Bijou Theatre

803 S. Gay Street,
Knoxville, TN 37902

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Bijou Theatre - Knoxville (Official)

Additional Info

Previously operated by: Paramount Pictures Inc., Wilby-Kincey

Architects: Edward Okel

Firms: Okel & Cooper

Functions: Performing Arts

Styles: Neo-Classical

Previous Names: Bijou Art Theatre

Phone Numbers: Box Office: 865.522.0832

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News About This Theater

Bijou Knoxville Tennessee Interior from stage

The Bijou Theatre is a charming venue built for vaudeville and later adapted for cinema. It opened on March 8, 1909 as part of the Well’s chain of theatres and contained 1,503 seats. The 1909 auditorium was built behind the Lamar House Hotel (c.1840) using the center of the old hotel as the theatre’s lobby. The theatre was designed by architect Edward Okel.

The Bijou Theatre has two separate balconies: the upper dating from the regrettable era of segregation was accessible only from a side street. At this time, though large, the upper balcony is only used for technical equipment as emergency egress is quite limited.

The lower balcony is attained from stairs at the ends of the standee area. There is no grand stair.

The auditorium features three tiers of boxes on each side of the proscenium, with the orchestra boxes still in place. The upper boxes have their own stairways and do not connect with the balconies. The boxes are flanked by large Corinthian columns supporting cherubs leaning on broken pediments.

The ceiling is mostly flat with restrained moldings at the walls. The hall has a brick exterior, but the interior is completely wood and plaster. Even the grid in the fly tower is wood.

The natural acoustics are splendid. The Knoxville Chamber Orchestra performs regularly in the intimate hall.

The Bijou Theatre never had a theatre organ. Old photos suggest a pit-organ or photo-player was used to accompany pictures in the silent era.

Motion picture projection equipment no longer exists at the Bijou Theatre, though the projection booth which was wedged in between the two balconies still exists and is used as a follow spot location.

Over the years, the Bijou Theatre lost its small vertical sign and marquee and the tiny boxoffice is long gone. It went over to adult films on April 17, 1965 and was renamed Bijou Art Theatre on September 8, 1966. It operated as an adult theatre until 1975. The theatre was then threatened with demolition. Today the Bijou Theatre is largely intact and is a popular venue for small stage shows, acoustic concerts and small bands.

The Bijou Theatre went through a major renovation began in 2005.

Contributed by William Dunklin

Recent comments (view all 40 comments)

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on January 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Will Rogers,Seeingl I am told I am a very very distant relative.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on October 7, 2013 at 7:11 pm

MATT just added a picture, ad.

DavidZornig on April 30, 2015 at 5:21 pm

Circa 1950 photo added courtesy of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound Facebook page. Lyric Theatre marquee behind the bus.

rivest266 on September 4, 2018 at 4:25 am

Reopened as an adult cinema called Bijou Art from September 9th, 1966-1975.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on September 5, 2018 at 2:31 pm

This PDF is a masters thesis, dated 1976, by Robert A. Ellis of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It is titled “The Bijou Theatre: 1909-1949” and has quite a bit of detail about the Bijou and its history.

Ellis gives the name of the Bijou’s architect only as Oakly of Montgomery Alabama. The only other reference to this architect I can find on the Internet is an item from the July 4, 1909 issue of The American Architect which again refers to him only as “Architect Oakley, Montgomery.” Perhaps he went by only the one name professionally, like Liberace.

Interestingly enough, the 1909 item said that Oakley had prepared plans for the renovation of the Noble Street Theatre in Anniston, Alabama, as a ground-floor house.

tntim on September 7, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Two “businessmen” from Jacksonville, FL leased the Bijou in March of 1965 and reopened the theatre on April 17,1965. This was the beginning of the porno days of the Bijou which lasted until 1975. the name was changed overnight on September 8,1966 to the Bijou Art Theater with no fanfare or mention of any change in operation. I have posted the ad on 4-14-65 in the photo section.

tntim on March 11, 2023 at 11:11 am

I found an article from the March 12, 1908, edition of the Knoxville Sentinel which reported that the architect was Edward Olek of Montgomery, AL. Olek also designed the Enzor Theatre in Troy, AL. and the Grand Opera House in Montgomery, AL.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 11, 2023 at 3:36 pm

Now we’ve got three versions of the architect’s name, two of which must be wrong. Our page for the Enzor has it as Edward Okel, which I’m sure is right. Googling Edward Oakley brings up mostly references to an early 19th Century British architect, and Edward Olek doesn’t bring up any architects at all. Googling Edward Okel brings quite a few period references from reliable sources. Okel designed at least two other houses for Jake Wells' Bijou Amusement Co., in Atlanta and Mobile, in 1908, so it’s not surprising that he’d have designed the Knoxville house too.

Will Dunklin
Will Dunklin on March 12, 2023 at 10:20 am

Regarding the Knoxville Bijou’s architect, refer to the photo of the Grand Theatre, Montgomery Alabama which lists the architectural firm as Okel and Cooper. That firm operated in Montgomery at least into the 1930s. An article in the Montgomery Advertiser, Sunday, December 11, 1910, page 22 includes this information: “Recent theatres erected from their plans and under their supervision, are The Lyric, at Atlanta; The Bijou, at Knoxville, Tenn.; The Bijou, at Nashville; The Moble, (sic!, should read Noble, q.v.) Anniston, Ala.; The Liberty, Savannah; and the Grand, Montgomery.”

As an aside, in the same article, Okel and Cooper are also credited with designing the Akin Hotel, Knoxville, Tennessee.

tntim on March 15, 2023 at 7:21 pm

Joe Vogel, yes, I got ahead of myself and typed the k and l backwards in Edward Okel’s name, not only once but twice. My apologies to Mr. Okel.

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