John Shearer: Remembering When Burt Reynolds Came To Chattanooga

Saturday, September 8, 2018 - by John Shearer

As a shy teenager growing up in Chattanooga in the 1970s, I had a movie role model to follow in trying to figure out how to have charisma, learn to have self-confidence and be outgoing, and be masculine and appealing to females. 

The person, of course, was longtime actor Burt Reynolds, who died Thursday of a heart attack at age 82.

He was a man’s man, so to speak, even though he also seemed to have an easily approachable and self-effacing manner in some respects. 

I am sure hundreds of other young male teenagers in Chattanooga at that time were just like me in looking up to him or wanting to be like him in some way.

Who didn’t dream of having a football team rally around you, as happened in “The Longest Yard,” or getting to show off your driving skills in a Trans Am accompanied by Sally Field, as he did in “Smokey and the Bandit?”

And he, of course, was maybe even more popular with the teenage girls and other women, who swooned over him.

I thought about all that some this week while also remembering going to see him appear in the spring of 1991 at the Tivoli Theatre in downtown Chattanooga. That may have been his only formal appearance in Chattanooga, even though he was obviously a familiar face on the big screens of such then-popular Chattanooga theaters as Northgate (when it was inside the mall), Eastgate and Showcase.

I remembered his visit was sometime that spring, and I was able to track it down by going to look at the old newspaper ads on microfilm at the Chattanooga Public Library on Friday.

He appeared on Tuesday, May 21, 1991, at the Tivoli in a live stage show titled “An Evening with Burt Reynolds.” The subtitle was “The Laughs, the Loves, the Lies, the Legends, the Lies (Not Necessarily in that Order).”

It was being sponsored by Fox 61 TV station and US 101 radio station.

I recall that it was an enjoyable show, although I have forgotten a lot of details other than remembering that he mainly stood on stage with his set and told a few funny and even heart-warming stories about his career.

I learned more by finding the preview stories and review written by longtime Chattanooga New-Free Press Entertainment Editor June Cooper Hatcher.

Ms. Hatcher, who just died in 2017 and was somewhat of a pioneering woman journalist in Chattanooga, had preview stories about the event through interviews with both his wife, Loni Anderson, and director and actor Charles Nelson Reilly.

He was on the road with the show and unavailable for interviews, so they amicably filled in for him, describing him as a workaholic, one who is accessible to his fans, one who loves watching college football, and someone who enjoys stage work.

Ms. Hatcher also wrote in the preview pieces that she had been a longtime follower of Mr. Reynolds, dating to when she saw him appear on the TV show, “Riverboat,” in the late 1950s.

She also happened to watch him outside her hotel while she was in Toronto for a media event a few months before his Chattanooga appearance. She said she and her daughter, Angie Hatcher Sledge, started watching him outside the window of the dining room where they were eating and had no idea he saw them until he looked up at them like Groucho Marx as he was leaving.

Ms. Hatcher apparently had the only review of Mr. Reynolds’ show at the Tivoli done by the Chattanooga newspapers.

The veteran entertainment writer said about 1,500 people piled into the Chattanooga theater to see him. She admitted that there were some problems with sound, flashing cameras from audience members as well as too much coming and going by the spectators.

But she did give praise to his storytelling ability done within the set of a masculine-style den.

“His reflections on the famous and near famous friends he has made through his very busy life are delightful,” she wrote.

She said he touched on friends he had while a youngster, playing football at Florida State, and becoming friends with such people as Clint Eastwood while they were both struggling young actors.

He also talked about some of those who did not help his career, but added simply, “Living well is the best revenge.”

Ms. Hatcher said he also talked about being Southern Baptist and about being inspired to later help younger and aspiring actors. That came, he said, because he had also been helped as a young actor by Joanne Woodward.

“But he was most endearing when he began talking about his new family – wife Loni and (adopted) son Quinton,” Ms. Hatcher added.

Unfortunately for them, he would later get divorced from Ms. Anderson. And life was obviously not perfect in other areas, including a battle with addiction to painkillers.

But he would later do some of his most acclaimed work, including for the 1997 movie, “Boogie Nights,” which garnered him an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe trophy.  

While I was living in Knoxville before moving back to Chattanooga, he had been filming the movie, “The Last Movie Star,” in parts of the city. The TV news stations showed him at Tupelo Honey in Market Square and at the Heska Amuna Jewish synagogue on Kingston Pike during the filming. 

During his 1991 Chattanooga visit, this man who filmed “Deliverance” in the early 1970s on the not-too-far-away Chattooga River gave Chattanooga some local flavor to digest as well. 

Near the end of his show, he took off his cowboy shirt and revealed that he was wearing a UTC Mocs football jersey with his name, “Burt,” on the back. It was also adorned with No. 22, which was his number in “The Longest Yard.” 

Ms. Hatcher added that when his Tivoli show ended, he was given a standing ovation. 

I know I was one of them who stood up. 

Even though he seemed to be totally different from me in personality, I still identified with him. 

And I am sure millions of other fans did as well. 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net



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