Magnificent Distractions: Christmas, 1916, Saw a Promenade of American Show Biz

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

If you were to step back 100 years, a lot of things would be familiar. Christmas trees, both the big public one near Market Street and the one at home, glowed with electric lights. Downtown stores were brightly lit, often in the same spaces as modern ones. A very Christmassy department store called Newcomers was in the building later occupied by Mast, and carried a lot of the same things, toys, kitchenware, clothing. You could buy trendy imported fashions at Arnstein’s, which occupied the same building as Urban Outfitters.

The newspapers trafficked in anxiety about the near future, especially about mass violence abroad and America’s place in the world. “Call it by what name you may, the European War is a crime against civilization,” stated the Republican-leaning Knoxville Journal. Later, the Sentinel remarked, “In the world’s history, the year 1916 was the worst for war…a year for the shedding of human blood and the taking of human life.”

That much seems all too familiar.

There was one striking difference, and a reason 1916 Knoxvillians would be disappointed to visit a 2016 Christmas.


The week before Christmas was cold. Temperatures had been in the single digits for days. Reports came that the Tennessee River had frozen over, 3 miles below Knoxville, in the vicinity of Bearden. The French Broad was frozen at Seven Islands. Steamboats were stranded. One steamer, the T.L. Brown, carrying a load of Christmas oranges, was stranded when a boiler pipe burst.

It had snowed, then melted. “Our beautiful snow quickly gave way to ugly slushes,” remarked the Journal. Then the slush froze again.

Sledding was popular, especially outside city limits in Fountain City, accessible by streetcar. “Now that Knoxville is living in the automobile age, and there is seldom a period of five minutes in which a machine does not pass [in central Knoxville], the risk is too great, and the younger are forced to go outside the city to enjoy the sport.”

Even walking was hazardous. Several were injured in falls, including 77-year-old John Bell Brownlow, one of Knoxville’s most prominent citizens. Walking home from work, the Union veteran fell near his home on Main Street and broke his collarbone. Later, an elderly visitor from Topeka, another Union veteran, was taking the trains to visit Johnson City relatives for the holidays. During a little layover in Knoxville, he stepped across the street to the drugstore on Depot. At the corner of Gay, he fell on the ice and didn’t get up. “Skull Crushed By the Impact!” went the headline.

A city judge decreed there’d be no more warnings. Any property owner who didn’t clear his public sidewalk would be arrested.

But maybe the hardest thing for us moderns to get used to would be the options. In the theaters and dance halls of 1916 Knoxville, Christmas was maybe the liveliest time of the year.

By 1916 Knoxville supported several small movie theaters, but the stage shows still drew the biggest crowds. On Gay Street, the Grand featured vaudeville. Less than a block down the sidewalk, the Bijou featured vaudeville, too, but with more variety, including some famous national acts. Across the street, Staub’s Theatre wasn’t too proud for vaudeville, but more likely to feature Broadway and opera acts.

The Bijou, “The Joy Spot of Knoxville,” “the Theatre Beautiful,” bought the most space in the papers. “The Bijou Habit Is Like Love. You Always Hear About It… But You Have to Get It to Appreciate It.”

Any holiday reveler who stepped out, especially to the Bijou, would have found something interesting.

The Imperial Bicycle Five played basketball on the Bijou’s stage. Ethel McDonough made her name as a “drummer girl” and as a high-dive act, but in 1916 she was a singer-comedienne and a “Statuesque Beauty.” Phil Bennett, “the Alpine Troubadour,” was a yodeler. Hazel Leona, “the Merry Sunshine of Vaudeville,” was on the same bill.

Among the many who performed at the Bijou in the days just before Christmas were Pietro Deiro, one of the country’s most famous accordionists; and Skipper and Kastrup, the song-and-dance duo billed as “the Original Grouch Destroyers.”

On Christmas Day, Mr. Choy Heng Wa and his troupe, variously known as “Chinese magicians” and “novelty acrobats,” performed several shows on the Bijou stage. They were known for spinning plates and breathing fire. On the same bill was Dorothy Kenton, the famous “Girl with the Banjo.”

A few days later, the Tun Chin Troupe, “Novelty Chinese Acrobats,” were at the Grand. As were violinist Jura Nilova; and Bob Lee, “the Talkative Trickster.”

Staub’s Theatre’s Christmas Day show featured Al H. Wilson, “the Father of Laughter” himself, a comedian and singer specializing in sentimental old Irish songs, like that year’s hit, “My Killarney Rose.” The day after Christmas, Staub’s hosted the recent Broadway musical comedy Stop! Look! Listen!, featuring “the catchy tunes of Irving Berlin.” The young songwriter was already famous, and his latest show featured a combination of ragtime and trendy Hawaiian pop. It was one of several one-night Broadway shows at Staub’s that holiday. Oh! Oh! Delphine was another.

In all, between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6, Knoxville witnessed around 200 performances from about 75 acts. Most of them are forgotten today, but a few are standouts.

Billed five days before Christmas as “the Singing Comedienne,” Marion Harris, then only about 19 years old, was already causing a stir. She’s the blonde anomaly of early jazz history. She would be more famous in the ’20s, introducing some early jazz standards, including “After You’ve Gone.” But her advocates claim recordings she made in 1916, like “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” were the first jazz records ever released. That was her new song in 1916; more than likely, she sang it at the Bijou.

And in the same room just after Christmas, Mons Herbert, “the Musical Waiter,” appeared. His name’s not familiar today, but his anarchic comedy was much admired by the Marx Brothers. He sometimes shared a bill with those younger guys when they were just developing their act. Harpo described the comedian’s act in his memoirs. “Mons used to set a dinner table on the stage, and play ‘The Anvil Chorus’ by blowing knives and forks against each other,” wrote Harpo. “For a finish he would blow up a prop roast turkey and deflate it in such a way that it played, ‘Oh, Dry Those Tears,’ out of its rump.”

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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