Ryman Debuts $14M Expansion

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is known around the world as the “mother church of country music,” but if there is one thing Museum and Tours Manager Joshua Bronnenberg wants you to take away from a visit, it’s this: The Ryman is also the home of the Hokey Pokey.

Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP
Nashville, Tenn.

A $14 million expansion that includes new exhibits and an introductory film opens to the public on Tuesday. They tell the story of the famed music venue beginning with its 1892 founding as the Union Gospel Tabernacle by born-again steamboat tycoon Tom Ryman, who wanted a place for traveling revivalists to preach.

The exhibits take visitors through the Ryman’s many years as a venue for world-famous artists including Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson to its three decades as home to the Grand Old Opry beginning in 1943.

“There were two American presidents here before the Opry was here,” Bronnenberg says. “Anna Pavlova danced here.”

And, yes, Ray Anthony recorded “The Hokey Pokey” here in 1952.

The $20 self-guided tour begins with an immersive film in a small, new upstairs theater. It is narrated by an actress playing Lula C. Naff, the Ryman’s promoter and manager from 1904 to 1955. Naff brought the famous acts of the day to the theater – performers such as Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Mae West as well as singers, dancers and Broadway shows.

After the film, visitors walk into the tabernacle itself, where glass cases behind the pews display artifacts including Johnny Cash’s Martin D-28 guitar and a dress worn by Loretta Lynn. The exhibits are arranged by theme and include their own videos narrated by movie actress Nicole Kidman; television broadcaster Robin Roberts; musicians Ricky Skaggs, Trisha Yearwood, and Marty Stuart; and Charles Esten, star of the popular “Nashville” television series.

The Ryman expansion took over part of an outdoor plaza without changing the original building. It includes a fast-casual restaurant with floor-to ceiling windows along three walls offering a view of the surrounding city neighborhood. There’s also a greatly expanded gift shop where visitors can make their own custom T-shirts and posters and listen to music before they buy it.

Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP
A woman walks past a statue of river boat captain Thomas Ryman outside the new entrance to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.

The Ryman is open for self-guided tours every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Backstage tours are available when they don’t conflict with the artists’ schedules and cost $27.50.