May 30, 1929 – Opening Night at the Madison Theater

Of the dozens of movie palaces and theaters that populated the Capital District, from the beginning of silent film until the creation of shopping mall-based theaters, only three movie palaces have survived to today.  The Spectrum on Delaware Avenue was once called the Delaware Theater, and is the oldest building that still shows films.  The Palace Theater, even though it can be used today for concerts and movies, is the oldest theater that still operates with one screen.

And now we come to the focus of our little road trip back in time.  The Madison Theater.  While puttering around through the microfilms of yesteryear, I came across the original advertisements of late May, 1929, promoting the newest motion picture theater, a theater that would give moviegoers in the Pine Hills neighborhood a local theater of their own.

The Madison was created by Thomas Lamb, the architect who designed Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theater.  It would be one of the first theaters in the Capital District to be built with Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone sound process, rather than having the theater retrofitted for sound.  Patrons could sit in one of 1400 different upholstered seats.

The first motion picture to grace the Madison’s screen was “The Desert Song,” a very popular film featuring John Boles and Myrna Loy.  It featured scenes in two-strip Technicolor, which sadly are lost today.  In fact, here’s the lineup for the May 30, 1929 opening night:

  1. An on-screen performance by the Warner Bros. Vitaphone Trumpeteers
  2. A Vitaphone presentation of Frances Alda singing the Star Spangled Banner
  3. An introductory address by Judge James J. Nolan, President of the Pine Hills Association
  4. An introductory address by Albany Mayor John Boyd Thatcher
  5. A special dedication film hosted by Al Jolson
  6. A Pathé newsreel
  7. A Mickey Mouse cartoon, “The Opry House”
  8. An organ solo by W. B. Wiley upon the mighty Wurlitzer
  9. And finally, The Desert Song

All this for 35¢ per person.  Wow.

The Madison would quickly morph into a second-run theater, promising to show the top movies one week after their appearance at Albany’s downtown theaters like the Strand and the Leland.  But as those theaters disappeared over time, the Madison survived.  It remained a single-screen operation until 1994, when a new ownership group purchased the theater, split it into five mini-theaters, and rebranded the facility the Norma Jean Madison Theater.  The current ownership of the Madison Theater has expanded the facility to house seven films at one time, and a history of the Madison Theater can be found on the theater’s website.