423 4th Avenue North,
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Previously operated by: Bijou Amusement Company
Firms: Okel & Cooper
Located on the West side of 4th Avenue North, midway between Gay Street and Charlotte Avenue. Built in 1904 by Jake Wells on the site of the former Adelphi/Grand Opera House. The Bijou Theatre was opened on September 14, 1904 as a stock company playhouse for white family patronage. Seating was provided for 1,642 in orchestra, two balconies and boxes. It never did well in its 4th Avenue neighborhood which was then becoming increasingly African-American, and Wells closed the theatre in 1913, putting it up ‘For Sale’.
In 1916 Michael & Milton Starr first leased the vacant theatre, and purchased it the following year, where under Milton’s management it was converted into a movie theatre for exclusively African-American patronage. Milton and later Alfred Starr built up a chain of some 45-50 theatres throughout the South, under the name Bijou Amusement Company. The Bijou Theatre became the Nashville flagship of the Bijou Amusement Company, one of the first African American theatre chains in the south. Stage acts were booked through TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association). From 1923 to 1925 Bessie Smith appeared regularly at the Bijou Theatre. At a midnight matinee in 1926 the Bijou Theatre became a segregated theatre when Milton Starr allowed whites to sit on the main floor and directed African-Americans to sit in the balcony. Ethel Waters also appeared here as did “Ma” Rainey, and in the 1930’s Count Basie performed on the stage. In its later years it was operating with 800-seats, possibly by closing one or both of the balconies & boxes. For close to forty years, the Bijou Theatre featured both live performance and film until it was razed in 1957 for construction of the new Nashville Municipal Auditorium.
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