Readers recall Knoxville's boldest hours

by Jack Neely

Last month, I wrote a paean to Knoxville's five-day Festival of Flesh in late February and early March, 1974. It was right about 24 years ago this week that a startlingly high percentage of the windowshoppers and taverngoers along Cumberland Avenue were moderately to extremely naked.

I've gotten several calls and letters about the column, more than I've gotten for any serious news story I've written recently. Nudity still fascinates.

It seems a great many Metro Pulse readers were there on the scene. Most who commented were quick to add, "I kept my clothes on, of course." Those I've heard from are evenly divided between people who witnessed it and remember the festival in extraordinary detail—and people who'd never heard of it and seem skeptical that it even happened.

As well they might be. There were lots of major streaking events on college campuses across America in early '74, but none of them just like Knoxville's. They called it "streaking" when it happened elsewhere, but—correct me if I'm wrong—streaking would seem to imply actually running while naked. Running pretty fast, you'd think, for fear of being apprehended or merely recognized. In Knoxville, some did run, for a while, but apparently they got tired. From what I've heard, most of those who bared themselves on Cumberland Avenue were just hanging out, standing or sitting on sidewalks or rooftops, drinking beer and talking about President Nixon and the price of gas.

This peculiarly urban nudist meet was concentrated along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Cumberland Avenue, which had been blocked off by police for the purpose, or so it seemed. The police themselves are believed to have remained fully clothed—but then, how could you know. (Yes, in answer to a question asked by several who weren't there, the Strip had indeed been known as "the Strip" some time before that.)

Dan Marra, who now lives in Corryton was there and writes: "For me, the crowning moment... was when a fraternity showed up at the 19th and Cumberland roadblock with their antique big orange fire truck piled high with kegs of beer and at least 50 nude maniacs—and the cops let 'em on through! I knew then, and it has held true, the Strip had never and has never seen such sublime madness."

Artist Cynthia Markert, who has since become regionally known for her neo-impressionist paintings of (mostly) clothed women, recalls her mixed feelings about the festival. "I was there, and my high school boyfriend was one of those naked atop the cow. It was an amazing night. The street was filled with a dizziness of delight [and] free-spiritedness...." She recalls those nights when boys "stripped down beside you and took to prancing through a crowd of co-eds and businessmen from the hotel who had clustered about in the street to perhaps remember the magic of youth...."

But she observed a less enchanting side of the festivities that may offer a clue about why nudity has never really caught on in America. Most of the unclothed were male. Just after an actual female stripped on the roof of Sam & Andy's, the college boys in the streets no longer seemed so liberated. "The atmosphere turned immediately from the celebration of free spirit," she recalls, "to the type of hoots one might hear at the Mouse's Ear."

Disillusioned, Markert returned to her studies of feminist literature. "The next morning seemed more quiet," she recalls, "and the boys in my classes looked altogether different to me...."

The most poignant story comes from a woman who prefers not to be identified. She was in her 40s when she enrolled as a freshman at UT and signed up for a life-drawing class. In most English-speaking countries, "life drawing" usually means sketching nude models, a practice every painter since da Vinci has recognized as the only way to understand the proportions of the human form.

According to our correspondent, UT had banned life drawing for freshmen and sophomores "to protect the innocence and sensibilities of the younger students." Even when the "younger students" were 43 years old—or Vietnam veterans, as one of her "underclassman" cohorts was. Their predicament in the winter quarter of '74 should be included in Webster's definition of irony.

"And so it came to be that while all around us there were naked bodies frolicking for all the world to see...there we were behind our closed door trying to draw a human form that was shielded from us by a long-sleeved, long-legged, baggy leotard...."

It almost makes you want to cry. "We protested by drawing our modestly dressed model as a full-figured nude," she continues. They instructor looked at the drawing, smiled, and without comment moved on."

Some recall how public it was, that many Knoxville parents brought their kids in the station wagon just to watch the spectacle, just like Boomsday or something. Just wait, kids—you'll remember this. My parents weren't among them.

Many expected it to catch on, figuring Knoxville would just get nakeder and nakeder, and by summer, the wearing of clothes might be an embarrassing memory. However, except for a few isolated incidents, the streaking fad turned out to be strictly a late-winter phenomenon. I have a few friends with nudist tendencies, one who hosts a nude volleyball game somewhere in east Knox County every year, but the nude coup some were anticipating never materialized.

I wish all my columns got as much attention as that one did. I've considered improving drier chapters of history—the Nullification controversy, say, or the Taft-Hartley Act—just by adding the phrase and they were all completely naked! It would, I'm convinced, stir up some interest in history—an end that might justify the fib.