Southern Voice: Lisaann Dupont 

The following is a speech that Lisaann Dupont wrote and delivered when Lula Naff was posthumously given a star at Nashville’s Music City Walk of Fame in September 2017. It is reprinted with permission from the writer.

The Ryman’s rich legacy begins with an unlikely figure: a young, small-town secretary with a keen business sense and an unsinkable drive to succeed.

Mrs. Lula Clay Naff is responsible for a thriving half-century of the Ryman’s history in an era when women rarely took the reins in business. She was tough, determined, shrewd and capable; by the end of her career she would come to be known as America’s First Lady of theater management.

America’s First Lady of theater management, Lula Clay Naff | Image: The Ryman Auditorium Facebook

Born in Fall Branch, Tennessee, Lula found herself widowed at a young age. She quickly finished business school and took a job with a Johnson City talent agency as a secretary. When the company relocated to the rapidly growing city of Nashville in 1904, Lula went with it. Before the age of 30, she was given the task of booking speaking engagements, concerts and other attractions into the renamed Ryman Auditorium.

Lula’s time with the venue would outlive her talent agency employer by decades. When the company dissolved in 1914, she seized the opportunity to work directly with the Ryman. She took a bold risk and leased the entire building as an independent agent in an era when women didn’t even have the right to vote. Lula filled the pews night after night with audiences hungry for the biggest names in music, theater and entertainment. In 1920, the board of directors formally recognized her talent and dedication, hiring Lula to directly manage the space full time.

Under Lula’s leadership, everyone who was anyone played the Ryman. From Katharine Hepburn to Harry Houdini, Bob Hope to the Ziegfeld Follies and countless others, the list of legends is an impressive “who’s who” of the era. Her vision for the Ryman was strategic and ever-evolving, branching out to include boxing matches, livestock auctions, political debates and more. She made the Ryman a success by bringing people of Nashville what they wanted to see and hear, and we honor her commitment to distinctive programming more than a century later. She had a reputation for standing up for what she believed in, fighting censorship groups in court and welcoming diversity onstage and off. In 1943, she famously agreed to let the rowdy Grand Ole Opry show put down roots in the Auditorium, and the show filled her Saturday nights — and the nation’s airwaves — with music and comedy for the rest of her career and beyond.

Lula Naff, circa 1950 | Image: Nashville Public Library

The handsome Bob Hope signed this headshot just for Lula. Image: WNPT

Lula was named Manager Emeritus when she retired in 1955, succeeded by her longtime assistant, Mr. Harry Draper. Her vision, tenacity and work ethic did more than lay the foundation for the auditorium’s success; Lula planted, nurtured and grew a special kind of entertainment magic in the Ryman that lives on today.