Final Project- Walking/ Driving Tour of Former Movie Theaters in Albany

Identify your theme and how it is unique from the existing tours of Albany Walks for Health. What are the closest related tours? How does your tour differ from the related tours?

The theme of my walking tour will be the exploration of the former sites of the plethora of palatial movie theaters that once existed in Albany, New York. Although many of the locations that will be included on the tour were still occupied by the movie theaters in question as recently as the 1980’s, the change in the way in which movie theaters appeared and were operated over the past hundred years will be made evident through descriptions of the bygone theaters compared to the contemporary theaters with which participants on the tour are familiar. This theme is unique from the existing tours on Albany Walks for Health as movie theaters are significantly more modern than the themes on the Walks for Health, which predominantly span from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Additionally, due to the nature of this project, the locations on my tour, unlike an abundance of the locations on the Walks for Health, are no longer existent.
The closest related tour on the Albany Walks for Health to the tour that I am going to create is Tour #7: Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany. Unlike most of the other tours on the Walks for Health, ‘Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany’ takes participants to more contemporary locations, such as the Egg, which was built in the 1960’s, and the Times Union Center, which was not even constructed until 1990. Additionally, both my tour and ‘Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany’ appertain to leisure activities enjoyed by Albany residents and visitors. Unlike ‘Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany,’ which includes a variety of types of entertainment venues, such as theaters (the Palace Theater, Park Playhouse) and concert halls (the Washington Armory) my tour will only feature locations that were once movie theaters. Another tour featured in Albany Walks for Health that is similar to my movie theaters tour is ‘The Leisures of Albany.’ Like ‘Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany,’ ‘The Leisures of Albany’ is homologous to my tour because it is about recreational activities in Albany. Also like “Entertainment Centers of Downtown Albany,’ ‘The Leisures of Albany’ features locations for an assortment of leisure activities, including theaters such as the Palace Theater and parks such as Washington Park, and museums such as the Albany Institute of History and Art, whereas my tour will only contain movie theaters.

What is the organizing theme or story for your tour? Who is the audience for this tour? What’s the big takeaway point that the visitor will get from your tour?

Since movie theaters began to emerge in the final years of the nineteenth century, they have grown into one of the most popular and prominent venues in the entertainment industry. The multi-screen movie theaters that we know today, often operated by a chain (Regal, AMC, etc) deviate greatly from those that existed up until even the mid to late twentieth century. Older movie theaters, also called ‘cinemas’ or ‘movie houses,’ were formerly built to create a memorable overall experience that extended beyond the viewing of a film. They would often include ornate architecture, sumptuous lounges, and one large theater. This tour will explore the many opulent theaters that once existed in Albany, but were closed down in lieu of theaters that boasted multiple screens and that were able to show more movies to more people simultaneously. Additionally, many of the theaters on this tour are further tied to Albany’s history  as they were named after locations or prominent figures in Albany’s history.
This tour is geared towards Albany residents. Participants who have grown up in Albany may be interested to learn about the sheer number of now unassuming locations that once housed movie theaters. In addition, older Albany residents can enjoy the nostalgia of visiting the sites of theaters that they might have frequented in times past.
Participants on this tour should come away with a better understanding of how the notion of what defines a movie theater has changed over time. Many people are already aware (and, if not, will be informed on the tour) that the modern movie theater evolved from Vaudeville theaters. Through reading about movie theaters that once existed in familiar locations in Albany, participants taking this tour can attain a greater level of comprehension regarding the early incarnations of movie theaters and the fact that they were the midpoint between the exalted Vaudeville theaters of the nineteenth century and the utilitarian theaters with which we are familiar today. Additionally, participants of this tour will be able to glimpse into Albany’s history by showing them the different way in which people of the past engaged in a familiar activity in a familiar place.

Identify at least four potential locations. Briefly describe the historical location and what is currently at that location.

1.) Hellman Movie Theater– Located at 1365 Washington Avenue in Albany, the Hellman Movie Theater was constructed in 1960. Art deco in style, the theater originally featured a lobby, lounge and single screen, though it was divided into two screen during the 1980’s after being taken over by United Artists. The theater was built by Neil Hellman, also known for building the Neil Hellman Library at the College of Saint Rose, and is named as a memorial to his father, Harry Hellman. The Hellman Theater was demolished in 1989, and the site in which it once stood is now occupied by the Washington Center for Medical Arts, which leases office space to various medical practices.

2.) Eagle Movie Theater– Opened in 1928 on Hudson Avenue and Eagle Street (for which it is named) in Albany, the Eagle Movie Theater was housed in a defunct arsenal that was constructed in 1858. In 1938, the theater was remodeled an reopened as the ‘New Eagle Theater.’ The theater operated for three decades as a popular entertainment venue with a single screen and 830 seats. However, a decline in attendance in the 1950’s led to the theater staying in business through an agreement with local schools to show children’s specials on Saturday afternoons. In 1962, the state of New York acquired the site through eminent domain, and it was demolished in order to construct the South Mall arterial of the Empire State Plaza. The site is now occupied by the Albany County Probation Department.

3.) Harmanus Bleecker Hall– Opened in 1888 and named for attorney, congressman, and foreign ambassador, Harmanus Bleecker, Harmanus Bleecker Hall was originally opened as a regular theater. However, in 1929 it was remodeled to become a single screen motion picture theater with 2,070 seats. This sumptuous theater was decorated with tones of brown and gold that were highlighted with shades of blue red and green. Unfortunately, the theater, which was located at 331 Delaware Avenue in Albany, was destroyed in a fire on May 6, 1940. The site, which is now occupied by the Delaware Branch of the Albany Public Library, is nearby the still operational Spectrum 8 Theaters, which was opened soon after the fire that destroyed Harmanus Bleecker hall.

4.) Ritz Movie Theater– Located in a former jailhouse at 21 South Pearl Street in Albany, the Ritz Movie Theater first opened in the 1920’s. In 1941, the theater was purchased and operated by Warner Brothers. This single screen, 1,125 seat theater began to decline in popularity once the majority of households began acquiring televisions. Like the Eagle Movie Theater, the Ritz Movie Theater was ultimately demolished to make way for the construction of the Empire State Plaza. The Times Union Center now stands on its former site.

5.) Leland Movie Theater– Located at 43 South Pearl Street in Albany, the Leland Theater replaced the Trimble Opera House that was destroyed in a fire during the mid-nineteenth century. It was reopened in 1873 as the Leland Opera House, and was converted for Vaudeville and movies in 1906 and renamed the Leland Theater. With one screen and 1,350 seat, the Leland Theater remained popular until, like the Trimble Opera House before it, it was destroyed in a fire in the early 1960’s. It’s former location is now occupied by apartment and office space.