In its 127 years, Ryman Auditorium has lived many lives. Originally a tabernacle, it became known as the “Mother Church of Country Music” when it famously opened its doors to the Grand Ole Opry in 1943. Today, it remains as one of the world’s most renowned venues to musicians of all genres, comedians, and orators. You’d expect some rich history from this place, but some of the eclectic events the Ryman has hosted in the past might just surprise you.
Houdini advertisement featured above courtesy of The Tennessean.
The Ryman has played host to some divine talent but never the bovine kind — until 1971. Three cattle auctions advertising the “beefy superstars on the Opry stage” took place at the Ryman from 1971 to 1973. At the inaugural Hereford sale, Leroy Van Dyke was a special guest and performed his hit song “Auctioneer.” The event was organized to tout the South’s ramped-up cattle production. You could say the stunt worked because we’re still trying to wrap our heads around how exactly they wrangled the herd to fit through the stage door.
While the venue is best known for its matchless acoustics, there’s more to the Ryman’s legacy than music. From dance to theater, a multitude of performing arts have been represented on stage. In 1944 and 1948, the Ryman became the unlikely host for two ice-skating shows. The shows required the use of a portable ice rink that was assembled in pieces. Filled with brine, the rink froze over in three hours. Each piece of the rink weighed 540 pounds when filled, and the stage had to be extended by six feet to accommodate the production. It was quite the feat.
An Unusual Sermon Delivered from a Casket
The Ryman is no stranger to religious sermons — its very existence was inspired by a fire-and-brimstone sermon given at a Nashville tent revival — but this was a first: In 1953, the Rev. Gatemouth Moore preached from inside a casket on the Ryman stage. Moore was a famous blues musician before he said that he “met God at a nightclub” and became a religious leader after the experience. After he lied in state at a funeral home for the afternoon, Moore’s Ryman appearance gave pause. “I’m not dead, but my sins are,” Moore spoke into a microphone from the coffin, “because I’ve been born again.” It wasn’t the only time that Moore preached from a casket, but he only broke it out for special occasions.
Let this sink in: The Ryman predates the existence of radio and the Ford Model T. For years, it was Nashville’s largest venue, a place where spectators could gather to learn about brand-new inventions and world events. In 1921, professor Louis Williams presented the “Wonders of Electricity,” when more than half of U.S. homes still didn’t have electricity. He used 800 pounds of electrical equipment in a series of demonstrations, lighting a bulb with tuning forks and using wireless technology to turn on lamps, ring bells, and even blow up a miniature ship. The most dramatic presentation of the evening involved running 250,000 volts of electricity through two audience members, Williams drawing “flames” from their appendages. The presentation went off without a hitch — unlike a time before when one of his volunteers didn’t disclose that he had a wooden leg.
Harry Houdini and His Milk Can Escape
The last word you might use to describe Harry Houdini, one of history’s best-known magicians, is “skeptic.” But sure enough, his Ryman appearance on March 11, 1924 featured not only illusions and escape tricks but also a campaign against spiritualism during which Houdini debunked phony mediums and Tennessee’s own Bell Witch legend. The show closed with Houdini’s “Milk Can Escape.” Newspapers originally advertised that Houdini would perform his infamous “Chinese Water Torture Cell” escape trick, in which he would’ve been submerged upside down, his feet locked in stocks. However, it was scrapped from the evening’s program, likely due to the weight of the tank. Surprisingly, the show didn’t sell well. It was reported that Houdini could have done “… almost everything with his black magic but warm up the big old auditorium, which was insufficiently heated.”
Learn More and Leave Inspired
Explore the multitude of events that have taken place at the Ryman over the years on tour. Find inspiration at every turn — even take your place on stage and get goosebumps you’ll never forget. From surprising artifacts to one-of-a-kind exhibits and priceless memorabilia, touring the Ryman is Music City inspiration at its best.