In 1961, Chattanooga citizens received the shocking news that the Tivoli Theatre, the city's cherished movie palace, would close. Built by the Signal Amusement Co. in 1921, the Tivoli was designed by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp and was modeled after the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. So gorgeous was the Tivoli that it quickly earned the designation of "The Jewel of the South" and was one of the first public buildings in the nation to be air-conditioned. Built as a silent movie theater with space for an orchestra, a stage for live shows, and a beautiful Wurlitzer pipe organ, the Tivoli quickly became the premier showcase for movies in Chattanooga.
Of course, all of this history was lost on my friend Bill Carter and me as we set out determined to be the last patrons to leave the Tivoli on the night of Aug. 17, 1961, when the theater closed for the last time. We showed up at 9 p.m. for the final screening of Snow White and the Three Stooges and joined a few dozen other people as the lights dimmed, and the curtains opened to reveal the big Cinemascope screen. I don't remember a thing about the movie, but I definitely recall sitting there in the dark and looking at the beautiful wall decorations as they flickered in the light from the screen and thinking how sad it was that the theater would close forever.
The Tivoli was always very special to me. Even as a child, I realized that it was much more beautiful than the State, Capitol, or Rogers, which was named after the Tivoli manager Emmett Rogers. They were severely functional in design. By contrast, the Tivoli seemed like a magical palace with its box seats, balcony, ornate decorations, paintings, chandeliers and corridors leading off into the dark.
My grandmother, Dorothy McIntosh, was an avid movie fan. We went to the Tivoli often. I remember dressing up in my cowboy outfit to attend the WDEF-sponsored "Kiddee Korralls" on Saturday mornings. They featured a cowboy host, a talent show, cartoons and then perhaps a Lash LaRue, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers feature. She took me to see "Gone With the Wind" in 1952, but I was very disappointed that there were no battle scenes. We also saw "The Bandwagon" because she loved Fred Astaire and Saskatchewan four times for no particular reason. Every now and then my grandmother would whisper to me: "I wonder whatever happened to the organ. Jean Van Arsdale used to play it." I would look around to see if I could spot a hidden console somewhere but to no avail. Many years later, I actually got to play it!
My most vivid movie memory of the Tivoli was the premiere of the first widescreen Cinemascope film, "The Robe" in 1953. The process was promoted as "3-D without glasses," and so I was curious to see how that worked. Against my grandmother's wishes, I went to a Friday afternoon matinee after school. I was very disappointed to see that there was nothing "3-D" about Cinemascope. The screen was huge, but the images were definitely flat. When I got home, my grandmother expressed her great displeasure that I had disobeyed her. I didn't realize that she had planned for both of us to see "The Robe" the very next day.
All of these memories drifted through my mind as the curtains closed for the last time, the lights came up, and Bill and I slowly began walking out. I quickly realized that there were people behind us, so I ducked into the men's room, waited a few extra minutes and then made sure that everyone else had gone before I walked across the gently sloping terrazzo floor, glanced back at the double curving staircase, and stepped out into the warm evening air. Bill was waiting impatiently for me outside.
My delaying tactics worked though. I was definitely the last customer to leave the Tivoli that night.
Fortunately, there have been many other nights at the Tivoli since then. Leased to the city in 1963, it was purchased in 1974, restored in the 1980s, and now is operated by AC Entertainment under the auspices of the nonprofit Tivoli Theatre Foundation. The Mighty Wurlitzer plays again, and the marquee continues to light up downtown Chattanooga as a reminder that the Tivoli is still "The Jewel of the South."
Henry B. Aldridge, Ph.D. is a Chattanooga native and an emeritus professor of film studies. For more visit Chatta historicalassoc.org.