When the Tennessee Theatre announced its new Broadway line-up in April, subscriber numbers went up. Non-subscribers marked release dates for individual shows. The buzz was immediate. However, getting Broadway to Knoxville takes so much more than scheduling. It can take years to acquire a Broadway show, as in the case of “Wicked,” which took nearly a decade.
So, how exactly does Broadway get to Knoxville? We went behind the scenes with the first show of the season, “Six,” to see what it takes to make it happen.
A Rich History
The Tennessee Theatre opened on October 1, 1928, as a movie palace. With an occasional magician or small-stage performance, it was the big screen that stole the show. On November 1, 1930, footage of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game was shown before a film -- the first time fans saw moving images of UT football, long before games aired on television.
For decades, the Tennessee Theatre was the go-to place for fresh entertainment for all ages. The Popeye Club hosted Saturday children's shows. Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” brought more than 70,000 people to the theatre in 1938. Over the decades, patrons enjoyed “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca,” Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” amid peaceful protests over 1963’s segregation.
As suburbia expanded in the 1970s, the Tennessee Theatre struggled, prompting it to close its doors off and on over the years with periodic updates. Still, it was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It became home to the Appalachian Ballet Company, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and the Knoxville Opera, yet there were little funds for the overhaul it needed.
The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation was formed in 1996 with two primary goals: to take care of the building and to share art with the community. The board of directors and employees chose to dream big, so they started studying what it would take to bring Broadway to Knoxville.
The question then became How do we change the theatre without changing the theatre?
Renovations and Relationships
“Broadway is important to modern programming,” says Executive Director Becky Hancock on a Behind the Scenes Tour for patrons on Sunday afternoon, October 29. She went on to impress upon the group, no doubt full of Broadway fans, that this was the way forward, that these high-caliber, highly recognizable performances would pave the way for the renaissance the theatre desperately needed.
Making it happen required a major renovation, not only to update basic amenities, like the bathrooms, but to create a stage big enough to handle a Broadway show and to update load-in logistics. (At the time, carrying props through the front doors was the only way to bring in production pieces.) The team consulted architects and other experts who knew how to preserve historical places, discussing color palettes, textures, fixtures, etc. They made a plan. In 2003, after two years of fundraising, the Tennessee Theatre closed its doors and got started.
As the restoration and renovation took shape, so did the business plan. The board of directors hired A.C. Entertainment, now Live Nation, to take over operations of the venue, to be the people responsible for building those necessary relationships with producers in New York City. Now the task of getting Broadway to Knoxville was in the hands of A.C. Entertainment/Live Nation president Ted Heinig.
“While the theatre was getting renovated, there was a lot of vision with the group and board. Once it reopened in 2005, it was capable of hosting larger concerts and most Broadway shows,” he says. “By 2007, we’d learned the process of booking Broadway, and I got started putting together the first season which opened in October 2008 – three shows of ‘Chicago.’ We had five other titles, but they’d have one or two shows. So, 12 shows in all, six titles total. Last year, we did six titles, a week of each, plus two weeks of ‘Hamilton,’ so there were 56 shows in all and they were sold out. Last year was the best ever.”
Success does not equal ease. In fact, it can take years of building relationships with producers, inviting them to Knoxville to tour the venue, negotiating schedules and financial terms, to acquire a show at all. When “Hamilton” first hit the stage in NYC, Ted wasted no time.
“Producers will launch a show on Broadway. If it does well, they’ll get a touring producer and take it on a national tour. That cast is different from the Broadway cast, as is the touring business,” says Ted. “So, from 2014 to 2021, I was working on getting ‘Hamilton.’ That was a real benchmark for Tennessee Broadway. We doubled our subscribers, and there was a lot of excitement. We were lucky. When they played our venue, they said it was the smallest theatre they’d played, but it was still impressive, especially when you factor in how much the show can gross.”
Ted, along with Jonathan Felix, his “right-hand man,” serves as the face of the Tennessee Theatre to producers in New York City. There’s a whole team behind them who help make it happen, but the relationships begin with these two.
“There were no expectations before, but now there are high expectations. We must find the shows and put the puzzle pieces together. The process is exciting, and it’s one of the most fulfilling things I do with my job,” says Ted. “It’s a close-knit network, and it takes time to develop trust with these agencies. We’re lucky to have broken through and gained credibility to thrive.”
The Load In
Tim Burns’ father was a projectionist, the guy who operated the motion-picture projector long before it all went digital. The family moved from Ashland, Kentucky, to Knoxville in 1949, and when Tim attended Bearden High School in the mid-70s, he was pleased to learn they offered a credit in technical stagecraft. From his earliest years, he was bitten by the theatre bug and had an affinity for lighting, a taste he still has.
“I love old movie palaces. I’ve been a student of architecture and the builders and what they were trying to achieve. It’s helped me recreate the way movies are supposed to be seen,” Tim says, then, “Dad taught me to never let the public see a blank screen.”
“He wants his house lights done a certain way, too,” adds Dave Rasnake, assistant technical director. “He wants to preserve the historic nature of the theatre. He’s faithful to that.”
Tim has been the Technical Director for decades and is the guy most likely able to draw the entire building in detail blindfolded and then tell you how much all of it costs to maintain. He was an integral part of the renovation, not only for logistical reasons but because he cares deeply about maintaining the quality, beauty, and magic of the theatre. While he loves Broadway shows (his favorite is “Les Misérables”), Tim has a special affinity for when the theatre functions like those old movie palaces.
Since starting his career at the theatre in 1979, he’s endeavored to achieve what the board agreed was necessary – to update the space without losing what makes it special – and doing it solo. Only in the last few years has he had a staff. Tina Cepeda, staff technician, rounds out the trio.
If getting Broadway to Knoxville starts with Ted, getting Broadway in the building starts with Tim. He puts in a request to Local 197 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSA) for the number of stagehands he needs. For “Six,” he booked 56 stagehands and one wig master from Local 894, the wardrobe component – costume, hair, makeup, etc. These are local folks, IATSA members who travel between Knox, Blount, and Sevier counties for the physical set up and take down of concerts, plays, conventions, and more. There are professionals, such as the Head Carpenter and a Wardrobe Supervisor, who travel with the shows, but it’s these hard-working, local people who put together the pieces and largely go unnoticed by the audience.
While the star of the 2003-2005 renovations might be the bigger stage, nothing can compare to the operational importance of the lift. Pushers load carts and boxes onto the lift Tetris-style, then someone yells, “LIFT!” and a stagehand overhead pushes the button. On this night, that stagehand is Mike Garl, who’s worked in theatre since he was in junior high school.
It moves slowly but efficiently from the ground floor to stage level, where a team is waiting to unload it. Up and down the lift goes all evening and again the next morning, a far more efficient way than bringing props in through the front door.
“Six” opened on Tuesday night, October 31, and load-in began the night before. The stage was stripped of everything but the battens hanging overhead. By noon the next day, the entire stage was ready, wardrobe was styling the wigs, and lighting was getting aligned. Like elves in the night, one day the stage is empty, and the next day, it’s ready for opening night.
When the show closes, Local 197 returns for load out, followed by what’s called an “idiot check,” a detailed walkthrough to make sure nothing is left behind.
“It’s a quintessential New York City experience in Knoxville,” says Tim. “You can park downtown for free, then walk to dinner to one of the many wonderful restaurants we have here. Then, you see a Broadway show, and after, walk to get drinks somewhere else.”
When Tim talks about the theatre, be it the renovation or the audience experience, he is smiling. He loves his job. He wants others to love the theatre the way he does.
On With the Show
The Tennessee Theatre turns 100 on October 1, 2028, and they’re already talking about how to celebrate. In the meantime, Ted and his team are putting together the pieces for future seasons of Broadway but take it from us – don’t ask them what they’re working on. They are a tight-lipped bunch, and for good reason. The growing excitement and anticipation in the community only fuels them.
Still, we tried. No matter who we asked, nor how many times we asked, all we got were shaking heads with knowing grins and bright eyes. They sure know how to hold an audience.
Become a subscriber, buy tickets for a show, and learn more at www.TennesseeTheatre.com