130 Years Ago: The Ryman Auditorium Officially Opens
One-hundred and thirty years ago, in 1892, the historic Ryman Auditorium was completed. Although it was known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle at the time, the venue set a precedent in Nashville as a place for music and entertainment.
Conceived and created by Thomas Ryman, the Ryman Auditorium was originally intended as a permanent location for revival preacher Samuel Porter Jones -- who had been conducting tent revivals, trying to convert people to Christianity all over the country -- to preach. When Ryman became a believer, he decided to build a space dedicated to Jones' work.
The Ryman was first used in 1890, but it wasn't until 1892 that construction was completed, leaving Ryman more than $20,000 in debt. However, other groups and organizations quickly saw the value of a space like the Ryman Auditorium: The Confederate Veterans Association, for example, requested use of the space for their reunion, increasing the seating capacity to 6,000 in the process.
Jones repeatedly requested that the Union Gospel Tabernacle be named after Ryman, though the builder continued to deny the request. However, after Ryman passed away in 1904, Jones suggested during his memorial service that the building's name be changed, and the idea was quickly approved.
In the early 20th century, the Ryman Auditorium became known as a respected and sought-after venue, with high-profile figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt, President Taft, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin speaking from its large stage during its first 25 years in existence. But as the years progressed, more and more musicians and performers found their way to the sacred stage, including Will Rogers, Marian Anderson and Katherine Hepburn, among others.
The Grand Ole Opry, which, at the time, was a radio-only show, began looking for a larger venue, as audiences had grown beyond what its station, WSM, could accommodate. After trying several other locations, the Opry settled on the Ryman Auditorium, which became its sole home until the Grand Ole Opry House was built in 1974. The show sold out every performance at the Ryman, and it was during this time that the auditorium, which was quickly evolving from a place of worship to a concert hall, became known as the Mother Church of Country Music.
Buoyed by the success of the Opry, the Ryman became one of the most popular places for artists of all genres, but particularly country music, to perform. From Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters to Elvis Presley, artists flocked to perform on the hallowed stage.
In 1963, the Ryman was bought by National Life Insurance, the same company that owned WSM, and officially renamed the Grand Ole Opry House, albeit, briefly (and many still called the venue the Ryman Auditorium). When the Opry moved out, plans were made to tear down the Ryman and use the materials to build the Little Church of Opryland at the now-closed Opryland USA theme park. The demolition was ultimately stopped, but the Ryman was barely used for nearly 20 years, though it did remain open for tours and was used for films such as Loretta Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter and the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams.
Nearly 100 years after the Ryman Auditorium first opened, Gaylord Entertainment began the process of renovating the outside of the building. However, it wasn't until Emmylou Harris had the idea to perform several acoustic concerts -- which turned into her Live at the Ryman album -- at the venue that the entertainment industry began to see the potential that still existed inside the walls of the historic building. After an almost two-year renovation, which added a better backstage area, lobby and concessions area, the Ryman officially re-opened its doors in 1994, with a broadcast of the A Prairie Home Companion radio show. Dozens of artists flocked to the auditorium after its re-opening, including Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Willie Nelson and Marty Stuart, among others.
In 1999, the Grand Ole Opry returned to the Ryman for two shows, paving the way for the show to return to the venue annually for three months out of the year, a tradition that continues to this day. In 2017, Little Big Town became the Ryman's first artists-in-residence, performing six shows throughout the year.
After undergoing another renovation in 2015, the Ryman Auditorium remains one of the most coveted places for performers to play, drawing artists from all genres, including rock, bluegrass, Christian and folk. A list of all of the upcoming performances at the Ryman can be found by visiting Ryman.com.
This story was originally written by Gayle Thompson, and revised by Angela Stefano.
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