The legendary manager of the Ryman Auditorium, the largest music venue in Nashville, TN, and the first woman to hold this position.
Lula Clay spent her childhood in Johnson City, Tennessee. At age 17, she married Charles Naff, who died a few years later. At 25, a widow raising an infant daughter, she registered to business school. Three days after graduation, she found a job as a stenographer at a local talent agency. Over time she got promoted to a secretary, and when the company relocated to Nashville, she followed it and moved there. At the age of 39, she was appointed as the operator of the agency.
Naff was familiar with the Ryman Auditorium, back then mostly a religious venue, and she recognized its potential as an entertainment hall. In a time when women didn’t have the right to vote, Naff leased the auditorium for the acts of the talents at the agency, and after the agency dissolved and she became an independent agent, she took a risk and leased the entire building.
Over time, she gained a reputation as an agent and booked some of the biggest names in music, Opera, theater, and entertainment. In 1920, the venue was taken over by the Ryman Auditorium Improvement Association, and she was appointed to the manager of the auditorium, a position she served for 35 years, and that she was the first woman to hold. Under her management, she expended the purpose of the venue, branching out to different kinds of entertainment, including boxing matches, political debates, and livestock auctions. The auditorium hosted the best performers of the era, such as Harry Houdini, Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Barrymore, and Will Rogers. After more than 50 years working with the Ryman, 80 years old Naff retired. She passed away 5 years later.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She used the name L.C. Naff to avoid criticism and bias in a male-dominated industry.
- To book her first act at the Ryman, she mortgaged her house to pay $3,000 that the singer required as a guarantee.
- In 1943 she made history when she added the rowdy Grand Ole Opry show to the Ryman. The show sold out week after week and kept performing in the auditorium for 31 years.
- She fought in court for the rights to stage the play Tobacco Road, which was considered immoral and sensational. She won.
- The bar connected to the venue was named in her honor.