Everything Old is New Again – Open Air Movies in Albany

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzIn the past couple of years open air movies in the summer have become a “thing”. That got us thinking, and we found that they aren’t a new idea – far from it. They’re actually a revival of a craze from the early 1900s.

The first successful movie theater in the U.S. opened in 1905. By 1908 there were at least a half dozen or so makeshift “nickel theaters” (Nickelodeons) on S. Pearl St., Central Ave., Broadway and N. Pearl in Albany. Others quickly followed, when traditional theaters like Proctor’s on S. Pearl, Harmanus Bleecker Hall (where the Albany Public Library is today) and the Albany Grand Theatre (where the O’Brien Federal Bldg is now located) started to show photoplays (films) as well. But whether they were simply store front operations or theaters with velvet seats, they all had one thing in common, they were HOT HOT HOT in the summer without air conditioning.

Enter the entrepreneur to meet the need. The open air theatre craze swept Albany as it did the rest of the country. Open air theatres were cheap money makers. Much less capitol required for startup than traditional theaters and they could be located in areas far more accessible to Albany’s growing population as it spread out in the western parts of the city, above downtown.

Here’s the list of open air theatres (or air domes as they were sometimes called).
The Avenue – Clinton and Judson (a/k/a Clinton Park)
The Beaver Airdome – Morton Ave. opposite Beaver Park (Lincoln Park today)- between Eagle and S. Swan.
The Bijou –Central Ave near Quail (said to be the most popular)
The Boulevard Airdome – Northern Boulevard (Henry Johnson) and Sheridan.
The Central – 94 Central Ave (originally an old livery stable with many large doors and windows it opened to become an “open air theatre”) between Lexington and Henry Johnson Blvd.
The Family – 12 Central Ave, just above Lark, about where the Fuze Box is now
Hamilton Park – A corner of Hamilton and Grand
The Hillcrest – 103 Second Ave
The Idle Hour Park – Second Ave. between Raymo and Hurlbut – The granddaddy of open air movies in Albany. It was started in 1910 by 2 enterprising employees of the United Traction Company. It was favorite among the trade union crowd.

The Northern Boulevard – Clinton Ave and what is now Henry Johnson Boulevard.
The Open Air – N. Pearl and Columbia St. behind Lodge’s.
The Parkway – This was an indoor theatre with an attached open air theater, located in what is now Lark Tavern and laundromat next door)
And then there was the Regent Theatre on S. Pearl and Hamilton.. a marvel of technology, built in 1916. It was a combination indoor and open air theatre – it had six 12” x 12” opening in the ceiling that opened and closed via some sort of electric apparatus.

The venues were varied in terms of amenities and many improved over time. Some started with benches, a screen and a projector in a vacant lot. The Idle Hour had manicured lawns and flower gardens. It was “branded” by its red, white and blue and its fences were festooned with electric lights in those colors. Some were in a canvas tent; when the weather was nice the sides could be tied up to let in breezes, but could be closed. Others had brick walls. These theatres operated beyond the traditional months of May through September, and could be open as late as Halloween. The seating capacity varied – smaller theaters could accommodate only 400 patrons, while the Open Air Theatre on Columbia St. said it had room for 1,800 movie goers.

As the open air theatres thrived, they started providing piano and even band accompaniments for the silent films. Often young boys provided “sound effects” from behind the screen. Some offered concerts before the photoplays started. Concession stands offered ice cream, candy, soft drinks and pastries. In the chicest of the theaters, there were small café tables.

But almost as rapidly as the open air theatre craze started, it came to an end by about 1920, although some few managed to hang on. A number of factors lead to its demise. The novelty wore off. The land on which the theaters were located became too valuable for just summer entertainment and noise from the increasing numbers of motor cars and trolleys interfered with musical accompaniments and sound effects. And even through air conditioning did not become common in traditional theaters until the late 1920s, theater owners developed intricate and complex systems with huge fans and air exchanging devices to cool the air in the summer and lure customers back from open air theaters.

We’ve been unable to track down photos of Albany’s open air theaters, so we’ve provided some pictures of theaters across the country to give you an idea of what they probably looked like. In a couple of instances, we could readily identify the exact locations of the theaters in Albany, so we’ve also included Google map images to provide a sense of some of open air theatre locations.

zbijou prcotors l 1917 - 2282 1

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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