Monday, June 7, 2021

Tennessee's Historic Theaters

By Michelle Shocklee

The Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, NM. 
Photo: Palace of the Governors Archives
When I was a kid growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of the highlights of the summer was going downtown to see a movie at the Lensic theater, built in 1931. Like many buildings and homes (including ours) in Santa Fe, the Lensic wasn't air conditioned back then, so it could get a little stuffy before the sun set and sweet mountain air cooled things off. I always hoped I'd get my first kiss in the balcony of the Lensic, but since I was shy and didn't date a lot, that didn't work out. Oh, but the wonderful memories of time spent at the Lensic with my sister and friends. Hot buttered popcorn, a box of Milk Duds, a Coke. It's enough to make me wish I could time-travel!

I'm in the middle of researching a new time-slip novel, set in Tennessee in the 1940s and 1970s. I've run across so many interesting theaters from those bygone years, and while I can't share them all, I thought I'd spotlight a few here. 

The Franklin Theatre, 1946
Franklin, TN

The Franklin Theater was built in 1937 at the cost of about $26,000. That price included projection equipment and machinery, elegant draperies and plush carpet, seats, lights, and the latest type of screen to maximize the moviegoers experience. 

Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery and Rosaline Russell was the first movie shown. Admission was 10 cents for children and a quarter for adults.

Franklin Tehatre, Franklin, TN; photo from Google

Sadly, by 2007, the theatre was old, neglected, and in danger of closing its doors forever. But thanks to
a group of generous and determined folks, it was saved, to the tune of $8.6 million! Today, it is a thriving and fun place to visit, right in the heart of downtown Franklin. Hubby and I plan to see a show there now that life is starting to get back to normal.

The Knickerbocker, Nashville, TN
Downtown Nashville, TN

Downtown Nashville had several theaters for moviegoers to choose from. As a longtime resident put it: "Theaters downtown were palaces." Like the Lensic of my childhood memories, theaters back then were typically decorated in red, gold, and deep blue. Architectural details were palatial in theme. 

The Knickerbocker opened its doors in 1916 to crowds coming to see the latest silent movie. In the 1920s, it changed ownership, and sadly, in 1961, closed its doors for good. 

Gallatin, TN
The Palace Theatre, Gallatin, TN

The Palace Theater is the oldest silent movie theatre still in its original location in Tennessee (and some say the entire South). Operating since 1913, it's been a focal point of downtown Gallatin for decades, allowing guests to see the latest silent movie for a nickel. Like most old theaters, it fell into disrepair but was revitalized in the 1990s. Today, it is a local historic landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can see current movies, live shows, concerts and performances.

There are so many other historic movie theaters worthy of honorable mention: Nashville's Crescent, Belle Meade, and Roxy, and the Orpheum in Memphis, just to name a few. I wish I could spotlight them all, but if you're like me, maybe you'll enjoy a little research and read about some of them on your own. 

Many people have cherished memories of seeing a movie in one of these historic theaters. My favorite would have to be seeing Star Wars with my family in 1977 at ...yep, you guessed it!...the Lensic theater. 

Tell me about a favorite movie theater of your childhood days! What was your favorite movie you saw there?

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including Under the Tulip Tree. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at

*2021 Selah Awards Finalist*

Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena. Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, but it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. Will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?


  1. I posted here some time ago about the movie theater in my hometown of Lake Geneva, WI. What special memories our childhood movie theaters have given us. I'm glad you and I share a connection in that way, among other we've shared over the years. My theater was historic also. Here's a secret. I receive my first kiss in my theater. It wasn't in the balcony though. LOL.

  2. Thanks for posting. I grew up in a little village in Vermont. We had an option of two different larger towns to choose from. I think the earliest movie I remember seeing was Gone With The Wind. That was in the late 1970's or early 80's. We also had an outdoor drive in in another two towns and I vaguely remember going there once or twice with my family.