KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The historic Tennessee Theatre in Downtown Knoxville provides a picturesque setting for all kinds of performances, but the beloved venue's financial situation is not a pretty picture during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our business is to gather people together in large groups. We cannot do that now. And we don't know when we're going to be able to do that. We have not had any public in the building since March 13," said Becky Hancock, deputy director of the Tennessee Theatre.
Hancock said the venue has refunded more than $500,000 in tickets to events canceled during the pandemic. The Tennessee Theatre's regular operating income is down 95 percent.
So, what do you do with an iconic empty theater when you cannot host large events? You let families book professional photography sessions.
"It is a way for us to generate a little bit of revenue and let people experience the magic of the Tennessee Theatre. Every year, we have a lot of people request photos at the theater for their personal Christmas cards. We normally don't have time to do it. Well, we all know we're not busy right now," said Hancock. "We put up a tree and some garland for people who want holiday photos. But they can be engagement pictures, senior pictures, prom, whatever you want."
Sessions cost $300 and can include up to six people. All participants must come from the same household. Masks are worn at all times but are able to be removed when at a safe distance before being photographed.
The theater hired longtime Knoxville professional photographer Shawn Poynter to capture images at three different settings. People who book a photo session are photographed at the grand lobby staircase, the balcony overlooking the theater, and on the stage with the auditorium as a backdrop.
"I was flattered to be asked to do it. It's such a rare opportunity to come in here and get photos with no one here. The Tennessee Theatre is just one of the crown jewels of Knoxville," said Poynter.
The first photo sessions were held Friday and Saturday. The participants showed up with a range of requests.
"We had a couple in a band that wanted a picture for an album cover. We had a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. I'll shoot any style they want me to shoot," said Poynter. "I think it is a win-win for everyone involved. It helps the Tennessee Theatre. It's a chance for them to come in here and really take a piece of this place home with them."
The next photo sessions are scheduled for Friday, August 28 and Saturday, August 29. You can book a session online at the Tennessee Theatre's website.
There are other ways you can help the venue beyond scheduling photography sessions.
"We are a non-profit organization. You can make a donation. You can buy gift shop items online. There are a lot of little ways that people can help. And if enough people help in those little ways, it'll make a big difference," said Hancock.