Mar 13, 2023 - News

Remembering Lula Naff, the woman who redefined the Ryman

Lula Naff sitting at her desk.

Lula Naff. Photo: courtesy of the Ryman Auditorium

In 1915, Lula Naff stepped out of her office at the Ryman Auditorium and saw smoke billowing from the stage. She ran out into the street to pull an alarm that alerted firefighters, who extinguished the blaze before it destroyed the building.

  • Naff quickly assembled a crew to mop up water in the pews and blocked off part of the stage so the evening's show could proceed as planned.

That wasn't the only time Naff stepped in to save the Mother Church.

Why it matters: Naff worked for the Ryman for more than half a century, from 1904-1955. During that time, she revived its flagging finances and built it into a nationally renowned destination for musicians and entertainers of all stripes.

Driving the news: Her work is front-and-center at the Ryman — an actress playing Naff speaks to guests before tours. The auditorium recently drew more attention to her impact with an Instagram post on International Women's Day.

  • March is Women's History Month, which offers an opportunity to reflect on the women who shaped our city.
  • Women on stage have always made Music City sing, but Naff is one of many women who have powered the industry from behind the scenes.

Flashback: Naff started her tenure at the Ryman as a secretary and bookkeeper for the auditorium's booking agency. In 1913, after the agency dissolved, she convinced the board to allow her to rent the building and book acts herself.

  • At the time, the auditorium had largely focused on revivalists and the "lyceum circuit," which included small acts like traveling magicians and puppeteers. She was instrumental in reimagining the building's potential. Under her leadership, the Ryman shifted to booking bold-faced names that lured bigger audiences downtown.
  • Before women had the right to vote, Naff established herself as a prominent force in the touring industry.

The intrigue: Museum curator Joshua Bronnenberg tells Axios the Ryman's board was "hemorrhaging money" until Naff took over and turned things around. She was officially hired as the Ryman's general manager in 1920.

Between the lines: Naff was the key architect of the Ryman's legacy. She brought the Grand Ole Opry there in 1943.

The bottom line: As Bronnenberg says, "there would be no Ryman without Lula."

  • She was inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame in 2017.

Read more of Naff's story from the Ryman

📬 Let us know: Are there other women you would like to see featured as Women's History Month continues?


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