Albany’s Empire Theater

The Empire Theatre on State St., above South Pearl St. in the early part of the 20th century.
It was the biggest and most popular burlesque and vaudeville (but mostly burlesque) theater in Albany, from about 1900 to the early 1920s.

And it was one of the two theaters where you could see Yiddish Theatre. (The other was Harmanus Bleecker Hall – Albany Public Library is in that location today.) Albany had one of the largest Jewish populations in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some estimates put it between 15% – 20% of the total population of the city.

By 1900 this large immigrant population came from eastern Europe (Poland, Rumania, Czechlosovakia) and Russia. But the immigrants shared a common cultural language – Yiddish. Large Yiddish theatre and opera companies came up to Albany from New York City at least once a month.
The early 20th century burlesque shows included beautiful girls, scantily clad, but mostly, like vaudeville, they were broad farce. (Not strippers.) You could still laugh at the slapstick and admire the beauty and dancing even if your ability to speak English was limited. And if you spoke English, so much the better.
The Empire hosted huge stars. Before Fannie Brice became a Ziegfield Girl she came to Albany in “The College Girls”  And this is where she met and married her first husband, Frank White, an Albany barber.
Another favorite was Mollie Williams, one of the most enterprising of all the stars of burlesque. She was one of few Jewish stars of burlesque. By 1912, when she was in her early 30s, she owned her own company, and produced her own shows, touring all of the Northeastern U.S. Even the women in the audience seemed to love her.


(After the Empire closed Mollie starred at the Capitol Theatre on Chapel St. In 1924 she became an American sweetheart. She included a skit in her act that championed raises for US. Post Office workers. They got the raise and when Mollie came to town they hosted parties in her honor. Mollie’s other dubious claim to fame – a very young vaudevillian, Milton Berle lost his virginity to her.)
The Empire closed in 1922.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

Fanny Brice and Albany; Before Nicky


Fanny Brice (born today in 1891) was first married to a man from Albany, not Nicky Arnstein. He was Frank White, who ran a barber shop at the Kenmore Hotel. Fanny met Frank was she was performing at the Empire Theatre on State St., in “College Girls” in a Columbia “Wheel” traveling burlesque revue in early 1910. He followed her to Springfield, Mass. and they were married there.

In later years she said she married Frank because “My God, he smelled so nice”. By late that year, Fanny was already headlining for Flo Zeigfield in the Follies. Fanny and Frank were divorced in 1913. I have yet to discover what happened with Frank.. although he continued at the barber shop for at least 25 more years.

In addition to the burlesque shows (not really what you might think of as burlesque today.. more like variety shows with lots of girls.. a semi plot and lots of leg), the Empire offered vaudeville shows,and even Yiddish Theater a couple of times a month with a company that traveled to Albany from NYC. The Empire started out as legit theater in the late 1890s.. with stars like Maud Adams and Ethel Barrymore. By about 1905 it found it couldn’t compete as audience taste changed,

The Empire was prime real estate at 100 State St, and was demolished in 1922 for the City Savings Bank.



Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor