Belle Meade Theater in Nashville, Tennessee: Glorious Historical Past

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From fame to fandom, the historic sign atop the former Belle Meade Theater has seen it all.

Near the intersection of Harding Pike and White Bridge Road, the building once home to the Great Theater is a landmark that has witnessed more than 80 years of glory, transformation, and the struggle for preservation.

Opened in May 1940, the Belle Meade Theater, envisioned as a “neighborhood theater”, was quite a spectacle. The hall was illuminated by 1,600 sparkling designer lamps. The auditorium could accommodate over 1,100 people.

As the threat of World War II looms, the first performance – “Charlie McCarthy, Detective” – ​​injected humor into the theater’s first crowd.

“Movies were sweeter back then,” wrote Tennessean’s Gene Wyatt in 1991.

Later, the theater would welcome its full-fledged fame, blessed by countless movie stars, musicians and politicians. It is here that classic films, such as “Gone with the Wind”, “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Wilma” premiered.

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Actor Robert Redford relaxes in the director's office at the Belle Meade Theater for the conclusion of his Nashville premiere

On June 10, 1976, some 750 fans were waiting at the door of the Belle Meade Theater to take a look at actor Robert Redford, who arrived at the theater for the premiere of “All the President’s Men”. He was joined by former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, who served as host that night.

“The sound of music” also premiered at the Belle Meade Theater in 1965. The film was so successful that theaters screened it for 14 consecutive months, setting the record for longest movie among Nashville theaters, according to a Tennessean clip from 1990.

However, not everyone liked it.

Tom Cocke, a former Nashville resident, couldn’t hold back his distaste for the theater marquee. Because, he wrote in a notice published in The Tennessean in 2006, “that marquee never seemed to change.”

“Now, for two young boys aged 4 and 6, there was nothing worse than the idea of ​​a movie with a lady singing from the top of a mountain called ‘The Sound of Music'”, a- he writes, referring to his childhood memory and that of his brother.

After a while, he writes, the two boys “abandoned the Belle Meade Theater”.

“I actually think we even started looking the other way when we walked past,” he wrote. “But finally, a little further on, we couldn’t take it anymore and we would ask our parents: ‘What did that say?’ Inevitably, they would say, ‘Still The Sound of Music.’ “

But most Nashvillians fondly remembered the theater for its glorious days.

“Back then, movies opened on staggered schedules across the country and stars traveled frequently to help out at the box office,” Wyatt wrote in his article.

Irene Dunne, a famous American actress who starred in numerous films during the Golden Age of Hollywood, visited the theater after it opened. The director at the time, Edwin Jeffries Jordan, asked him to dedicate a marble panel left by the construction.

“So began Belle Meade’s famous ‘Wall of Fame’,” Wyatt wrote.

Two marble slabs on display in the lobby featured more than 200 celebrities who have visited the theater over the past 50 years: Ronald Reagan, Bela Lugosi, Walt Disney and others. Disney even gave the theater a drawing of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Wyatt wrote.

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Pull the curtains

But five decades of fame and glory have come to an end.

In February 1991, the theater screened its last film: “The Godfather III”. Compared to the opening show, the theater’s last screening featured an R-rated film with more gore, violence and blasphemy.

Director Harry Vickous watches from the empty lobby of the glittering Belle Meade Theater on February 19, 1991. The theater, which opened on May 1, 1940, will close permanently on February 28.

The historic theater has been transformed into a bookstore with over 120,000 new books and periodicals. But a large part of the front facade has been preserved and renovated.

And in October 1991, the neon lights glowed again.

But in the early 2000s, the bookstore’s future waned as developers sought to turn the building into a mixed-use complex.

The $ 30 million project ultimately added a 9,700 square foot AmSouth Bank branch, a 57,000 square foot Harris Teeter grocery store, 54 apartments and 16,500 square feet of retail space, according to a Tennessee story. from 2006.

And in November 2016, the property was sold to a Chicago-based real estate developer for $ 21.85 million.

The building is now home to a series of retailers, such as FedEx Office, Mattress Firm, and Top Hat Cleaners, among others.

Many local residents mourned the closing of the theater.

“I feel some sadness about this,” wrote Cayce Clay, a Nashville resident, in a February 1991 Tennessean article. “Thank you for your memories.”

“The Belle Meade Theater teetered in darkness,” wrote another Nashvillian in The Tennessean a week after the theater closed. “The smell of buttered popcorn and the excitement that the balcony is open will be gone. Its time is over, a victim of economic realities and the age of multiplexes near shopping centers.

“The building will stand,” added the writer. “But with its stint as one of Nashville’s great theaters, the years of special moments in this legendary building deserve a farewell salute.”

Contact Yue Stella Yu at [email protected] and on Twitter @bystellayu_tnsn.

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