The Daily Pulse:

Elvis Costello, Tom Mix, and Tony

Elvis Costello, in his intuitive solo show Friday night, playing mostly acoustic guitars, sang a mixture of old favorites like "Veronica," "Watching the Detectives" (with an interesting loop effect), the still unusual non-repeating "Beyond Belief," and, in his final electric encore, "Alison" and "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding"--plus a few even longtime fans didn't expect, tributes to the recently deceased, from Jesse Winchester to Jerry Goffin. And, off-mike, a few bars of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" For those who've seen Costello several times, it was an unusual show.

In between songs, he told some long and fairly funny stories, some of them about his musical family. But he repeatedly remarked on the Tennessee Theatre, of which he's very fond, having played there with his band twice before in the last 10 years. Growing up, he remarked onstage, he never dreamed he'd get to play in the theater like it. And he performed his one preservationist song, the oddly wistful "Hoover Factory," almost as if it were in homage to the Tennessee, which is roughly the same era as that London-area art-deco landmark.

At least twice he alluded to a particular performer who preceded him on the Tennessee's wide stage: two in fact. "Tom Mix and Tony were here!" he reported, with more interest than the crowd seemed to share. "And not necessarily on the same night!" The prevailing combination of low murmur and perplexed silence in the room might suggest most in this 2014 audience might have missed the reference.

A legendary figure in early 20th-century America, Tom Mix was kind of a celebrity adventurer even before he became Hollywood's greatest cowboy star of the 1920s and early '30s. Known for his bigger-than-life stature and his giant cowboy hat, and his inseparable companion, Tony the horse, Mix sometimes made personal appearances up until his death in a car wreck in the Southwestern desert in 1940.

Mix was very well known in Costello's home of England, and made several trips there, with one of at least three horses that went by the name Tony. Mix appears in the celebrity crowd on the cover of the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

It's long been part of the lore of the Tennessee Theater that Mix himself appeared there, in its early days, and that he had his favorite horse onstage. In recent years, those who've supervised getting horses onstage via the freight elevator on State Street, never available before 2005, have had reason to be skeptical. Mix would have had to ride his horse in from Gay Street, through the lobby and theater, and climb the narrow steps on either side of the stage.

We know that Mix had been in Knoxville back in 1910, for the first Appalachian Exposition. One theory is that he might have appeared with Tony at the Bijou Theatre, where it might have been easy to get a horse onstage, from the Cumberland Avenue entrance, and that folks got that mixed up with the Tennessee show, which maybe never happened, at least not with the horse.

However, when technical director Tim Burns found a clue about a later date Tom Mix showed up in Knoxville, we nailed it down and looked it up. It's all true. Tom Mix, his personal horse Tony, and at least one, perhaps several other horses--not to mention Mix's wife and sister-in-law, and several professional cowboys--did appear on the Tennessee's stage in November, 1933. They did a total of eight shows at the Tennessee, an acrobatic rodeo presentation between movies. Meanwhile, the amiable Mix, who stayed at the Andrew Johnson Hotel for several days, talked to reporters and service organizations, fondly recalling his last trip to Knoxville, in 1910, when he claimed he stayed up late drinking moonshine at the Eagles' Club on State Street and poked around town mostly with his good pal Teddy Roosevelt. Which is actually plausible, because the former president was at the exposition, too.

Like Elvis Costello, his heroic, daring years behind him, Tom Mix had gotten to the point in his career that he mainly enjoyed making friends and telling good stories.

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