Nashville Icons: A Brief History of The Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge
The Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s set for their production of The Comedy of Errors features two buildings with a long history in Nashville: the Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Both buildings are easily recognizable to Nashville natives and top tourist destinations. The Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge are both located in the heart of Nashville’s downtown area and feature iconic architecture. The Ryman resembles a church, and Tootsie’s is the classic bar front, open at street level and dark inside, with music always playing Both buildings play significant roles in Nashville and also in the NSF’s 2017 production of The Comedy of Errors.
From the outside, the Ryman Auditorium looks like a church—those new to Nashville would likely think of it as a protestant church building, with a slanted roof and a hint of a steeple in the peak. The Ryman was originally constructed as a church between 1890 and 1892 and was originally called the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Thomas Ryman, the primary builder, created the building to provide a place for the popular evangelist, Reverend Sam Jones, to preach. However, almost immediately the building began to be used for concerts, graduation ceremonies, and touring shows, within a decade, an actual stage was constructed for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company’s touring show. The Ryman Auditorium hosted a range of performers, including the Fisk Jubilee Singers and John Phillip Sousa’s band and Marion Anderson, and speakers, including Susan B. Anthony, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Booker T. Washington. In 1928 and again in 1932, Shakespeare productions were staged with leading actors. In June of 1943, The Grand Ole Opry took up residence in the Ryman, a 30+ year home that gave the Ryman the nickname of “mother church” of country music. Although the departure of the Grand Ole Opry for its new home near the Opryland resort complex in 1974 seemed to spell the end of the Ryman as a leading performance space, the building was refurbished, one of several renewals and remodels done in the late 20th century, and now flourishes as a performance space for country music and a variety of other genres. Finally, in January of 2001, the Ryman Auditorium was declared a National Historic Landmark. It retains a mystique as the stage trod by many a legendary country musician, and its church architecture only adds to its sacred aura.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, originally named Mom’s, is a classic honky-tonk bar on Nashville’s main street, Broadway. Tootsie Bess bought Mom’s in 1960 and, according to “The Legacy,” the official website of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge; Tootsie Bess chose the name for the lounge when she “came in one day to find that [a painter] had painted her place orchid.” Songwriters and musicians flocked to Tootsies, in part because it was located across the back alley from the Ryman Auditorium, and in part because Tootsie was “Mom” to many aspiring country singers. Those who stopped by Tootsie’s when in Nashville reads like a Who’s Who of country music in the 1960s and 1970s—Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, Charley Pride, Mel Tillis, and many others. The hard scrabble that musicians faced before being discovered was something Tootsie knew first hand; she and her husband had a band, Big Jeff and the Radio Playboys. Though Tootsie died in 1978, not quite two decades after she bought Mom’s, she created a full Nashville icon and legacy, in not even 20 years Tootsie’s symbolizes the community built around songwriting and drink, the need for a place of retreat and escape from the performance world, the alternative to home and conventionality.
See photos of Tootsie Bess and her famous Orchid Lounge over the years here: http://www.tennessean.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2015/10/14/tootsie-bess-and-her-famous-orchid-lounge-over-the-years/73945704/