by Linda Center.
The Davidson County Chancery Court dockets located at Metro Archives are a little known and greatly underutilized resource for Nashville history. Established in 1836, Chancery Court for this district was held in Franklin, Williamson County, until 1846. In that year a separate court was created for Davidson County with Terry H. Cahal appointed as Chancellor. In 1997-1998 Archives staff and volunteers took on the task of cleaning, flattening, and indexing dockets dating from 1846 through 1865, and they were able to complete the first five years (through 1851). From those first 800 dockets staffers created a database of over 16,000 entries listing the names of the principals, along with their family members and slaves.
The dockets from these early cases, some of which continued for years, contain a wealth of details about daily life in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. The depositions, exhibits, and supporting papers are lively documents describing personal items of dress, toiletries, medicines, and sometimes even personal appearance. In the depositions themselves, which were phonetically recorded by the clerk, the speech patterns, pronunciations, and idioms of the day come through loud and clear. Many documents contain vivid descriptions of people, places, and buildings long gone. Consider the case of Gilman et al. vs. The Adelphi Theatre Company, filed April 23, 1851.
In 1850 the Adelphi company was incorporated by the state and proceeded to purchase property on North Cherry Street (today’s 4th Avenue). The major stockholders in the company were Anthony Vanleer, J. Walker Percy, and Hugh Kirkman. The company hired Adolphus Heiman to design a “costly and handsome edifice suitable for theatrical performances.” Timothy W. Gilman, of Gilman & Hughes, submitted his bid of $8,000 plus $200 in stock in the company, and he was selected to be chief carpenter and mechanic under Heiman’s supervision. Major Heiman’s design, completed at a cost of $25,000, was indeed handsome and included a two-story arched entrance which led to the brick-paved lobby. A ventilation system and other up-to-the-minute features were highlights of the plan. At the time, the theater was reputed to have the second largest stage in America.
Gilman found Heiman’s supervision arbitrary and his plans “so vague and indefinite as scarcely to form a basis for a contract and so frequently and repeatedly were they departed from when they were specific that they furnish scarcely a shadow of the work after it was completed.” In several instances, Gilman stated, “when the work had been done according to the original design said Heiman would change his plan have it pulled down taken away and something different put in its stead.”
The theater’s opening night, July 1, 1850, was a gala affair. The opening notice ran in the Republican Banner immediately following the Sexton’s report of burials in the city cemetery: five of the seven deaths had been caused by cholera. “The Theatre – Opens to-night . . . and we expect to see a large audience on hand . . . to see the interior of one of the prettiest and best establishments of the kind in the West or South.” Although, as the notice stated, it was not considered “an auspicious time to commence operations,” Nashville’s finest did indeed turn out for the premiere performance.
The epidemic struck with a vengeance that week. The Banner called for the entire city to limit or cancel July 4th celebrations and did not publish on July 5th, but the Adelphi opened every night of its first week.
In February 1851 after a successful campaign led by the local newspapers, P.T. Barnum was convinced to bring Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to sing in the shiny new theater. However, a third tier of box seats was deemed necessary to accommodate the anticipated crowds, and William Strickland was hired to design the added tier. Gilman & Hughes were once again chief carpenters. They agreed and bound themselves “to make the alterations and enlargements of the interior of the Adelphi Theatre according to the plan now furnished by W. Strickland as Architect…to be finished so it can be used comfortably on the night of the 31(st) March present, being the time fixed as the first concert to be given by Jenny Lind.” Gilman & Hughes charged $1,500 for their services: $1,000 from P.T. Barnum, $250 from the Adelphi Theatre Company, and $250 from ticket subscriptions by hotels and other businesses.
The company did not pay its debts in a timely fashion, and in April 1851 Heiman, Gilman, Strickland, and the other contractors sued. The depositions and bills give a vivid picture of the construction and finishing touches to the building. The court clerk’s copy of Heiman’s written “plan and specifications” describes “a ground story of 142 feet by 65 feet front on Cherry Street . . . with a room on each side of the main entrance of 19 by 23 feet, to be furnished with doors and side lights. All the doors of exit and entrance, are to be put upon pivots instead of hinges, so that they may be opened and shut in either way by any pressure from within or without.” All flooring, seats, doors, box fronts, and the roof shingles were “to be made of well-seasoned poplar.” The stage was furnished with four traps and two stairways leading to the rear of the stage from below.
Many of the leading businesses in Nashville filed claims against the theater company. A.G. Payne supplied the stone for the two-foot-thick foundation and completed the masonry work. Samuel Watkins finished the brickwork for $3,437.89. Painters Hutcherson & Flemming used paints purchased from Kirkman & Ellis Hardware – and what remarkable colors they were: sienna, yellow ochre, rose pink, Vandyke brown, Paris green, Prussian blue, Venetian red, chrome yellow, red, and green. From McNairy & Hamilton came books of gold leaf and gallons of lead and turpentine. Claiborne & Macey supplied braces, pulleys, plates, chains, hooks, and brackets. From W. & R. Freeman came gilt frames, yards of damask and gimp [ribbonlike braid or cord used to trim furniture or clothing], silk tassels, a pair of “curtain ornaments,” and 689 feet of gilt molding.
Chancellor A.O.P. Nicholson decreed that the theater should be sold at public auction to pay all debts against the company. Heiman, acting as agent for the creditors, offered the winning bid of $10,000. The property was to be “vested in them as tennants (sic) in common,” the share of each creditor to be in proportion to his claim against the company. After Heiman failed to “execute his notes,” the theater was again put up for sale. This time W.W. Wetmore made the winning bid, and the creditors were paid at last. William Strickland, as a Class III claimant, was paid only after all other debts were satisfied. He received $100 for his services.
In the 1870’s the ownership changed again, and the Adelphi became the Grand Opera House. The theater was gutted by fire in 1902, but the facade with its arched entry remained standing. The theater was rebuilt and opened once again in 1904 as the Bijou. Because other theaters and businesses on Church Street were drawing the crowds away from Fourth Avenue, the Bijou closed its doors in 1913. However, it was rescued one more time in 1916 when the Bijou Amusement Company opened it as the Bijou Theater for Negroes, one of a chain of theaters throughout the south.
The Bijou was a venue for movies, vaudeville shows, concerts, and boxing matches. Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey entertained to packed houses. Special nights were set aside for white audiences to hear blues greats like Smith and her sister Mamie with her band the Jazz Hounds. The tornado of 1933 lifted the roof and dropped part of it across the street. However, not a performance was missed, and under a temporary roof, the Bijou was open again the next day.
The Adelphi/Grand/Bijou Theater stood at 423 4th Avenue North for over one hundred years through bankruptcy, fire, and storms. In 1957 it fell to the wrecking ball to make way for the new Municipal Auditorium. (1998)