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On Location

Masterpiece Theatre doesn't make it quite all the way home

by Jack Neely

When you watch the Masterpiece Theatre production of James Agee's A Death In the Family this fall, I'd invite you to view the scenery critically.

A Death In the Family, for those new to town, and to American literature, is a story of Agee's Knoxville childhood, focused around his father's sudden death in a car wreck in 1916. The book is set in Knoxville, mostly downtown and in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. It's an American classic, and Knoxville's best-known book.

But Nashville has been acquiring Knoxville's culture since before Roy Acuff. To the world at large, as I long ago learned on business trips to New York, any distinction between Knoxville and Nashville is nitpicking. All New Yorkers know that Knoxville is just a suburb of Greater Nashville. A recent biography of controversial journalist Whittaker Chambers described his former colleague James Agee—and explained that Agee was "from Nashville." Agee never lived in the Nashville area. But he seems to be spending a lot of time there just lately.

The Masterpiece Theatre people, advised by the Tennessee Film Commission, have chosen to film Knoxville's most famous story in Franklin, Tennessee. That's 200 miles, a broad mountain range, and three or four accents away. And, of course, just outside of Nashville.

I know Franklin passably well. My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there. According to family legend, the lofty statue of the Confederate soldier in the town square is an image of my great-great-great Uncle Henry, an infantryman whose portrait appears in books about the Civil War. Franklin is one of the most beautiful towns in Tennessee, known for its excellent preservation of antebellum houses.

It just doesn't look like Knoxville in 1916. Knoxville in Agee's youth was a booming industrial city with a densely concentrated population of about 50,000. Electric streetcars carried commuters across concrete viaducts; the sidewalks were sometimes so crowded that people had to walk in the streets. Knoxville in 1916 was shadowed by dozens of lofty buildings, some "skyscrapers" more than 10 stories tall. The Majestic Theater in the book was one of about a dozen movie theaters downtown alone.

What it decidedly didn't have downtown was a statue of a Confederate soldier; it would have been defaced and, at least annually, dynamited.

A lot of 1916 Knoxville is still there. Gay Street, especially north of Church, is a well-preserved commercial district of the late 19th and early 20th century architecture. The six-year-old Agee would have been familiar with the 12-story Holston Bank Building, the 11-story Burwell Building, the Woodruff's building, etc. Look at old postcards of this stretch; little has changed. This part of Gay Street was recently used in scenes representing 1950s Indianapolis in a major motion picture, October Sky. But these buildings won't get to depict 1916 Knoxville, which they could do more authentically.

In the book, Agee describes the large Miller's Building, newly renovated to look almost as it did circa 1916. With the exception of the Market House, most of Market Square is intact as the young Agee would have known it: the Arnstein, the Kern's building, it's all still there. The speakeasy he visits with his dad is probably one of the Victorian commercial buildings still standing; the site of the hat shop he later visits with his aunts is also still there.

The L&N terminal, described in the book, is still there, and in good shape. The "Deaf and Dumb Asylum," described in the book, is still there, likewise (now we tend to call it Old City Hall). The post office of 1916 looks good; we now call it the Custom House. The old courthouse is still there. The 1910 Knoxville High School, where Agee later attended classes, is still there. The church of Agee's childhood, St. John's Episcopal, is architecturally intact.

Franklin doesn't look anything like Knoxville at any time in this city's history. Franklin was a small, clean, agrarian community. Its historic downtown buildings are all two or three stories tall.

Downtown Franklin may be problematic, but a larger part of A Death In the Family is set in a residential neighborhood, Highland Avenue, the modest, middle-class side of Fort Sanders. It's where they shot the first film treatment of this story, All the Way Home (starring Robert Preston), in the early '60s.

If the producers' decision to shoot the film in Franklin was based on the fact that we've let Fort Sanders go to the dogs, well, that would be an embarrassment we deserve. However, though we tore down Agee's family home about 40 years ago, most of the Highland Avenue block Agee carefully describes is still intact, as are other parts of the neighborhood.

Today you may or may not be able to film a convincing 1916 movie in Fort Sanders. If not, you might try the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, another modest middle-class neighborhood from Agee's era. In parts of Fourth and Gill, all you'd need to do is take the cars off the street to make it look passably like Highland Avenue in 1916.

Franklin's residential homes are generally grander than ours, but maybe they found a place in Franklin that looks enough like Highland Avenue to match Agee's precise description of it. I hope they did.

Still, I don't understand why Masterpiece Theatre, having come this far, didn't come all the way home, so to speak, to Knoxville. Franklin's nice, but for this purpose, they might as well have done the shooting in some small town in Vermont or Connecticut. Or, for that matter, Wales or Cornwall.

If they make Franklin look anything like 1916 Knoxville, that venerable PBS series will deserve its title as never before. It'll be a masterpiece of set design and cinematography.

August 10, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 32
© 2000 Metro Pulse