Before televisions invaded every home in America, folks in Tennessee spent their evenings at the theater. Stage plays and traveling shows eventually gave part of their audience share to silent films, and later “talkies,” but the love of all things performance art remained strong. No matter the kind of artistic performance you’re looking for, you might just hear the echoes of delight from decades past when you step inside these 10 best historic theaters in Tennessee.
This former opera houses bears nearly a century of history and Memphis tradition. Situated on the corner of Beale and Main, the theatre was home to traveling vaudeville shows and was once touted as the finest opera house outside of New York City. The original theatre burned to the ground in 1923, but a second Orpheum Theatre was resurrected on the same spot just five years later. This grandiose theatre has undergone multiple renovations since then and it still stands today, having been the largest movie palace in Memphis history and still featuring touring Broadway shows and other entertainment acts.
This grand theatrical palace has been the center of Knoxville’s stage and screen since 1928. Touted as the most beautiful theatre in Tennessee, guests paid as little as 40 cents to see their favorite stars on the screen. Its rich European architecture and stunning domed ceiling continue to mesmerize fans today, where they now enjoy stage productions, concerts, and other performing arts (though prices have increased quite a bit since its early heyday).
Located in the once-thriving Roxy district, the Roxy Theater was the heart and soul of Nashville nightlife. Nashville locals loved this historical theater so much that it sparked a grassroots movement to ensure the theater’s preservation. The theater was sold in 2016 for a jaw-dropping $1.3 million, and rumors say the new owners plan to repurpose the building to uphold its heritage.
Lebanon’s town square hosts one of its most historical gems—the Capitol Theatre. The Capitol opened its doors in 1949 as a technicolor movie house and boasted an impressive 1000-seat viewing area. The theatre shuttered and remained vacant for many years, but now having been fully restored, the theatre is now home to performing arts, movie screenings, and venue rentals.
The Capitol Theatre’s (different one!) stunning marquee and Art Deco stylings hint at its age as a historical theatre. Seating just under 1,000 viewers, Maryville’s largest movie house operated circa 1934 until the 1970s. Upon its closing, several businesses moved into (and out of) the space, including a dress store, disco, and a record store. The theatre underwent major renovations, transforming it into a space ideally suited for dinner theatre and upgrading the sound and lighting systems. The venue is also an enviable spot for weddings and other events.
1937 marked a new era for Franklin residents as the brand-new movie theatre featured its first show. The 70+ years that followed saw many changes in local lifestyles, but the theatre remained a significant icon in the town’s history. The screen went dark in 2007, but a non-profit preservation group saw the theatre’s potential and invested a cool $8 million to retaining this important piece of Franklin culture. Today, visitors can catch a movie, concert, or other event inside its walls, just as generations have done for decades.
Known as Nashville’s nonprofit theater, the Belcourt was once a silent movie house and performance stage during its initial rise to Music City stardom. At the time, it had the largest, most sophisticated projection system and biggest stage in the city. The theatre was most recently renovated in 2015-2016 and now offers a packed schedule of documentaries and indie films.
With over a century of history hidden inside, this former silent movie house and community theater is Tennessee’s oldest original theater that still stands in its original location. Today, you can still catch a good flick at this historic theater that now boasts a modern sound system and other upgrades. In addition, the theater is available to rent for events like weddings, fundraisers, and concerts.
Originally opened in 1938, the Palace Theatre was once the hub of entertainment in the Cumberland Plateau. Jazz, country, and bluegrass musical acts were no strangers to its stage. The theatre still serves as a community hot spot today, having been fully restored beyond its former grandeur to delight a new generation of theatre-goers.
It’s first show was in 1944, and has experienced various phases of growth and decline since then. Originally established as a concert venue, the meticulously designed hardwood stage was eventually walled up to make way for a screen-and-projector setup. The folks in Oak Ridge recognized the value of this little slice of history and have fully restored the theater and its purpose to the community, offering a spot for fundraisers, concerts, dance camps, and musical performances.