The movie theater no one will ever restore

We lost a lot of theaters in the Capital District over the past few decades.  Several theaters were knocked down to make the Empire State Plaza.  Several drive-ins were repurposed for the expansion of urban sprawl.  The few regional theaters in the Capital District have been chopped up into multiplexes.

There’s a building on Central Avenue in Albany.  It doesn’t look like a theater any more; the building’s last tenant converted it into an automobile oil change shop.  Now it sits old and forlorn, a tattered “FOR SALE” sign hammered into the weeded grass adjoining the building’s plain yellow façade.

There are no preservationists from Historic Albany Foundation running to save the structure.  Any movie buffs who remember seeing films in that theater are reluctant to recall their favorite movies from that time.  The screen and seats have long since disappeared, the projection equipment was ripped out of the structure.

Such is the fate of the little two-screen theater on Central Avenue.

Although there are plenty of historic movie palaces in the Capital District, there were some theaters that did not show the latest Hollywood big-budget blockbuster or family-friendly children’s movie.  These were theaters with names like the Colony Art – the Aust Drive-In – the Cinema Art – and the building at 810 Central Avenue, the Petit Cine 1-2.

The Petit Cine 1-2 opened in June of 1973, and immediately gave its target audience exactly what it wanted to see.  All accompanied by funky grooves that usually had a melody of bow-chicka-wow-wow.  The films, of course, caused the theater to immediately run afoul of Albany mayor Erastus Corning and Albany magistrate John Clyne.  Corning demanded that the police monitor what films were being shown at the Petit Cine 1-2, and to also keep an eye on who was going into the theater and who was coming out of it.

Two months later, the Petit Cine 1-2 became one of several Capital District theaters to show the adult film The Devil In Miss Jones. A copy of the ad that ran in the Albany Times-Union in 1973 can be seen on the right.

The film aired at the Petit Cine 1-2 for a few weeks before Judge Clyne bought a ticket and walked in to see the film; after he was fully convinced that the film on screen was not a mistitled version of the 1941 comedy with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, he ordered the police to raid the theater and seize the print of the film.  It should be noted that in order to seize the film, Clyne had to use a 90-year-old morals statute that was still on the Albany books.

It wasn’t as if the Petit Cine 1-2 was the only theater in the Capital District showing those kinds of films.  A perusal of the August 16, 1973 Times-Union motion picture listings shows that on the same week that the Petit Cine 1-2 was showing The Devil in Miss Jones, the UA Towne in Latham was enjoying an exclusive engagement of the Marlon Brando X-rated film Last Tango in Paris. And that wasn’t even the only showing of The Devil in Miss Jones in the Capital District that week; patrons could drive up Central Avenue and see the film at the Colony Art on 1330 State Street if they so chose.

But the owners of the Petit Cine 1-2 at the time – James Papa, Adolf Berman and Jules Koenig – were charged with second-degree obscenity for showing The Devil In Miss Jones.  Berman and Koenig pleaded not guilty at a hearing and were each freed on $500 bail.  The media at the time reported that Papa did not appear and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

There is a rumor that the print of The Devil in Miss Jones, along with another film seized that day, Naughty Meter Maids, is still in the Albany Police Department property room, where it has rested undisturbed to this day.  The Times-Union wrote that the films were still at the property room as of 1988.

The theater changed ownership several times, yet no matter who owned the building, the place always operated as a two-screen theater for the raincoat crowd.  By the mid-1980’s, you could still find ads in the Times-Union advertising that the Petit Cine 1-2 was showing straight adult films on one screen, and an “all-male revue” on screen number two.

A decade after the original raids on the theater, the Petit Cine 1-2 went through another series of police raids, this time starting in September of 1983.  The September 29, 1983 edition of the Times-Union reported that the Petit Cine 1-2 was raided and arrests were made on charges of showing “obscene films” and allowing other things to go on inside and behind the theater – things that didn’t involve popcorn and jujubees.

The police arrested the theater manager, the projectionist and the cashier, charging them all with obscenity in the second degree.  The projection equipment and films were also seized.  Again, Judge John Clyne spearheaded the investigation, and noted that the films were considered obscene under Penal Code 235.05-1.  The Times-Union also noted that the films seized that day included such titles as Picture of Dorian Gay and Lacy Bodine.

The Petit Cine tried to reopen a few days later, hoping to avoid perceived obscenity charges by only showing “straight” films on one screen, leaving the all-male-revue “2” screen dark.  It didn’t work.  A few days later, the theater owners and projectionist were arrested again on obscenity charges, and the projection equipment and films were again confiscated.

A few months later, the Petit Cine 1-2 finally and quietly shut its doors and ceased operating as a movie theater.  A used car dealership operated on the site for a few years, and in 1995 it became the location for a quick-change oil and lube shop.

Today the building at 810 Central Avenue is just an empty shell, hoping for a new tenant and a new lease on life.

And, if at all possible, a change to forget its past once and for all.