Ryman Auditorium (formerly Grand Ole Opry House and Union Gospel Tabernacle) is a 2,362-seat live performance venue, located at 116 5th Avenue North, in Nashville, Tennessee and is best known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. It is owned and operated by Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc.
Ryman Auditorium was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and was further designated a National Historic Landmark on June 25, 2001, for its pivotal role in the popularization of country music.
The auditorium opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Its construction was spearheaded by Thomas Ryman (1843–1904), a Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and a fleet of riverboats. Ryman conceived of the auditorium as a tabernacle for the influential revivalist Samuel Porter Jones. Ryman had attended one of Jones' 1885 tent revivals with the intent to heckle, but was instead converted into a devout Christian, and soon after pledged to build the tabernacle so the people of Nashville could attend a large-scale revival indoors. It took seven years to complete and cost US$100,000 (equivalent to $2,665,556 in 2016). However, Jones held his first revival at the site on May 25, 1890, with only the building's foundation and six-foot (1.8 m) walls standing. Architect Hugh Cathcart Thompson designed the structure. Exceeding its construction budget, the tabernacle opened US$20,000 (equivalent to $533,111 in 2016) in debt. Jones sought to name the tabernacle in Ryman's honor, but Ryman denied the request several times. When Ryman died in 1904, his memorial service was held at the tabernacle. During the service, Jones proposed the building be renamed Ryman Auditorium, which was met with the overwhelming approval of the attendees. Jones died less than two years later, in 1906.
The building was originally designed to contain a balcony, but a lack of funds delayed its completion. The balcony was eventually built and opened in time for the 1897 gathering of the United Confederate Veterans, with funds provided by members of the group. As such, the balcony was named the Confederate Gallery. Upon the completion of the balcony, the Ryman's capacity rose to 6,000. A stage was added in 1901 that reduced the capacity to just over 3,000.
Though the building was designed to be a house of worship, a purpose it continued to serve throughout most of its early existence, it was often leased to promoters for non-religious events in an effort to pay off its debts and remain open. In 1904, Lula C. Naff, a widow and mother who was working as a stenographer, began to book and promote speaking engagements, concerts, boxing matches, and other attractions at the Ryman in her free time. In 1914, when her employer went out of business, Naff made booking these events her full-time job. She eventually transitioned into a role as the Ryman's official manager by 1920. She preferred to go by the name "L.C. Naff" in an attempt to avoid initial prejudices as a female executive in a male-dominated industry. Naff gained a reputation for battling local censorship groups, who had threatened to ban various performances deemed too risqué. In 1939, Naff won a landmark lawsuit against the Nashville Board of Censors, which was planning to arrest the star of the play Tobacco Road due to its provocative nature. The court declared the law creating the censors invalid.
Naff's ability to book stage shows and world-renowned entertainers in the city's largest indoor gathering place kept the Ryman at the forefront of Nashville's conscience and enhanced the city's reputation as a cultural center for the performing arts even as the building began to age. W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, and John Philip Sousa (among others) performed at the venue over the years, earning the Ryman the nickname, "The Carnegie Hall of the South". The Ryman hosted lectures by U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1907 and 1911, respectively. World-famous opera singer Enrico Caruso appeared in concert there in 1919. It also saw the inaugurations of three governors of the state of Tennessee. The first event to sell out the Ryman was a lecture by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in 1913. While being a trailblazer for working women, Naff also championed the cause of diversity. The building was used as a regular venue for the Fisk Jubilee Singers from nearby Fisk University, a historically black college. Jim Crow laws often forced Ryman audiences to be segregated, while some shows were designated for "White Audiences Only" and others for "Colored Audiences Only", however, photographs show that Ryman audiences of the time were often integrated. Naff retired in 1955 and died in 1960.
Since debuting in 1925, a local country music radio program known as the Grand Ole Opry (originally called the WSM Barn Dance) had become a Nashville institution. Broadcast over clear-channel AM radio station WSM, it could be heard in 30 states across the eastern part of the nation. Though not originally a stage show, the Opry began to attract listeners from around the region who would come to the WSM studio to see it live. When crowds got too large for the studio, WSM began broadcasting the show from the Hillsboro Theatre (now Belcourt Theatre) in 1934. The Opry moved to East Nashville's Dixie Tabernacle in 1936, and then to War Memorial Auditorium in 1939. After four years, and several reports of upholstery damage caused by its rowdy crowds, the Opry was asked to leave War Memorial and sought a new home yet again. With its wooden pews and central location, Naff and the other Ryman leaders thought the auditorium would be a perfect venue for such an audience, and began renting the venue to WSM for its shows. The Grand Ole Opry was first broadcast from the Ryman on June 5, 1943, and originated there every week for nearly 31 years thereafter. Every show sold out, and hundreds were often turned away.
During its tenure at Ryman Auditorium, the Opry hosted the biggest country music stars of the day, and the show became known around the world. In addition to its home on WSM, portions of the show (at various times throughout its history) were also broadcast on network radio and television to a wider audience. Melding its then-current usage with the building's origins as a house of worship, the Ryman earned the nickname "The Mother Church of Country Music", which it still holds to this day.
Because of the period during which it was constructed, and because it was not designed to be a performance venue, the Ryman lacked a true backstage area. There was only one dressing room for the men, while women were relegated to an inadequate ladies' restroom. The shortage of space forced performers to wait in the wings, the narrow hallways, and the alley behind the building's south wall. Thus, many performers often ventured across the alley to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and other bars, where they would drink alongside – and sometimes perform for – patrons. This practice enhanced the notoriety of the honky-tonk bars along Nashville's Lower Broadway.
Prior to September 27, 1963, Ryman Auditorium had no singular owner, instead being an independent entity governed by a board of directors. That changed when WSM, Inc. purchased the building for US$207,500 (equivalent to $1,623,236 in 2016). Upon WSM assuming total control of the auditorium, it was renamed the Grand Ole Opry House, though the Ryman name proved difficult to shed after nearly 60 years in use.
WSM financed minor upgrades to the Opry House in 1966 to maintain its functionality, but soon thereafter began making plans to move the Opry to a new location altogether. Despite the building's deteriorating condition, the lack of air conditioning, and the abundance of unsavory surroundings in its urban neighborhood, the show's increasing popularity would often result in crowds too large to fit inside the venue. The plans, announced in 1969, centered around a larger, custom-built auditorium that would provide a more controlled and comfortable atmosphere for audiences and performers alike, as well as better radio and television production facilities. The company purchased a large tract of land in a then-rural area a few miles away, where the new Opry theater would serve as the anchor of a grand entertainment complex. The development became known as Opryland USA, and came to include the Opryland theme park and, eventually, the Opryland Hotel. The amusement park opened on May 27, 1972, and the new venue (also called the Grand Ole Opry House) debuted on Saturday, March 16, 1974. The last Opry show at the Ryman occurred the previous evening, on Friday, March 15. The final shows downtown were emotional. Sarah Cannon, performing as Minnie Pearl, broke character and cried on stage. In an effort to maintain continuity with the Opry's storied past, a large circle was cut from the floor of the Ryman stage and inlaid into the center of the new Opry stage. In another traditional holdover, the new Opry House was also designed to feature pew seating, although (unlike the Ryman) they are cushioned.
Eventually and without fanfare, the Ryman Auditorium name returned to the building to differentiate it from the new Grand Ole Opry House.
When the plans for Opryland USA were announced, WSM president Irving Waugh also revealed the company's intent to demolish the Ryman and use its materials to construct a chapel called "The Little Church of Opryland" at the amusement park. Waugh brought in a consultant to evaluate the building: noted theatrical producer Jo Mielziner, who had staged a production at the Ryman in 1935. He concluded that the Ryman was "full of bad workmanship and contains nothing of value as a theater worth restoring." Mielziner suggested the auditorium be razed and replaced with a modern theater. Waugh's plans were met with resounding resistance from the public, including many influential musicians of the time. Pulitzer Prize winner Ada Louise Huxtable ridiculed the decision in The New York Times, writing: "First prize for the pious misuse of a landmark, and a total misunderstanding of the principles of preservation. Gentlemen, for shame."
However, Roy Acuff, an Opry stalwart and a major stakeholder of Opryland USA, was purported to say, "I never want another note of music played in that building," and led the unsuccessful charge to tear down the Ryman. Acuff, a staunch supporter of moving the Opry to a modern home, told The Washington Post in 1974, "Most of my memories of the Ryman auditorium are of misery, sweating out here on this stage, the audience suffering too... We've been shackled all of my career." Acuff notably hated the dressing room situation at the Ryman so much that he bought a nearby building just to have a bigger one. Ironically, a life-size statue of Acuff (alongside one of Sarah Cannon as Minnie Pearl) now sits in Ryman Auditorium's lobby.
Members of historic preservation groups argued that WSM, Inc. (and Acuff, by proxy) was exaggerating the Ryman's poor condition, saying the company was worried that attachment to the old building would hurt business at the new Opry House. Preservationists leaned on the building's religious history, and gained traction for their case as a result. The outcry led to the building being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 1974, United States Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock (both representing Tennessee), along with the assistance of the United States Department of the Interior, pleaded with WSM, Inc. (and its parent company, NLT Corporation) to preserve the building. The company tabled the decision on the Ryman's fate, and the building was ultimately saved from demolition, however no active efforts were being made to improve its condition.
Following the departure of the Opry, the Ryman sat mostly vacant and deteriorating for nearly twenty years as the neighborhood surrounding it continued to see increasing effects of urban decay. However, the building continued to stand with an uncertain future. Despite its regressing condition and the absence of performances, Ryman Auditorium was never shuttered, and still held such significance as an attraction that it would remain open for tours.
On August 30, 1979, following a tip from a citizen, the Nashville bomb squad discovered and disarmed a massive car bomb that threatened to damage or destroy a three-block area of downtown Nashville, which was likely to have included the Ryman. A nearby strip club had been the target. The device was disarmed less than twenty minutes before it was timed to detonate.
In September 1983, soon after NLT Corporation was acquired in a hostile takeover bid by American General Insurance, the building was included in the sale of all of the WSM & Opryland properties to Oklahoma-based Gaylord Broadcasting Company (which later moved its headquarters to Nashville and was renamed Gaylord Entertainment Company) for US$250,000,000 (equivalent to $601,152,690 in 2016). The company's chief executive, Ed Gaylord, had become acquainted with many of the Opry stars during his involvement with the long-running television series Hee Haw. His fondness of the Opry and friendships with its personalities—particularly Sarah Cannon—are often cited as reasons for his interest in the acquisition. Ryman Auditorium's inclusion in the sale was mostly considered an afterthought, although its new owner made no plans to demolish it, partly due to Mr. Gaylord's appreciation of its history.
While the auditorium was dormant, major motion pictures continued to be filmed on location there, including John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979), the Loretta Lynn Oscar-winning biopic, Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), Sweet Dreams (1985) (the story of Patsy Cline), and Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man (1982). A 1978 television special, Dolly and Carol in Nashville, included a segment featuring Dolly Parton performing a gospel medley on the Ryman stage.
In 1989, Gaylord Entertainment began work to beautify the Ryman's exterior. The structure of the building was also improved, as the company installed a new roof, replaced broken windows, and repaired broken bricks and wood. The building's interior, however, was left mostly untouched.
From April 30 to May 2, 1991, Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers performed three acoustic concerts at the dilapidated building, during which no one was allowed to sit on or beneath the balcony due to safety concerns. Capacity was limited to around 200. Some of the recordings were released as an album entitled At the Ryman, which won the Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards in 1993. The concerts' and album's high acclaim are given near-universal credit for the renewed interest in reviving Ryman Auditorium as an active venue.
The Ryman hosted a concert and one-act play entitled The Ryman: The Tabernacle Becomes A Shrine on May 18, 1992 to celebrate the building's centennial.
In October 1992, executives of Gaylord Entertainment announced plans to renovate the entire building and expand upon it to create modern amenities for performers and audiences alike, as part of a larger initiative to invest into the city's efforts to revitalize the downtown area. In September 1993, renovations began to restore it into a world-class concert hall. In the renovations, the auditorium's original wooden pews were removed, refurbished, and returned to the building, continuing to serve as the auditorium's seating. Both far-reaching ends of the U-shaped balcony (which had previously extended all the way to the building's south wall) were removed, and new backstage facilities were built inside the original building, while a new structure containing a lobby, restrooms, concessions, offices, and a grand staircase leading to the balcony was constructed and attached to the east side of the auditorium. This also resulted in the Ryman's main entrance being moved from the west side of the building (Fifth Avenue North) to the east side (Fourth Avenue North), where an outdoor entry plaza, complete with a large statue of Thomas Ryman, also greeted visitors. Notably, the renovations resulted in Ryman Auditorium becoming air-conditioned for the first time.
The first performance at the newly renovated Ryman was a broadcast of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion on June 4, 1994. Keillor said he was inspired to create A Prairie Home Companion while reporting on the final Opry show at the Ryman in 1974 for The New Yorker. Following that, the Ryman played host to an extended residency of the original musical Always... Patsy Cline, about the life of the legendary singer which starred Mandy Barnett in the titular role.
On Sunday, October 18, 1998, the Opry held a benefit show at Ryman Auditorium, marking its return to the venue for the first time since its final show on March 15, 1974. The show was well received by fans, performers, and management alike, so the decision was made to host the Opry's regular shows there on January 15 & 16, 1999 as part of the celebration to commemorate 25 years at the new venue.
Beginning in November 1999, the Opry was held at Ryman Auditorium for three months, mostly due to the success of the January shows, but partly due to the ongoing construction of the Opry Mills shopping mall (which replaced the Opryland USA theme park in 2000) next door to the Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry has returned to the Ryman for all of its November, December, and January shows every year since, allowing the production to acknowledge its roots while also taking advantage of a smaller venue during an off-peak season for tourism and freeing the Grand Ole Opry House for special holiday presentations. While still officially the Grand Ole Opry, the shows there are billed Opry At The Ryman. The Ryman also served as the primary venue for the Opry in the summer of 2010 while the Grand Ole Opry House was undergoing repairs after damage from a devastating flood.
In January 2012, it was announced that the Ryman's 61-year-old stage would be replaced due to its deteriorating condition. The stage had been the second for the Ryman, was installed in 1951, and had lasted far longer than Ryman officials had expected it would. The stage was replaced with a medium-brown Brazilian teak. It retained an 18-inch lip of the blonde oak at the front of the stage, similar to the way the Ryman stage was commemorated in a circle of wood at the new Opry House. Beneath the stage, the original hickory support beams were kept and reinforced with concrete foundations, crossbeams and joist work that helped triple the stage's load capacity and ensure that the venue would remain viable as a concert venue in the upcoming years.
Gaylord Entertainment Company, the venue's owner since 1983, adopted the Ryman's name as its own when it transitioned into a real estate investment trust in 2012. The company is now known as Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc., and Ryman Auditorium is contained within its Opry Entertainment Group division.
In 2015, the Ryman underwent another US$14,000,000 (equivalent to $14,145,444 in 2016) renovation and expansion, in which much of the 1994 expansion was gutted and remodeled. The original building only received minor touch-ups and remained in use throughout. The renovation and expansion includes more lobby space, plus expanded restrooms, concessions, and a gift shop, as well as a new quick-service restaurant called "Cafe Lula", named in memory of Lula C. Naff. Also added in the 2015 renovations is a 100-seat theater which houses a short holographic film that serves as the first exhibit on the building's daily self-guided tours. The film is entitled The Soul Of Nashville, and features an actress portraying Naff presenting the history of the Ryman. It contains an original song performed by Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Opry Entertainment Group stages weekly shows at the Ryman year-round. In addition to the Opry at the Ryman shows in the winter, the auditorium plays host to Opry Country Classics each spring and autumn, and Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman each summer. All are broadcast on WSM.
The Ryman has also served as a gathering place for the memorial services of many prominent country music figures. Tammy Wynette, Chet Atkins, Skeeter Davis, Harlan Howard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Billy Block, George Hamilton IV, Earl Scruggs and Jim Ed Brown have all been memorialized from the Ryman stage.
The renovation of the Ryman, combined with the construction of other attractions such as Bridgestone Arena and Wildhorse Saloon, helped to revitalize Nashville's downtown district into a destination for tourists and locals alike in the mid-1990s. Since then, the Ryman has become one of the most venerable performance venues in Nashville. Experts have praised Ryman Auditorium's acoustics, calling them among the best in the world.