LULA WAS A LEGEND.
How a bold woman single-handedly earned Nashville its Music City status.
The Ryman’s rich legacy begins with an unlikely figure: a young, small-town secretary with a keen business sense and an unsinkable drive to succeed.
Mrs. Lula Clay Naff is responsible for a thriving half-century of the Ryman’s history in an era when women rarely took the reins in business. She was tough, determined, shrewd, and capable; and, by the end of her career, she would come to be known as America’s First Lady of theater management.
Born in 1875 in Fall Branch, Tennessee, Lula found herself widowed at a young age with a young daughter to support. She quickly finished business school and took a job with a Johnson City talent agency as a secretary. When the company relocated to the rapidly growing city of Nashville in 1904, Lula and her daughter moved with it. Before the age of thirty, she helped her colleague, Delong Rice, book speaking engagements, concerts, and other attractions at the newly renamed Ryman Auditorium as a stenographer and witness.
Lula’s time with the venue would outlive her employer by decades. When the company dissolved in 1914, she seized the opportunity to work directly with the Ryman. She took a bold risk and leased the entire building as an independent agent in an era when women didn’t even have the right to vote. Lula filled the pews night after night with audiences hungry for the biggest names in music, theater, and entertainment. In 1920, the board of directors formally recognized her talent and dedication, hiring Lula to directly manage the space.
Under Lula’s leadership, everyone who was anyone played the Ryman. From Katharine Hepburn to Harry Houdini, Bob Hope to the Ziegfeld Follies and countless others, the list of legends is an impressive “who’s who” of the era. Her vision for the Ryman was strategic and ever-evolving, branching out to include boxing matches, livestock auctions, political debates, and more. She made the Ryman a success by bringing people of Nashville what they wanted to see and hear, and we honor her commitment to distinctive programming more than a century later. She had a reputation for standing up for what she believed in, fighting censorship groups in court and welcoming diversity onstage and off. In 1943, she famously agreed to let the rowdy Grand Ole Opry show put down roots in the Auditorium, and the show filled her Saturday nights -and the nation’s airwaves- with music and comedy for the rest of her career and beyond.
Lula was named Manager Emeritus when she retired in 1955, succeeded by her longtime assistant, Mr. Harry Draper. She passed away in 1960 at the age of eighty-five. Her vision, tenacity and work ethic did more than lay the foundation for the auditorium’s success: Lula planted, nurtured, and grew a special kind of entertainment magic in this building that lives on today.
Learn more of our history – visit our interactive timeline.
Follow the Ryman’s story from the very beginning. Tour the Ryman today.