10. And I saw Foreigner, the late Harry Chapin and the Atlanta Rhythm Section when I was out of high school or in college during that peak age to attend concerts. And I remember seeing Leon Russell in what is now the Walker Theatre while the Tivoli was being renovated in the late 1980s, and I later saw Peter, Paul and Mary in the main hall as part of the reopening of the auditorium in 1991.

And there have been plenty of Broadway shows and other events in recent years, including hearing the classic and pretty song, “Seasons of Love,” when “Rent” played in 2022.

Congratulations old blond brick friend on your 100th birthday, and may you have many more!

* * *

To hear assistant technical director James Durham briefly talk about his enjoyment of his long career working in Memorial Auditorium, Click here.

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