Albany Public Market and Westgate Plaza: An Immigrant Success Story

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Giuseppi Nigro -age 24 – and wife immigrated to America in 1904. They hit the ground running. In 1905, the Nigro family opened a little grocery store at 114 Green Street. Six years later, it moved “uptown,” to a space on the city’s outskirts, at 652 Central Avenue. J. Nigro & Son watched their quiet neighborhood grow into a busy hive of commerce, and grew with it.

2In 1929, Nigro’s became Albany’s first WGY Food Market, also incidentally purchasing the first cash register from Henry Kass.

In 1933, Nigro bought the next door property (formerly home to a diner) and incorporated as the Albany Public Market (650-652 Central Avenue). (That building still stands, now Aaron’s Rentals.)

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6Nigro had grander visions for his successful little supermarket, and in 1947 he broke ground for an ambitious new Albany Public Market at 711 Central Avenue.

The gigantic new airplane-hangar-sized store opened (October 26, 1948) with a barrage of local excitement. The superlatives weren’t mere hyperbole – it really was the “largest food department store in the world.” Boasting an unheard-of 22,000 square feet of floor space, a warehouse that could hold 70 freight carloads of food, its own bakery, and a three-acre parking lot capable of holding 1,000 cars, the complex was an immediate sensation. (Then-VP Frank Nigro expanded on the hangar idea, claiming the building – twice the size of Albany Airport’s largest hangar – would house two B-29 bombers with jet fighter escort.)

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9130947012_aa38bf8af5_bA decade later, Albany Public Market would become the cornerstone business at the new (Nigro-owned) Westgate Shopping Center, with a store twice the size of the previous location.

Nigro coined the word “Westgate,”after reading a newspaper article about how Central Avenue (the Albany Schenectady Turnpike) was gateway to the West. Westgate Plaza was on the leading edge of mall shopping; despite it being entirely within city limits, it was, as a 1957 article said, “on the outer fringes of Albany.” Once again, it properly claimed the title of largest food store in the United States. The 711 Central Avenue hangar became King’s Department Store (and later on, OTB Teletheater/Nick’s Sneaky Pete’s, before it was razed to make way for Shop Rite).

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Albany Public Market expanded over the next two decades, becoming the first largesupermarket chain in all of upstate New York. Constant advertising, smart publicity and clever promotions kept both Albany Public Market and Westgate Plaza highly visible to the shopping public. Every Albanian of a certain age remembers one stunt or another, be it Santa landing in a helicopter or a DJ broadcasting from atop the Westgate sign.

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Albany Public Market was purchased by Weis Markets of Sunbury, PA in 1967, retaining the Nigros as directors and managers.

Eventually, the Nigros began concentrating their energies into lucrative real estate and banking operations. Best I can tell, Albany Public Markets ceased to be sometime around 1984-5.

From Al. Quaglieri’s Albany blog, Doc Circe Died for OUr Sins

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So Albany: Grace Kelly, the Actor Whose Face You Know but Not his Name, Kirk Douglas and an Historic Building Becomes a Parking Lot

In January 1951 Grace Kelly came to Albany and stayed for month. She was cast in the romantic comedy, “Alexander” at The Playhouse during its Broadway try-out. The Playhouse was a repertory theater company in Albany on the corner of Chapel and Lodge. The manager and owner was Malcolm Atterbury (you may not know the name, but I KNOW you know the face).

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Malcolm Atterbury was born Philadelphia in 1907; son of W.W. Atterbury, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In his 20’s, he gave vaudeville a shot and managed a radio station. In the mid 1930’s he enrolled in drama school in NYC where he met a girl, Ellen Hardies, from Amsterdam, N. Y. They were married in 1937. Shortly after their marriage, they decided to establish a summer stock theatre in Lake Pleasant near Speculator. The Tamarack Playhouse opened in 1938. Over 4 years, the repertory theater established a solid reputation as an excellent training ground for aspiring actors, including Kirk Douglas and Karl Malden, and a summer place for working actors, like Sam Jafee (nominated for best supporting actor in “ The Asphalt Jungle”).

4With the advent of World War II, the Playhouse closed. Atterbury was declared 4-F and couldn’t serve. He and Ellen took the show on the road, entertaining the troops in military installations across the country (for which he received a commendation). Atterbury opened the Tamarack Playhouse for one more season in summer 1946, and then the Atterburys set their sights on Albany to which they had moved in 1944. Their dream was to establish an Actor’s Equity winter theater. In fall, 1946 the Atterburys purchased and renovated the old Capitol Theatre on Chapel and Lodge and named it The Playhouse.

The Playhouse was a great success when it opened in fall 1947. As the only winter Equity company in the country, it drew on a large pool of nationwide talent. One of the first resident actors was Cliff Robertson. Alas Atterbury and Robertson had “artistic” differences and Robertson was fired after 2 months, but offered a standing job anytime as a bartender at Farnhams Restaurant on the corner of Chapel and Maiden Lane (which became the gathering place for the cast and crew). In addition to a repertory stock company, The Playhouse served as a venue for road companies of Broadway shows and pre-Broadway tryouts of new productions. Malcom and Ellen acted frequently in the plays and even some musicals. He started teaching at the College of St. Rose in 1948 and lectured at other local colleges on a regular basis; Ellen worked with local college student and civic groups to stage productions. The Atterburys were evangelists of theater.

Grace Kelly

2Enter Grace Kelly. Kelly came to Albany to appear in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Alexander” at The Playhouse, produced by a close family friend. It was a chance for professional experience in a “modest, but highly respectable theater”. In later years, we of a certain age were told stories about the beautiful young (barely 21 year old) blond, whom no one knew, but everyone remembered sitting in the back booth of Farnham’s, drinking coffee and studying her script, her mink coat thrown casually over her shoulders to ward off the chill. During her stay in Albany, she was, by all accounts, just the way you would have expected– charming and reserved. But “Alexander “was not a success. Reviews of the first performances were mixed; the play had a complicated plot line and the dialogue needed polishing. By the second week of the run, it appears to have improved marginally after judicious editing. Grace caught the eye of a local reviewer opening night who referred to her as “competent” and a “tall, statuesque blond”. Alas, “Alexander” did not draw local audiences and NYC critics and producers failed to materialize. We know little about Grace in Albany; she was just another beautiful ingénue. But by October 1951, Grace had been cast in “High Noon” with Gary Cooper.

Back to The Playhouse -The Beginning of the End

The Atterburys became established members of the local community. The family first lived on the corner of Marion Ave. and Cortland St., in a house originally built for the President of the Huyck Mills. They sold that in 1949 and moved to Providence St. The children attended the Boy’s and Girl’s Academies. But as happens in Albany, the community’s interest waned and The Playhouse began to have financial troubles. Maybe Atterbury was a not so great businessman, maybe it was the new thing called television keeping people at home. By early 1952 Atterbury made it clear just how dire the situation was. A fund to support the theater, The Friends of the Playhouse, was established, with asistance from the Albany Times Union. Contributions were made; but not enough. By fall 1952 Atterbury announced the sale of The Playhouse theater. The building, constructed as a Presbyterian Church in 1813 and designed by Philip Hooker (Albany first and famed great architect), would be razed for a parking lot. The residence on Columbia St. was sold was well.

colonialMalcolm and Ellen Atterbury continued with their dream. The Playhouse moved to a much remodeled Colonial Theater on the corner of Central and Quail, and renamed the Colonial Playhouse. The Colonial was built as a movie house around 1914, but by the early 1950s had fallen on hard times. The 1952 ten week season began in January with a warm welcome from the Central Ave. merchants who were delighted to have the Colonial Playhouse in their midst. Things looked brighter. But by January 1953, financial issues continued to loom, but the show went on. One of the hits of the season starred an impossibly young Barbara Cook (still selling out a NYC theater in Spring 2016) in the Gershwin musical “Lady, Be Good!”

All good things come to an end. At the end of one of the last productions of the season, Malcolm Atterbury took the stage and announced the closing of the theater, after 7 years and 75 productions. Albany would not have a professional repertory theater company until 1981, when Capital Rep opened. (It claims to be Albany’s first professional resident theatre. Not so much.)

The Atterburys rebounded quickly. In May 1953 they were scouting for a home and making contacts in California. They moved from Albany by the end of summer 1953. By 1954 Atterbury had his first movie role in “Dragnet”. Although in his late 40s when he hit Hollywood, he made over 20 movies and acted in over 100 TV series until his death in 1992. Ellen continued acting from time to time; they were featured as a husband and wife on several episodes of “Wagon Train in the late 1950s. Ellen died in 1994.

Fun factoids:
•When Atterbury was on location with Cary Grant in the famous crop dusting scene in “North by Northwest”, a local man recognized Atterbury from a TV show the previous night, but had no idea who Grant was.
•Grant’s co-star, Eva Marie Saint, in “North by Northwest” is a 1942 graduate of Bethlehem Central High School.
•The Playhouse Actors Residence on Columbia St. was used by the Albany Senators baseball team in the summers.
•The Residence was designed by Marcus Reynolds who was the architect for the beautiful fire house on Delaware Ave and the D&H Building ( now SUNY HQ).
•Malcolm Atterbury was a Tulip Queen (and King, when there was one) judge several times.
•In an interview in the early 1960s with a local Albany newspaper columnist Kirk Douglas gave Atterbury credit for suggesting he change his name from Isadore Demsky.
•Per an interview with Kirk – he started out at the Tamarack Playhouse as a stagehand in 1938, but badgered Atterbury into letting him act in 1939. His first role was as a wrestler; type casting – Kirk wrestled at St. Lawrence when he was a student.
•Karl Malden and Kirk became lifelong friends at the Tamarack Playhouse. Michael Douglas co-starred with Karl Malden in the “Streets of San Francisco” in the early 1970s.
•One of Karl Malden’s first roles at the Tamarack Playhouse was in “Craig’s Wife”, a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Grace Kelly’s Uncle George. (Coincidence? We think not.)

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The End of the Albany Basin

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Somewhere around 1949, the Albany Yacht Club buildings were sold for use as a Naval Reserve Center, and the club started its move across the river to Rensselaer, with a temporary stop in the old Day Line facilities. By the mid-1940s the ice in the Hudson had taken its toll on the  Club pier and the municipal pier.

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3 (2)In 1954, the old basin would finally be filled in as work began on the riverfront arterial highway – I-787. On Nov. 9, 1954, workers started “with the preliminary task of tearing down the old Hudson River Day Line shed, an Albany landmark since the late 19th Century. Between now and next November, when the job is scheduled for completion, the contractor will fill in the old Albany Yacht Club basin for a 1,000-car municipal parking lot and build a ¾ mile stretch of four-lane concrete roadway from a point near the old Day Line landing north to the Livingston Ave. railroad bridge.”

As with all things Albany, the inconvenience for parking was a concern:

“The demolition and construction work will be a source of woe for scores of riverfront parkers, who will have to find somewhere else to leave their cars. Some of the cars that had been left near the Day Line shed today had to be moved by police for safety when the wreckers attacked the ancient ironwork with acetylene torches.”

The construction would involve razing buildings and building a stone dike in the river to straighten the shoreline from “the Quay st. bulge at Steamboat Sq. to the old Yacht Club pier, now occupied by the U.S. Navy as a Naval Reserve training center. The section between the present shoreline and the dike will be filled with stone and graded for parking space. At the same time the contractor will extend three city sewers, whose outfalls will have to be moved toward the middle of the river before grading for the roadway can begin.”

Those included the Columbia St. sewer, “which carries much of Albany’s rainstorm runoff from the downtown section,” and the Quackenbush sewer, near the north end of the project.

From a January 20, 2017 blog post  by  Carl Johnson  in Hoxsie.org  

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Bigger than the Beatles! America’s First Superstar!

 

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Hoppy to Albany: “You’re all swell.”

The biggest thing to happen in Albany in 1951 was the visit by movie and TV western star William Boyd, more commonly known as Hopalong Cassidy.

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The official crowd estimate was 31,000 spectators, causing Albany’s biggest traffic jam in history, backed up as far as Troy. Likewise, it represented the largest group ever assembled for a single event in this area.

5.5The celebration was held in two Menands venues: Hawkins Stadium (attendance 23,000) and nearby Empire Raceway (attendance 8,000). Fully half the youngsters were dressed in “Hoppy” attire, with lots of six-shooters in evidence. At both places, the complete Bar-20 Ranch Revue, with a cast of more than 30 juvenile stars, was presented under the direction of Tommy Sternfeld of WRGB.

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8Hopalong, atop his horse, Topper, was escorted into the stadium by a contingent of U.S. Marines. The Yankee Doodle Band and the Mount St. John Bugle and Drum Corps played.
Hopalong spoke: “I do want you Albanians to know that this is the biggest and happiest year of my life, and that you all contributed to it. I have been all over America, South America and Canada and I’ve never seen a finer bunch of people and kids.

“You know, you children seem better looking and better behaved than many I have seen. And I just want to say you’re all swell.”

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1The event was organized by the Times-Union, which gave away tickets via a daily coupon-collecting contest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Written and compiled by Al Quaglieri)

Recalling the Grocery Stores of Albany’s Past

The trick of time is that it passes slowly, and changes are incremental, so you can hardly notice it happening. The world of today looks mostly like the world of yesterday to us, and yet there have been a thousand little changes over the years that separate those worlds. When things change all at once, it seems a revolution, but when they change little by little, it just seems the passing of time.

Grocery stores are one example. Sure, 50 years ago, they were selling milk and meats, frozen foods and Cap’n Crunch, just as they are today. And yet everything about them has changed.

Grocery stores in the Capital District used to be numerous, to say the least. The 1870 directory for Albany alone listed 17 wholesale grocers. Retail grocers counted in the hundreds, at a time when Albany’s population was just about 70,000. In 1920, when Albany had 113,000 residents, there were 20 wholesalers and an even greater number of retailers, in every corner of the city.

Every neighborhood had several groceries in those days, and shopping for food was often a daily enterprise. The vast majority of these were small storefronts, usually the lower levels of residential buildings – you can often see reminders of them today, in places that long survived as neighborhood stores, as odd bump-outs on the fronts of brownstones, as enlarged entries and windows at the basement level.

Even when I was growing up in an older suburb in the ’60s and ’70s, they were still numerous. My first real job was working in one of them, one of the last of the high-quality butcher shops in the region, which was also a neighborhood grocery store.

Somewhere around the 1930s the supermarket concept was developed – a neighborhood store, but with more, and run by a central chain. There were A&P stores, and Grand Unions and Mohicans. For a while, there was a chain associated with the area’s seminal radio station, WGY Food Stores. But even as late as 1958, the chains barely had a hold. There was one A&P in Albany, one Albany Public Market, one Grand Union, four Empires, two Central Markets (later to become Price Chopper). Trading Post was the biggest chain in the city, with 5 locations.

The rest of the city’s shopping was done at small neighborhood stores with names like Gimondo, Femia, Sharkey Demaco, Rosenberg, and Tanski. Even the so-called supermarkets were very much part of their neighborhoods in those days, often repurposing previous buildings — such as the Central Markets location on Madison and Swan, which was built on the rather generous stone foundation of the Madison Avenue Second Reformed Church that had burned in 1930.

But with the move of population to the suburbs, the chains started to grow. Competition and demographics, and the willingness of Americans to drive absolutely everywhere rather than walk anywhere, contributed to bigger and bigger centrally-located, chain-owned stores, and the death of these tiny independents.

And the experience of shopping in them changed, too

The stores themselves aren’t the only thing about groceries that have changed. Almost everything else has, too, but in ways that are almost invisible. Everyone probably realizes that plastic grocery bags didn’t even used to exist, and that soda and milk came exclusively in glass bottles, and was all bottled nearby. Burlap has practically disappeared from anything but craft stores, but 40 years ago, potatoes, onions and oranges all came in burlap sacks. Meat was nearly always cut to order, and wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with string, rather than laid out on a foam tray and stacked in coolers. Even something as simple as a box of cereal isn’t the same as it was four decades ago. The box itself is infinitely thinner for both environmental and economic reasons. The bag that actually holds the cereal used to be a satisfyingly thick, crinkly wax paper that would sort of stay closed; now it’s a thin plastic film that never will. Very little food came in any kind of plastic container at all.

Prices were not on little paper stickers (if those still exist) or posted on the shelves – they were stamped onto the ends of cans and boxes with heavy blue ink using a price stamper – the stockboy (that’s what we were) would spin the numbers on the stamper to the correct price, press it against the ink pad, and then punch the stamper against the top of the can or box. (This is now so archaic that it’s hard to even Google search for it.) When the prices needed to be changed (and in the days of inflation in the 1970s, that was often), the stockboy would clean the price off the can with a rag and nail polish remover so the new (higher) price could be stamped on.

(In the store I worked in, by the way, the markup from wholesale was 40%, much higher than the chains. That might seem outrageous, but that was money that paid local workers, sponsored the store’s Little League team, and built wealth in the community, rather than sending it off to a corporate headquarters in a remote land.)

When you carried your groceries up to the register, there were no scanners. The check-out clerk had to enter each item’s price into the cash register. Unmarked items weren’t usually a problem – the clerk knew the price of most things. Your receipt had prices but only categories that would describe the items, such as “Gr” for grocery, “Pr” for produce, etc.

The most subtle change in grocery stores, as in most stores, is the ambient music. Whereas now you can expect the odd experience of hearing The Clash sing “Lost in the Supermarket” while you are, in fact, lost in the supermarket, real music in retail spaces didn’t happen until the 1980s. For decades before that, there was something called Muzak, and its ilk: light, syrupy string arrangements of almost-identifiable melodies intended to give no offense and to set no pulse to racing. As a customer, it was just there. As an employee, it could make you insane. In the days before the Walkman was invented, I learned to play entire albums in my own head, note for note, so as to drown out the cloying melodies of the Muzak.

Today, the Albany area is, depending on how you count, down to three or four grocery chains with multiple locations (not counting Walmart or Target). Only one of them, Price Chopper, is local. Very few of them are within any of the city limits, catering almost entirely to the suburbanites.

But with the trend toward more and more downtown living, some form of the neighborhood store will have to re-emerge. Personally, I just hope it brings back burlap.

By Carl Johnson from All Over Albany.com

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Albany Tulip Fest History 101: How did it start and when?

 

It sounds pretty straight forward. In summer 1948 the Albany Common Council enacted an ordinance establishing a tulip celebration in the City and the first Tulip Festival was held in May 1949. But the back story is way more than that and its origin lies in the horrors of World War II.

It started after D-Day in 1944 in Normandy. In September, 1944 the Allies launched Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands to try to capture several bridges in the center of Holland near Nijmegen. General James Gavin (82nd Airborne) was in charge of the parachute jump near Nijmegen. The Operation was not as successful as expected. (Cornelius Ryan’s book, “A Bridge Too Far” describes the mission in detail). Albany men were in the thick of it, but fighting alongside their liberators were the people of Nijmegen. There were many Allied and civilian casualties. Nijmegen (the oldest city in Holland) had already endured years of Allied bombings; the fighting that September finished the job. Military action continued in the area for another 2 months.
On the first anniversary of the battle in September 1945 General Gavin returned to Nijmegen. Conditions were dire.

3The city had been pretty much destroyed in battle of the previous year and the people who had been systematically starved during the Nazi occupation were still starving although the War was over. But they were lovingly tending the graves of their saviors, the Allied soldiers killed the year before.

2It was shortly thereafter, in October 1945, Mayor Erastus Corning received the following cablegram, sent by Sgt. Robert Higgins, (Tremont St.) on behalf of General Gavin.

“The 82nd Airborne Division was cited for gallantry by the people of Nijmegen, who expressed desire to be adopted by the people of Albany. Maj. Gen. Gavin, C.O. is in sympathy with this request and has expressed desire to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion. I am a native son of Albany.”

From what we can tell, General Gavin decided the courageous people of Nijmegen needed help and Albany was going to provide it. Why Albany? Was it just random? Nijmegen’s most famous native son was Brant Van Slichtenhorst who had lived in Beverwyck (Albany) in the 1640s when he was director of the holdings of the colony of Rensselaerwyck. (Today Nijmegen’s most famous native son is Eddie Van Halen.) Other explanations have been offered: it was Albany G.I.’s who asked Gavin, it was the legend of Mayor Corning’s brief, but apparently distinguished wartime career. Whatever. Gavin picked Albany and Albany it would be.

There was then a letter from General Gavin to the Mayor, in which he described the bravery of the people of Nijmegen and said there was no people more deserving of assistance from Albany.

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6So Albany adopted Nijmegen and she became our sister city. We sent the people who had nothing what we had, despite the fact we were still under rationing. We sent clothes and food and everyday items we took for granted, like chess sets, books and hammers and shovels. The first donations were collected and shipped in late 1945 and continued throughout 1946, with HUGE campaign in April, 1947.

 

 

5 (2)Delegations from Nijmegen (and General Gavin) visited Albany and the citizens of Albany visited Nijmegen. Every attempt was made to link the people of Nijmegen and Albany. We re-immersed ourselves in our Dutch culture along the way.

 

 

 

7And the people of Nijmegen who had nothing, learning of a tulip famine in the US, sent us what they had: 21,000 tulip bulbs. As the Dutch envoy said, “Although you receive only a tulip bulb for your generous gifts, because my people have no more to give, this flower comes right out of their hearts and its beauty expresses their deep gratitude.”

But the horrendous conditions in Njimegen continued and its people were still going hungry. By early 1947 most food rationing in the U.S. had ended and Albany launched one last major campaign in April. The honorary chair was General Gavin. The people of Albany gave; we literally sent a boatload.

 

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8In the process of helping the people of Nijmegen we re-connected with our Dutch roots and fell under the spell of the tulip. The City established a Tulip Committee. Spring displays citywide rivaled their pre-War glory. In spring 1948 we asked the Queen Wilhelmina of Holland to designate variety of tulip to be Albany’s official flower. She choose the “Orange Wonder”, a Mendel strain of tulip first cultivated in 1934. (It’s now also known as the “The Tulip of Albany”.)

 

 

20400339595_5f7a225086_bThe upshot of this “Tulip Mania” was a suggestion by the City Editor of the Knickerbocker News, Charlie Mooney, that Albany establish a Tulip Festival. We were off and running. The first tulip festival was envisioned as merely displays of tulips. By the time the first Tulip Festival was held in 1949 we established the traditions we know have now, more or less. There was the election of a Tulip Queen (and a Tulip King and Tulip Princess and Prince- the latter members of tulip royalty fell by the wayside in the early 1950s), festivities in Washington Park and a re-connection with our Dutch roots.

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Labor Day 2017 – the Faces of Albany Labor; We Built This City

If  you want to see more pics, take a deep dive in our Flickr site: AlbanyGroup Archive

 

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