The Once-Amazing, Slightly Demolished WNOX Auditorium

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Near the northern end of Whittle Springs Road, just across White Oak Lane from Whittle Springs Middle School, is—for the moment at least—a large box of a building. It’s torn open on its eastern end, long strips of roofing hanging down like entrails over a gaping hole. A few weeks ago it was the target of a demolition effort, one that was discouraged by the city when it pointed out that demolitions do require permits.

The landowner, known as DFS Properties LC, duly applied for a permit for a “2-story commercial building.” Demolition permits include two lines asking the owner to ascertain whether the building was more than 50 years old. That’s one of several criteria for historical significance. The applicant jotted “N/A.” 

If it’s not historic now, this building was meant to be historic from the day it was announced, 62 years ago. The WNOX Auditorium was planned to be a regional center of broadcasting for a modern era. Hailed as “the most unusual and only radio auditorium-studio of its kind in the world,” it was little less than a performing-arts center, with state-of-the-art live-audience television and radio facilities, and even recording studios. Its acoustically excellent auditorium held 1,250 people, bigger than most of the New York studios, but designed so each seat seemed close to the stage. It would be “the most modern radio facility in the South.” It drew comparisons to Radio City Music Hall. Maybe, given Knoxville’s association with the early careers of several popular musicians—former WNOX regulars Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins were then national stars—maybe it would be as famous.

Its grand opening on May 12, 1955, featured a concert by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and a speech by Gen. Leslie Groves, manager of the Manhattan Project. His presence was proof that WNOX’s new facilities were as modern as the A-bomb. Joining him was bug-eyed Hollywood comedian Jerry Colonna and Homer and Jethro, national musical/comedy stars who’d been associated with WNOX early in their careers. The plan was that this auditorium would expand on the popularity of the station’s famous live-radio shows like Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, which had been performing for jammed houses in their former Gay Street studios for 20 years. Mayor George Dempster announced it was a major step forward for the city. 

Things rarely go as planned. WNOX never got license for the television station they were expecting, reportedly due to their association with Scripps-Howard, the big corporation which the Federal Communications Commission thought wielded too much control of the Knoxville media market. Worse, there were flaws in the radio plans, too. A lot of WNOX’s live daily radio audience was composed of people who lived or worked downtown, and could walk to shows on a lunch break. They didn’t necessarily have time or inclination to drive out to the suburbs to do the same thing. And live radio was dwindling as a phenomenon, anyway. TV was new in Knoxville. People were staying home and watching it.

It had some moments. Singer-songwriter Don Gibson and a few other country stars did perform for good audiences there. But one of its biggest moments wasn’t country at all. In September 1955, when it was only four months old, the big new auditorium hosted a two-night stand by Bill Haley and the Comets. It was the year of their greatest fame, just a month after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were rocking around the clock right here in this big box of a building on Whittle Springs Road.

For whatever it’s worth, in the 1950s, most of the great black rock ’n’ roll acts performed for predominantly black audiences at Chilhowee Park’s Jacob Building and elsewhere. Very few of the big white rock acts performed in Knoxville then, likely just because the managers of the white venues were skeptical of the rock phenomenon. WNOX was apparently an exception, at least for a couple of nights in September 1955.

Maybe the building never had a heyday. The fact that within a year of opening, WNOX was advertising it for rent to religious and political groups makes it sound like audience response was disappointing from the beginning. Albert Gore Sr. spoke there in 1956, the year he refused to sign the segregationist pledge urged on Southern senators. The auditorium witnessed six years of Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, which died there in 1961. After that, it was used a lot for the News-Sentinel’s annual spelling bees.

Later years saw poignant attempts to revive it. In 1985, Chet Atkins and Archie Campbell came there for a show to rededicate the place as Lowell Blanchard Auditorium, to honor the impresario of WNOX’s live-music years. It was hoped that it could be an authentic country-music mecca.

That never worked out. In the 1990s, it became an offbeat evangelical church. That explains the scrap-metal cross in the yard. That didn’t last, either.

Here’s where the historian’s supposed to arch his eyebrow and talk knowingly about short-sighted planning, when the fate of changing times should have been all too obvious. Making fun of people in the past always draws an easy laugh.

In fact, if done right, I think it could have worked. It could even work today. Call it ironic, but when I witness PechaKucha presentations, or Ted Talks, or crowds watching movies in bars, or attending festivals like Big Ears, I get the impression that people actually like to get together in auditoriums much more today than they did 50 or 60 years ago, when staying home was the exciting new thing. And they especially like to get together in odd and surprising places.

Demolition work is on hold until next month, thanks to the city’s demolition-delay ordinance for potentially historic properties. Most of the building’s still there. Today the property’s being sold by the people who bought it at auction just last year, apparently just for its real estate. “2.6 Acres,” as advertised. But lately there’s a For Sale sign on the slightly demolished building, too.

If they do demolish it, there’s one item to be careful of. It was built with a cornerstone time capsule of artifacts from 1955 and earlier, meant to remind the People of the Future of the musical legacy of a radio station called WNOX. It holds some history.

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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