Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, built in 1889, had been the venerable home of the Grand Ole Opry since 1943, and by the early ’70s the Mother Church of Country Music was showing her age. The neighborhood had grown seedy; inside, audiences sweltered in the unair-conditioned tabernacle. Change finally came on March 15, 1974, when the last Opry show was affectionately held at the Ryman. A capacity crowd of 3,000 turned out to say goodbye to the legendary hall where, Emmylou Harris would later say, you could ”feel the hillbilly dust.”
Not everyone was so sentimental. Oh, sure, people would miss the nearby Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, their favorite watering hole. But Roy Acuff, an Opry regular since 1938, wryly pointed out, ”Most of my memories of the Ryman Auditorium are of misery — sweating out here on this stage.”
So they gathered there one last time, with Johnny Cash leading them in the appropriate finale, ”Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The next night, the circle remained unbroken, as the cast unveiled the new Opry, a $15 million palace outside of town. With its air-conditioning, high-tech equipment, and 4,400 padded seats, it bore little resemblance to the rickety Ryman. One singer said, ”We’re going from the barn to the house.”
The biggest news of opening night, however, was the appearance of a special guest: President Richard Nixon, taking refuge from the imbroglio of Watergate. After Acuff invited him to play the piano, Nixon, who had courted public approval in 1968 on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (”Sock it to me?”), allowed, ”I’m a little embarrassed to play that thing there.” Then, to the delight of the crowd, he pulled a yo-yo (Acuff’s trademark) from his pocket and added, ”I haven’t even learned to play with this thing!” Thoroughly enjoying himself, Nixon banged out ”My Wild Irish Rose” and ”Happy Birthday” on the eighty-eights for his wife, Pat, who was turning 62.
It was a rare moment of levity that year for the embattled Nixon, who in his 21 minutes on stage brightened visibly. ”I’ll stay here and try to learn how to use the yo-yo,” he laughingly suggested to Acuff, ”and you go and be President.” Then everyone sang as he played ”God Bless America.” Both he and the grand old hall went on to be pardoned: Spared the wrecking ball, the landmark Ryman is now a museum.
Time Capsule: March 15, 1974
Mel Brooks rode his Blazing Saddles into the theaters, and Terry Jacks’ tune ”Seasons in the Sun” topped the charts. Gore Vidal’s Burr was a best-seller, while All in the Family ruled the tube in its third season.