The Lamar House was constructed in 1817 in Knoxville, TN. by Irish immigrant Thomas Humes as an upscale hotel. It was originally called the “Knoxville Hotel”, and subsequently “City Hotel” for a time. Becoming a popular spot for the local well-to-do, President Andrew Jackson was just the first of a total of five U.S. Presidents to book a room there.
Somewhere around 1850 local businessmen acquired the hotel and expanded it. During the Civil War, the hotel was pressed into service by the Union Army for use as a hospital. After the war it resumed its role in Knoxville’s social scene, hosting masquerades for the wealthy crowd.
In 1909 the rear section of the Lamar House was replaced by the addition of the theater as it stands today. An opening was built facing Gay Street, and the theater opened March 8th of that year. For the next forty years the Bijou hosted performances by such legends as the Marx Brothers, Houdini, and Dizzy Gillespie. By 1935, the Bijou began showing movies in addition to live performances. Notably the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra called the space home from 1936 to 1941.
The theater began a slow decline as the city grew and expanded. The downtown area itself had degraded in the sixties and seventies. In 1969 the city ordered the hotel to be shut down, due to an “unseemly” patronage. In the 1970s the theater became a X rated film venue, showing pornographic movies. A far cry from its days housing national leaders and bandleader John Phillip Sousa performances.
After a series of restorations, the Bijou was still in danger by the early 2000’s. A fundraiser was organized by both citizens and then Mayor (and future Governor) Bill Haslam. Today, thankfully the Bijou Theater is back at the forefront of destinations in a revitalized Knoxville. It regularly hosts national touring acts and world renowned musicians. The Bijou Theater today offers Knoxville residents an opulent “night at the theater” experience on par with any in the country.
Guitarist Eric Johnson at a recent show I attended at the Bijou.
Interior detail above one of the box seats sections.
Knoxville virtuoso guitarist Andy Wood continues the tradition of greatness at the Bijou.
To view upcoming shows at the Bijou Theater, visit their website: https://knoxbijou.org/
By Peter Harris.