Why Cinema Giant Regal Entertainment Belongs Downtown

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The commitment of Regal Entertainment Group to a headquarters on the south bank is about as good news as we ever deserve.

It is, to begin with, the elusive “corporate headquarters” that honchos in suits have been claiming is the prerequisite for downtown’s long-term success. Just as Whittle Communications seemed to fit the bill, and the city closed a 200-year-old street to make way for a grand headquarters palace, the big magazine and television company collapsed. A few years later, it sounded too good to be true when there were rumors that Scripps was going to move part of all of its newspaper or television operation to World’s Fair Park, and was. Since then, there have been hopes that Pilot would consider a downtown move. That hasn’t happened.

Somehow, though, as the years passed, and downtown became livelier than it’s been since the end of vaudeville, with thousands of residents and dozens of new restaurants and bars—without a corporate anchor—some of us stopped daydreaming about it much.

But every time I walk a newcomer around downtown, there’s a theme that’s hard to disguise: That used to be one of the biggest furniture companies in America. Now it’s condos. That was a regionally known coffee factory. Now it’s apartments. That was a nationally famous flour mill. Now it’s apartments. That was the South’s biggest candy factory. Now it’s condos.

All those residential conversions have been positive for Knoxville. In most cases, the original business left the building empty—for 20 years in Sterchi’s case—before anybody pictured it as a residence. These residential conversions have taken the place of downtown’s old townhouses and apartment buildings, which had for the most part been torn down, most of them so long ago that we forgot there was a time when thousands of people lived downtown.

I grew up with a downtown perceived to be mainly an office park. But during the period when downtown was mainly an office park, with bankers’ hours, downtown declined. In getting a city to care about a neighborhood, residences are much more effective than offices. Office workers have never proven they have much interest in what happens to the place at night and on weekends.

Residences are good for downtown; that’s may be the single most obvious lesson of the last 20 years.

However, a good mix is much better. Today it’s a challenge to describe downtown’s history without leaving the impression that downtown is where we used to do business.

The term “bedroom community” was coined to refer to the outer suburbs of a city. Now downtown has become a bedroom community. The suburbs are where the actual work is done, especially where it concerns our big, famous companies: DeRoyal, Pilot, Clayton Homes, Ruby Tuesday, Scripps Interactive, Green Mountain, all those auto-parts manufacturers—and until now, Regal.

The initiative also represents a welcome second roll of the dice for the south side. The out-of-state student-housing developer who had control of the Baptist Hospital site never seemed likely to build anything much worth looking at across the river for the rest of our natural lives. Maybe it’s hard to judge them before they’ve actually built anything, but I bet it will, at least, be “regal.” And it’s a company that likes to put on a show.

It’s surprising how many longtime Knoxvillians don’t know the largest cinema chain in the world is based in the Knoxville area. Now, I bet even one-day visitors will get that impression.

Regal’s prospective new home has a long cultural association with cinema. Few downtowns this far from a coast have as interesting a cinema heritage as Knoxville’s. My research for the recent Tennessee Theatre book surprised even me.

A century ago, a local cinema operator claimed Knoxville was one of America’s first cities to show movies. It’s one of those opinions that’s very hard to check for strict veracity. We had permanent cinemas advertising by 1907, but there’s lots of evidence that movies were around here almost a decade before that. Around 1900, Knoxville showed movies in parks, in whorehouses, in the roller-skating rink on Gay Street. Knoxvillians were movie-crazy before most had ever ridden in an automobile or listened to a radio. 

One of American literature’s few scenes of sitting and watching a movie is the opening several pages of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In A Death in the Family, James Agee uses several pages to describe the autobiographical scene, a father and son watching a William S. Hart westerns and a Charlie Chaplin comedy, ca. 1916, at Gay Street’s Majestic Theatre. Agee’s scene of watching a film on Gay Street has actually made it into other feature films, notably All the Way Home (1963). By that time, the Majestic had been demolished, so they shot it at the Bijou.

Another of the four or five best-known Knoxville-based novels is David Madden’s Bijou, about a movie fanatic and his favorite movie theater in 1946, one of the most movie-oriented novels ever published.

Of course, the 1909 Bijou and the 1928 Tennessee both have a long cinema heritage. Robert Preston, Desi Arnaz, Tony Perkins, Kathryn Grayson, Merv Griffin, and others attended gala premieres at the Tennessee. Ingrid Bergman once planted a dogwood on Market Square. In a brief scene in the movie October Sky, Jake Gyllenhaal crossed Gay Street to go to a movie at the Tennessee, but by the magic of cinema, the Tennessee was in Indianapolis, and called the Ennesse. It was the second time Hollywood film crews came to Gay Street to shoot a movie about someone watching a movie.

Regal’s downtown theater honors still another theater, the 1920 cinema mecca known as the Riviera, on whose original site it sits. The first Riviera was, for eight years before the Tennessee, the largest and finest movie theater in the region.

I’m not sure what all that says about us, but downtown Knoxville has enough street cred in the movie-theater business to be a credible setting for the world’s biggest cinema company.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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