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The Parthenon Nativity

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From 1954 to 1967 the Nashville Parthenon was the backdrop to a life-size Nativity. (Photo courtesy the City of Nashville.)  
 
Before leaving Centennial Park and the Parthenon for Nashville's other famous attraction, Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, I sit on a park bench, in the shade.

I wonder what my childhood hero, the time-traveler Alkis, would make of the magic box I take out of my camera case: my Mac powerbook. I log onto the Web via Centennial Park's WiFi network, and, with the Parthenon in full view, I begin to blog.

Later, in the heart of downtown, a short trip from the Parthenon, I reach what is known as the Mother Church of Country Music. It may come as no surprise that the Ryman Auditorium was orinally built, in 1892, as a tabernacle. But after the sermons came the plays — Sarah Bernhard, Rudolph Valentino, Tallulah Bankhead, Bela Lugosi, Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Katharine Hepburn — and then the music — Enrico Caruso, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline.

Perhaps the Goddess Athena interceded in my behalf, because I was surprised to find myself in the second orchestra row — front and center — for a sold-out performance of "Always… Patsy Cline." So close to the Ryman historic stage, and lost in thoughts of all the greats who appeared on it, I was startled to hear, "Are you enjoying Nashville?"

A middle-aged woman to my left must have spotted my camera and its long lens, and pegged me as a tourist. "Yes, very much," I reply. "Especially the Parthenon!"

She introduces herself as Ballah, and tells me that she and her sister Wanda, who's seating next to her, loved to visit the Parthenon as children.

"Oh, she says, especially at Christmas, to see the Parthenon Nativity!"

That did it. The Parthenon, and a Nativity? I couldn't believe my ears — and I had to hear more.

"The Nativity was enormous," Wanda says, "with life-size figures and two-story palm trees. And all those colorful, twinkling lights, mirrored in the pool in front of the Parthenon…"

"It had to be over 300-feet long, almost 100-feet deep," Ballah says. "Don't you think so, Wanda?"

"Yes, it was big," Wanda says," made of plaster, and sponsored by Harvey's Department Store before they closed."

 
The Parthenon Navitivity's life-size, 3-D figures, soaring Gothic arches, and myriads of lights — including the Star of Bethlehem — photographed with the temple of Athena as a backdrop. (Photo courtesy the City of Nashville.)  
 
Unfortunately, my new friends tell me, by 1967 the plaster figures needed major renovation, and the Parthenon Nativity was sold to a Cincinnati shopping center. It was exhibited for a couple views, before disappearing from view.

What a shame. Historic photos, like the ones shown on this page, show a display to match the epic proportions of the Parthenon, not to mention the colossal statue of Athena housed within. The Parthenon Nativity was almost as long as one of the Parthenon's sides, and exhibited in tableaux that told the Christmas story. In the center, Joseph and two kneeling shepherds flanked Mother and Child who were crowned with lighted halos (see photo at left).

"I know we have a photo of us in front of the Parthenon Navitiy," somewhere, Ballah says, when I explain my interest in the Navitity. "If I find it, I'll send it to you."

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