Of the five theaters that existed in Elizabethton, Tennessee, only the Bonnie Kate Theater survived, and, as local historian John Huber would say, “This speaks volumes”. The significance of the Bonnie Kate cannot be found in the movies shown or in the commercial records; the true personality of the Bonnie Kate Theater resides in the community that surrounds it.
Built in 1926, the Bonnie Kate Theater evolved and became one of the most successful ventures in the downtown area of Elizabethton. The original owner, Olivia Hogue Brown, was an oil baroness from West Virginia, and she brought more than film to rural East Tennessee. Her theater opened at the same time as the industrial boom in Elizabethton, and it provided people with entertainment and a sense of local identity. To comprehend the communal ties of the Bonnie Kate Theater and Elizabethton, we must look at the lives of those who worked there.
Frances C. Hixson was a lifelong native of Elizabethton, Tennessee, and the Bonnie Kate Theater became an immense portion of her life. In the 2007 memoriam of her life, her surviving family members remembered her as a communal figure who valued acceptance and inclusion in her town, and Hixson was a noted employee of the Bonnie Kate Theater. By placing her role at the theater alongside her involvement in the local church and community welcome center, the personality of the Bonnie Kate Theater appears more clearly.
Charlie Ray Birchfield is another figure in the community who frequented the Bonnie Kate Theater. Just as Hixson, Birchfield served the community through his work at the theater, and in his 2007 obituary, his family placed his role at the theater alongside his religious and communal work. Birchfield, however, interacted with the Bonnie Kate differently than Hixson. Birchfield was part of the weekly radio shows that occurred in the later years of the Bonnie Kate.
The Barrel of Fun radio show first aired in 1938 and ran until 1952. This radio show served as one of the most significant pieces of culture in eastern Tennessee, and it reached more than just local community members. According to the Elizabethton Star, the Barrel of Fun radio show had over 3 million listeners each weekend, and when compared to the population presented in the 1950 State Census (10,754), the radio show proves to be one of the largest assets of the Bonnie Kate and the community. The radio show allowed townspeople to display the music of their ancestors to a broad audience, and in many ways, the Bonnie Kate Theater facilitated the growth of culture and heritage in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Today, the Bonnie Kate Theater is undergoing a state funded renovation as part of a program to preserve historical sites in rural towns. While the Bonnie Kate Theater seldom shows movies anymore, the building contains office buildings on the third floor and a local restaurant on the first floor. The community of Elizabethton continues to revolve around the Bonnie Kate Theater, and with the current renovations taking place, the Bonnie Kate is on course to remain a prominent force in the community for generations to come.
Hardin, Rozella. “Many old-time musicians got their start on ‘Barrel of Fun.’” Elizabethton Star 29 June 2015. Print
Huber, John. Personal Interview. 11 Nov. 2018
“Mr. Charlie ‘Ray’ Birchfield,” Obituary, Elizabethton [TN] Star, 7 April 2007, Carter County TN Archives Obituaries, http://files.usgwarchives.net/tn/carter/obits/b/birchfie504gob.txt
“Mrs. Frances C. Hixson,” Obituary, Elizabethton [TN] Star, 17 Sept. 2007, Carter County TN Archives Obituaries, http://files.usgwarchives.net/tn/carter/obits/h/hixson608gob.txt
United States Census Bureau. “Number of Inhabitants.” Census.gov. 1950. Web. 6 Nov. 2018. https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/population-volume-1/vol-01-45.pdf