The Nashville Theatres of 1900

by Dave Price.

Although several researchers have written parts of the story, a comprehensive history of Nashville’s theaters has not yet been written. Nor will that ponderous task be undertaken by this scribe; but as we approach the year 2000, it might be of interest to look briefly at the local theater scene as it existed a century ago, with a few comments on the later history of our turn-of-the-century theaters.

Four venues could be classified as theaters in the Nashville of 1900, two that were built as such and two others that had been adapted to serve the purpose: the Grand Opera House, the Masonic, the Vendome, and the Union Gospel Tabernacle, often simply called “the Auditorium.”

The oldest of the four would be the Grand Opera House at 431 North Cherry Street (today’s Fourth Avenue), whose entrance was not far from the present-day entrance to the former Municipal Auditorium. The Grand had opened July 1, 1850, as The Adelphi, amid much publicity, spoken of as one of the finest playhouses in the South. This theater operated under many names and managements as the Nashville, the Gaiety, May’s Grand, Milsom’s, and possibly others. By 1900 it had been occupied for six years by the Boyle stock company, Tony J. Boyle, proprietor, presenting occasional vaudeville shows.

The next in age would be the Masonic. The Old Masonic Hall at 422 Church Street – that is to say, on the north side of Church behind the Maxwell House – had been rebuilt in 1859-1860 to include a theater, which over the years had been called Jenny Wilmore’s, the Bijou, the New Masonic, and finally, toward the end of the nineteenth century, simply the Masonic. In 1900 it was under the very capable management of William A. Sheetz, who was also a long-time fixture at the Vendome. Before long, Mrs. Boyle of the Grand would take over management of the Masonic and announce that she was booking “shows that have been shut out of the syndicate,” a reference to the Vendome’s use of the attractions of Klaw and Erlanger, a New York booking and management concern with a secure grip on much of the dramatic theater business of the day.

The Vendome – facing the Capitol from the south side of Church midway between High and Vine – had opened October 2, 1887, as a truly first-class playhouse. One of the stockholders was J. Oliver Milsom, who was to manage the Vendome for a time and, as mentioned above, briefly gave his name to the Grand when he managed that theater.

These three locations primarily showed “legitimate theater,” that is to say, dramatic productions or plays. Vaudeville had had a somewhat sporadic presence locally, and moving pictures had not yet come to Nashville. (However, their arrival was not far off: the Vendome was trying out “Vitagraph Matinees” by late 1901, and in 1902 the Grand began showing “Biograph Views”)

The story of the Union Gospel Tabernacle is well known, and we shall not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that it was erected on Summer Street (now Fifth Avenue) just north of Broad by a local group under the leadership of riverboat magnate Tom Ryman after his conversion by noted evangelist Sam Jones. Not until Ryman’s death in 1904 was the building called Ryman Auditorium, but by 1900 it was being called “the Auditorium” and was advertising lyceum programs, which term may need some explanation to today’s readers. The lyceum was somewhat related to the traveling Chautauqua movement, except that it took place indoors rather than in tents. An auditorium could book a series of programs of a more-or-less educational nature which varied from temperance lecturers and choral groups to the occasional play or operatic production, or which might even include such a novelty performance as that of a very refined magician. De Long Rice, a later manager of the Auditorium, managed a bureau of lyceum attractions at the same time and frequently booked his clients at the Auditorium.

The Vendome burned in 1902. An interesting sidelight to the fire is that manager Billy Sheetz attempted to lease the Masonic, by then under Mrs. Boyle’s management, for the attractions he had booked for the Vendome, but she turned him down. The Auditorium subsequently offered to let the attractions play there . . . but only under their own management. The managers of the next few Sheetz-booked shows took the position that their contract with Sheetz was voided when his theater burned. Some then played the Masonic, and others appeared at the Auditorium on their own terms, cutting Sheetz out of the picture! Not one to overlook a snub, the scrappy Billy Sheetz reopened the Vendome before the end of 1902 with a guaranteed hit: Al G. Field’s Minstrels.

Al G. Field, born Alfred Griffin Hatfield, worked for the Sells Bros. Circus 1875-1884, organized what would become the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1884, and opened his eponymous minstrel show in 1886. When he died in 1921, leaving the show to his brother Joseph E. Hatfield, his estate was valued at $150,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today).

After the Grand also burned in 1902, the Boyle stock company moved to the Masonic, taking the name of the Grand along with them. The Masonic promptly began to be called the Grand (or on occasion the “Little Grand”). In 1904 a new theater, the Bijou, would be erected on the former Grand site by Jake Wells, an enterprising sort who, among other things, once managed the Birmingham Barons, a Chicago Cubs farm team.

Older readers may recall the Bijou, which in 1916 became one of the South’s leading theaters for African American audiences, and which lasted until it was demolished during the winter of 1957-1958 for the construction of the Municipal Auditorium.

The new Grand (Masonic) was vacated for theatrical purposes in 1914, and the property was sold in 1915 to Joe Fensterwald, who demolished the building and erected the steel and concrete edifice that was to house Burk and Company. The fiction that Burk’s occupied the former Masonic building has been repeated too many times (even in print!) for us to convince anyone otherwise at this late date. The Masonic lodge moved to a new location on Seventh Avenue North, where many of us recall the majestic lions guarding its portals. It stood next to the Clarkston Hotel and behind the War Memorial Building.

In 1920 the Vendome became Loew’s Vendome (or as time went by simply “Loew’s”) and presented both moving pictures and vaudeville shows. Several years later Loew’s entered into an agreement with movie king Tony Sudekum whereby his Princess Theater down the street became the only “vaude” house in town and Loew’s got the pick of the first-run movies.

Loew’s burned again in 1967 and this time was not rebuilt, a signal that the Church Street of our youth was disappearing. For years thereafter one could walk through the old Loew’s lobby to the parking garage that occupied the site of the theater auditorium. In the mid-1980s all that was wrecked for the building of Church Street Center, and you saw what happened to that!

You will read elsewhere that the Ryman was Nashville’s only playhouse after the Vendome became Loew’s, but those reports ignore the importance of the 1910 Orpheum, which booked dramatic roadshows for most of its almost thirty years. Parenthetically, we should also mention what older Nashvillians already know: namely, that during the Depression the Edward Bellamy Players went broke at the Orpheum, and Mrs. Inez Bassett Alder bought the props and wardrobe for the Hume-Fogg dramatic department. The Ryman, of course, is the only survivor of our 1900 quartet and is again presenting live stage attractions as these lines are being penned. (1999)

Biography of Charles Henry Ryman (1809-1879)

by Jeanne M. Johnson.*

Charles H. Ryman was the eldest of the four Ryman brothers of Nashville, Tennessee. The others were William (ca. 1814 – bef. 1872), John (1819-1864), and Francis “Frank” (ca. 1824-1866). The well-known steamboat captain Thomas G. Ryman (1841-1904), owner/operator of the largest Cumberland River steamboat company, was Charles’s nephew, the fourth of his brother John’s six children. The Ryman Auditorium (former home of the “Grand Ole Opry”) was named in recognition of Tom’s civic contributions to the city of Nashville.

The Ryman Auditorium (postcard image from NHN collection)

The exact birthplace of the Ryman brothers is unknown, but census records do establish their origins in the state of Tennessee. The brothers spent their entire adult lives in Nashville, raising families and running businesses for many decades. No one knows exactly when the Ryman family first came to the River City. The 1830 Federal census for Davidson County includes the name of the possible patriarch of the family, Frederick Reinman. An earlier Sumner County census (1820) includes a possible variation of Frederick’s name, Ferdinand Rhyneman, suggesting that the family may have lived in neighboring Sumner County before moving to Nashville. Many variations of the Ryman surname can be found in Davidson County records, including “Rimon” and “Rineman.” The fact that Charles could not write may have contributed to the various spellings that county officials used in recording his surname.

The earliest official Davidson County document to name Charles Ryman was the record of his marriage to Prudence Mary V. Reddick (1818-1874) on June 22, 1834, in Nashville. Five years later Charles was listed in the 1839 Davidson County tax lists. One year after that, his name appeared as “C. Rineman” in the 1840 Federal census of Ward 6.

Several members of the Ryman family worked as riverboat captains (photo from NHN collection)

Charles Ryman’s occupation in 1850 and 1860 Federal census records of Nashville was listed as “steamboat captain.” According to biographies of Thomas G. Ryman, Tom’s Uncle Charlie helped pilot 26-year-old Tom’s first steamboat to Nashville in 1867 after its purchase in New Orleans. Although Tom did not have a pilot’s license at that time, his uncle did. Charles’s occupation according to every Nashville city directory from 1855-1868 was “steamboat captain,” “river captain,” or “steamboatman.” Then, from 1870 until his death in 1879, his occupation was listed as “grocer” or “grocery.” The year after Charles’s death, his widow continued to be listed in the 1880 census as “grocer.” It appears that Charles retired from his physically demanding work on the river to become the proprietor of a grocery store. The grocery store may well have been an ongoing family business: younger brother Frank, who was living with Charles, according to the 1855-1857 Nashville city directories, was also listed as a “grocer.” Failed attempts to locate the possible parents of the Ryman brothers after the 1830 census make it likely that Charles raised and supported Frank and continued to play a parental role throughout his youngest brother’s life. Matrimonial records named Charles as Frank’s bondsman in his marriage to Matilda Akin in 1844.

Charles and his first wife Prudence were childless throughout their 40-year marriage. When Prudence died on December 31, 1874, at the age of 56, the 65-year-old Charles wasted no time in marrying the much younger Kate Dailey/Daly (b. 1843 in England) seventeen weeks later on May 6, 1875. Kate and Charles were united for four years before Charles’s death from “exhaustion,” as listed in the Tennessee mortality schedule. Even so, Charles still managed to outlive his three younger brothers.

The widow Kate’s son, John Dailey/Daly (b. 1864), was living with her at the time of the 1880 Federal census, indicating that her surname when she married Charles was likely from a former marriage. In her will, dated December 10, 1874, Charles’s first wife Prudence M. V. Ryman left all her personal and real property to “my husband Charles H. RIMON.” Charles later deeded to Kate several pieces of real estate that may first have belonged to Prudence – but with the stipulation that, if their marriage ended in divorce or her death, the deeds would revert to Charles. Charles’s will left all his properties to Kate with no conditions attached. She sold the real estate to her son John E. Daly and held the mortgage herself. On February 20, 1893, she recorded the release of the mortgage in the margin of the deed and signed it as “Mrs. Kate Caulfield née Kate Ryman.” [This was technically incorrect – “née” means “born as,” and Ryman was, of course, Kate’s married name, not her maiden name.] However, the new surname led this researcher to find an 1890 Davidson County marriage record for Mike Caulfield and Kate Ryman.

*From the historical research of Jeanne M. Johnson and Ella Ryman Hauser.