Stepping back in 1970s Knoxville and relishing the memories
Knoxville has experienced considerable change over the last 50 years, and I have been lucky enough to have been an eyewitness to those changes as my hometown has developed and transitioned from the “scruffy little city” to the cozy and progressive metropolitan borough it is today. Those changes became quite vivid for me recently when I discovered a treasure trove of Panorama Knoxville Visitor Guides that were published from 1971 to 1974. Panorama was a travel guide for tourists to our city to be distributed in Knoxville hotels and motels as an expression of welcome and opportunities available for good food, entertainment, and sightseeing. Panorama guides were chock full of advertising and information about Knoxville and the greater Knoxville area until 2010.
Panorama (first introduced as the Volunteer Visitors Guide) was rarely seen by Knoxvillians, but was designed by Joe McCamish to inform visitors about the best of Knoxville. It put a face on our community in an effort to ensure that our guests had a good time and would return. Joe was an enterprising technical illustrator turned graphic artist and a native Knoxvillian who grew up just east of the location of our new baseball stadium near Winona Avenue. As a kid, he roamed the streets of downtown Knoxville and Magnolia Avenue. Joe attended Park City Lowry School and the old Knoxville High School. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Joe was available when precise illustrations, graphic art, and calligraphy were called for, and he frequented the clubs and nightlife of Knoxville where business deals were made. An artist of immense talent, Joe prepared illustrations for his Panorama guide and is probably best remembered for his pictorial maps of Knoxville that included detailed structures like houses, buildings, and churches to make the map come alive.
So what were we telling visitors about ourselves 50 years ago? What were we recommending for a successful visit to the “Gateway to the Smokies”?
The first thing that strikes the reader of the Panorama magazines of 1971 to 1974 is the interest in nightclubs, strip joints, and bars. In the interest of full disclosure, one-half century ago, I had a similar interest in Knoxville nightlife and was known to visit a few clubs and bars in those days based upon my belief that anybody in a bar after midnight was in need of a good lawyer. There were many nightspots around Knoxville 50 years ago and all have disappeared. If Knoxville even has a nightlife now, I know nothing about it. Today, I’m in bed by 8:00 p.m. (7:00 p.m. Daylight Saving Time) and couldn’t find a hot bar with a college guide. According to Panorama, the DownUnder (in the basement of the Farragut Hotel) and the Speakeasy (in the back of Western Plaza Shopping Center) both were owned and operated by Freddie Morton and Tommy Cole. Tommy had a great club band and Freddie was the most colorful member of a well-known and established Knoxville family. The DownUnder drew downtown professional people and lawyers (including those named Pryor) like a 6:00 p.m. magnet that sometimes didn’t demagnetize until quite late in the evening. My wife can explain that to you further, if necessary.
According to the January 1974 edition of Panorama, Freddie and Tommy’s Speakeasy was “Knoxville’s ever-going supper club open six nights a week from 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m.” (who eats supper at 3:00 a.m., then or now?).
Another hotspot 50 years ago around Knoxville was the Tiki Lounge and Luau Room, 7049 Kingston Pike. The Tiki was an active club with a live band virtually every night. The Tiki occupied a building that was later renovated and for many years served the late night crowd as Michael’s Cow Palace. Today, the property occupies a boring AT&T store with no bar or dance floor. The Tiki was owned and operated by Ron “Sack” McAbee, a well-known ex-Rule High School athlete turned entrepreneur. The Inn-Ter-Section Lounge was located at Kingston Pike and Northshore in a Family Inns of America motel. The rooms were $7.77 per night in case you had trouble making it home. The Lantern Lounge and the Casual Lounge and Nightclub were located on North Central where “every night was ladies’ night.” Most clubs, according to Panorama, were located in motels around town. The Escape Hatch Lounge was in the Admiral Benbow Inn at Malfunction Junction. It was confusing to find your way into the Admiral Benbow, but especially difficult to get out.
The restaurants advertised in Panorama in the early 70’s were Pero’s, the Brass Rail, Ivanhoe’s House of Beef, Ye Olde Steakhouse, the Rathskeller, and, of course, Regas Restaurant at Magnolia and Gay. Pero’s Restaurant is now located on Northshore at Rocky Hill, and I walked in there recently to find that the tomato sauce aroma was the same as 50 years ago when the original version was located at 4931 Kingston Pike (across from the present day Knox Plaza). Pero’s on Kingston Pike is advertised in Panorama as serving prime rib, spaghetti, and seafood. I always ordered spaghetti with meatballs, and as a boy ate in the same building when it was known as Dixieland Drive-In where they served the best fried chicken in Knoxville referred to as “Chicken in the Rough.”
Frank Kotsianas operated the Brass Rail on Gay Street directly across from the Tennessee Theatre. Fifty years ago, as a young lawyer, I tried to eat there every Friday because his fried fish lunch had downtown workers lined up north and around Nan Denton’s Orange Julius west down Clinch Avenue. Frank turned out a lot of good lunches at the Brass Rail and was always a skilled and ambitious restauranteur opening Ivanhoe’s House of Beef in 1968 in the building that now houses Copper Cellar West near West Town Mall. Frank, who died last year, was a diminutive and no-nonsense man who accumulated significant wealth opening and owning restaurants and other businesses. Once a man suggested Frank sit at a bar on a stack of telephone books so that he could get the bartender’s attention. He replied in his Greek accent, “Don’t worry, I will sit on a big stack of hundreds.”
The Panorama advertises Ye Olde Steakhouse, which was opened in 1968 by Bunt and Helen King. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Knoxville and a true survivor. Today, you can still eat a memorable steak and have a good time with friends at this Chapman Highway classic. The Rathskeller was a German theme restaurant and bar in the underside lower level of Western Plaza Shopping Center. A great place to get a big, thick, juicy steak and a cold beer. Regas Restaurant was a Knoxville mainstay and nationally known restaurant for many years operated by three generations of the prominent Regas family. Probably Knoxville’s best restaurant ever. If the Rathskeller and Regas were the best places for beef in 1973, Brother Jack’s on University Avenue was the place for pork up to 3:00 a.m. Fraternity boys and UT football players thrived on Jack’s late-night greasy barbeque.
Panorama recommended the Senator’s Club on Alcoa Highway for steak and good times, Jim Bradley’s Steakhouse on West Cumberland, Lyle’s Restaurant on Church Avenue (best charcoal broiled hamburger in the world), the S&W Cafeteria (oh, just to go back one more time), Shakey’s Pizza on Kingston Pike at West Hills, and the Tic Tok Drive-In on Magnolia (I’m still carrying at least 20 pounds from eating at this favorite spot).
Other businesses advertising in Panorama 50 years ago were Executive Massage Salon at 701 S. Gay Street. The salon was open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. and provided a massage for $10 and a Tiki bath for $25 (oh, how I long for a good Tiki bath). The salon location is now a parking lot between Cumberland and Church. The Bijou Theatre (one-half block south from the salon) was an “art theatre” with a midnight stage show every Thursday through Sunday. Howard Johnson’s Motel advertised two locations in 1974—one across from West Town Mall and the other at North Merchants Road with Knoxville’s only “tropical paradise aquatic center.” In 1971, Knoxville’s new top men’s store was Hansom House on Cumberland Avenue founded in 1966 by M. S. McClellan. Matt later moved his upscale men’s store to 5614 Kingston Pike in Bearden and has always been what ZZ Top called the “Sharp Dressed Man.”
Panorama states the Knox County population in 1971 as 276,288. That population 50 years later in 2021 was 486,677. The intercity bus company was Knoxville Transit Lines, and regular performances were presented at the Civic Auditorium/Coliseum. In April 1971, the big shows at the Coliseum were Blood, Sweat & Tears and the US Air Force Band. In February 1974, Panorama lists the top Auditorium shows as Mull’s Gospel Sing and the Porter Wagoner Show. The Gospel Sing was produced by the Reverend J. Bazzel Mull, who began gospel music programs on radio in 1942 and on television in the 1950’s. Anyone living in Knoxville or East Tennessee 50 years ago was familiar with Reverend Mull and his co-star, Mrs. Mull, and Knoxville’s favorite grocer, Cas Walker, and their radio and television programs. They were three of the most unforgettable Knoxvillians ever, and they remain the subject of hundreds of stories and wonderful memories.
Looking back over the last 50 years, it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever thought of Knoxville as a “scruffy little city.”