For me, the restaurant and nightclub portion will always be The Arena. That’s what it was from the mid-1970s to at least the sometime in the 1980s. I was young then. As a business location, the site was I guess about middle aged. When I first visited the then-relatively-small bar and dance floor area I wasn’t old enough to legally be in the place. Nineteen was the legal drinking age back then. I hit that 1982. I haven’t pulled out any old journals to check dates, but I bet some of my most fun times were before I turned legal. Maybe because after a soft start it became more and more challenging to get in. When I was in high school my friend Tami’s mom knew the couple that were chef and manager. They would allow Tami’s mom to bring her in, knowing Tami wanted to dance, not drink. I became a tag-along, same rules. But they moved out of state. A pattern started. The patient but stern matron trying to track the comings and goings to the bar/disco room always had her eye out for me. I think her name was Joyce. I’m sure she did a happy dance the day I turned 19 and she didn’t have to hear my latest rationale for why I was OK to enter.
My best memories include: first place I danced with an older, cooler-than-me girl and under a disco ball; white-tablecloth dinner celebrations in the Candlelight Room; and singing “Singing in the Rain” with a Hitchcock blonde who decided to boost my confidence throughout my freshman year of college, as we jumped and danced through every puddle in the parking lot as we departed one rainy evening. Worst memory: coming out the door at closing time with my friend Pam S., she a bit tipsy, hanging onto me in a very low-cut dress and each of us toting wine and liquor bottles (it was her birthday and those were gifts and unopened). Doesn’t sound bad? Well, it wasn’t until I realized in the distance the car parked next to mine was my dad’s ‘67 Dodge Dart. And he wasn’t alone. But Mom let him do all the talking. “Are y’all having a good time?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “I was just about to drive her home.” “I don’t think so. We’ll all drive her home then come back and your mom will drive your car home.”
I just want to take a moment to share some history of the property, which apparently a lot of folks don’t recall. At one time, it wasn’t the “eyesore” some call it today. It was actually a bit of a gem for Kingsport.
• In September 1959, despite some neighborhood opposition from Sevier Terrace residents, the city approved rezoning the property to allow the owner to develop it as a hotel and restaurant. And it wasn’t just any hotel and restaurant.
• In August 1962 a Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and Howard Johnson’s Restaurant opened on the site. Howard Johnson’s eateries covered America’s roadsides in the 1950s and 1960s, and were known for their 28 flavors of ice cream and fried clam strips, among other wholesome fare. If you look at the Hog Wild complex today, its beginnings as a HoJo restaurant are evidenced by the section with the large windows fronting East Stone Drive. What later became a banquet facility (later joined by a small bar and dance floor) and ultimately a nightclub didn’t exist in 1962. Neither did the L-shaped hotel addition behind it.
• On November 9, 1964 an advertisement in the Kingsport Times announced “One of your neighbors, Margaret Anderson, of Kingsport, is in LIFE magazine this week!” Anderson, then a 22-year-old desk clerk was credited with “helping a little runaway girl become reunited with her frantic parents” and had been recognized by the Howard Johnson’s Spotlight Award Program.
• Just over two years later a news article bore the headline “Howard Johnson’s Leaves Kingsport Scene.” That December 16, 1966 piece noted “Today the restaurant became Shoney’s No. 2 and the name of the motor lodge has been changed to Tennessee Motor Lodge.” It noted both buildings lost their Ho-Jo trademark cupolas and speculated some locals would likely miss “those 28 flavors.” My brother-in-law Larry Fagans remembers Shoney’s, but thinks it didn’t last long in the grand scheme of things and soon was just the hotel’s diner.
• In 1971 the hotel added 50 new rooms (cost $500,000) with the two-story L-shaped section behind the restaurant. At that the lodging portion of the business was a member of Best Western Motels. A new article described the addition as having “Roman architecture” and went to great detail to explain exactly what a water bed was because each of the new rooms featured king-sized beds and some were waterbeds.
• On January 9, 1972 the “Tennessee Motor Lodge Restaurant and Candle Light Room” held its grand opening (reservations required for the Candle Light Room). Having been gutted and completely redecorated since being a Shoney’s, a news article a month later noted, the restaurant now has a French chef (who could whip up 40 different soups) and his pastry-chef wife and the menu included prime rib and live lobsters, soon to be joined by “flaming shis kabobs.”
• In July 1975 the Tennessee State Aerie Fraternal Order of Eagles was granted a state license for liquor-by-the-drink, under a lease agreement between that private group and Arena Company. It was the first such license (those granted to private clubs like the Eagles) to bring liquor-by-the-drink to Kingsport, according to an article published that week. It allowed the facility to be open to the public prior to 3 p.m. Between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. it was a private facility open only to Eagles members and their guests.