Knoxville Nights: Hauntings of the Bijou

The Bijou Theatre: one of Knoxville's oldest and most haunted theaters.

The Bijou Theatre: one of Knoxville’s oldest and most haunted theaters.

While ghosts are to encountered just about anywhere one can imagine, some places seem particularly congenial to spectral visitation. Theaters seem to be particularly prone to paranormal activity, nor are operas the only phantom plagued places they stay. Theater people have long been aware of that fact. That is why, after a play or musical, when the work crew comes out to clean up, they place a large upright pole with a bare bulb in it in the middle of the stage. It is called a “ghost light” and it is not there for illumination, but to drive away the ghosts that come out when the audience leaves.

In both Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee I have chronicle several theaters with ghosts in Tennessee and doubtless there are several more which are equally deserving of attention, but for now let’s look at just one of those: the Bijou Theater in Knoxville.

The Bijou began as the Lamar House an upscale hotel.  Andrew Jackson slept here once--and perhaps still does.

The Bijou began as the Lamar House an upscale hotel. Andrew Jackson slept here once–and perhaps still does.

To look at the Bijou, located on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, you would not know how old the building is, nor guess how much history it has seen. Its origin goes back to 1817, beginning it existence as the Lamar House, a trendy upscale hotel of the early nineteenth century. In the 1850’s it was expanded and was known for awhile as “Coleman House” (no relation) and during the Civil War the Yankees commandeered the hotel and turned it into a hospital, where among the many who died were Union general William P. Sanders. After the war it again was a hotspot for the rich and posh.

After the war the building again housed VIP's such as President Rutherford B. Hayes and some of its ghosts may date to this era as well.

After the war the building again housed VIP’s such as President Rutherford B. Hayes and some of its ghosts may date to this era as well.

It was in 1909 that a theater was added to the old building and for many decades it held both live performances and movies, and many famous performers played there. After World War II, however, it began a gradual decline, eventually the theater began showing porno movies, while the hotel section turned into a fleabag flophouse. In recent years, however, the Bijou has been restored and now is a venerated performance venue again. One thing that remains unchanged, however, is its reputation as a most haunted theater.

The Bijou Theatre in 1985, before its current revival.  Haunted then, haunted now.

The Bijou Theatre in 1985, before its current revival. Haunted then, haunted now.

In the old hotel section of the building, more than one person has seen the ghost of General Sanders haunting the room where he died. After many years of reports by backstage crews and other employees, several the ghost hunting groups have tread its boards including the East Tennessee Paranormal Society, which conducted several investigation onsite and turned up some interesting results, including inexplicable recordings and some rather strange photographic evidence. Investigators have also witnessed uncanny shadows not caused by any known light source, which they also took to be evidence of spectral activity.

Besides the General, what seem to be the spirits of former performers also haunt the Bijou, as well as the ghosts of a few shady ladies who may have met an unseemly end at the hands of their customers. For details about the Bijou and its gaggle of ghosts, see Chapter 8 of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Of course, the Bijou is open for live performances as well as for special events, so if you go, you too may encounter one of the ghosts, but if you do don’t blame me—you were warned.

The Bijou marquee; its bright lights have seen strange sights over the years.

The Bijou marquee; its bright lights have seen strange sights over the years.

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