Moving pictures thrilled, comforted, and informed Guilderland residents

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Altamont’s Masonic Hall on Maple Avenue opened in 1913. Within a year, movies began to be shown on the second floor and, with some breaks, ran for four decades. The church next door, St. John’s, had been the site of Altamont’s first film entertainment, through a Bioscope in 1897.

Primitive systems of filming motion to be projected on a screen had been developed by the 1890s. Guilderland’s first opportunity to sample the new technology came in October 1897 when the St. John’s Ladies Aid Society sponsored a Bioscope entertainment two evenings in the Sunday School Room.

Advance publicity in The Altamont Enterprise claimed that the Bioscope, never before shown in the vicinity, was “the wonder of the age.” For an admission of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, viewers could see the surging waters of Niagara Falls and President William McKinley on Inauguration Day.

But the main attraction was the New York Central’s Empire State Express filmed approaching at the rate of a mile a minute, making the onlooker “involuntarily scramble to get out of the way of the train. The wonderful realism of the picture makes the most unimaginative person shiver.” Front-row thrills were available for 35-cent reserved seats.

Noted in the next week’s Enterprise that the performances were “quite well attended and while the views were not brought out as clearly as wished for, owing to the operator being obliged to use gas instead of electric light, yet the wonder of the invention was fully demonstrated and the exhibition proved quite satisfactory.”

Their appetite for movies whetted, local filmgoers were able to see competing motion-picture technology when itinerant projectionists Hicks and Thomas Co. brought Edison’s Kinetoscope to the church a few months later. The audience must have been satisfied because the next week’s Enterprise judged that it was “the best in its line that ever visited our village.”

In 1903, at the Altamont Reformed Church, J.W. Achenbach was presenting a program billed as “The World’s Greatest Moving Picture Exhibition.” Viewers had the opportunity to see clips of Our Martyred President McKinley’s funeral, a Yale vs. Harvard football game, Little Red Riding Hood, a trip to the moon, and the Empire State Express at 80 miles per hour.

Attendees were guaranteed thrilling realism and no flicker or their money back. Admission was 25 cents for adults, and 15 cents for children.


Regular shows

The occasional motion picture was offered in Altamont and Guilderland Center over the next few years.  With the opening of Altamont’s new Masonic Temple, regular, local moving-going became possible.

An April 1914 notice in The Enterprise announced to the public that Willard J. Ogsbury and Newton Stafford would offer an ambitious program of moving pictures, allowing viewers to see five reels for only 10 cents on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings.

“First class,” and “giving general satisfaction” was the paper’s judgement the next week, noting the new venture had met “with good results as far as attendance is concerned.”

Quality improved quickly when within weeks a new lens was installed in their machine that projected a 9-by-12-foot picture on the screen, producing a larger and clearer image. In 1915, electrical lines were run into Altamont, allowing installation of a new electrical apparatus using an arc light that promised to show pictures “equal to any city theatre.”

Later that year, the eight-reel, big-budget spectacular “The Last Days of Pompeii” was shown by W.J. Ogsbury, now apparently the sole proprietor of the venture. Residents from Altamont and the surrounding area must have been entranced by scenes far from their everyday experience, watching fighting gladiators, chariot races, lions turned loose, and a vivid scene of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption engulfing Pompeii — all for 15 cents.

In 1915, a large notice appearing in The Enterprise advertised that the moving pictures were “Under the Management and for the Benefit of NOAH LODGE.” Five reels were to be shown regularly with an “expert operator in charge” on Saturday nights, for 10-cent admission.

By December 1915, shows were suspended due to lack of patronage, but must have been resumed at some point since, during the polio outbreak of 1916, a Board of Health order banning children under the age of 16 from attending public gatherings caused another suspension in moving picture shows at the Masonic Hall. “The management feels to continue the show under the present conditions would be unprofitable.”

The United States entrance into World War I was brought home to the local folks in 1918 when a movie benefitting the Red Cross was screened showing scenes of life in American training camps, activities of the army in France, and Red Cross personnel working behind the lines.

Charles H. VanValkenburgh, the theater manager, promised two reels of drama, two reels of comedy, and one reel of real life for 10 cents every Saturday night.

As the decade of the 1920s opened, movie-going had become established as popular entertainment for all ages. The Masonic Hall Theater, as it had become officially called, ran the longer features Hollywood had begun to produce.

Each week, the Village Notes column included the name of the next coming attraction, a synopsis of the plot, and listed those who were playing the leading roles.

Most of the films viewed no longer exist because, to the regret of film scholars, the material substance of early film has caused a huge number of them to deteriorate and crumble into dust in the cans where they were stored.

With Enterprise information, at least the names and plots survive of such long-forgotten movies as “The Night Horseman,” “Darling Mine,” “Whispering Wire,” “The Unknown,” or “A Stage Romance.” Occasionally, a film still considered a classic flickered across Altamont’s screen as when John Gilbert and Greta Garbo starred in the passionate romance “Flesh and the Devil.”


Talking pictures

“The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 movie that introduced the breakthrough of sound to audiences, changed movie history. Studios had been at first reluctant to adopt the new technology due to the high cost of new equipment to film the productions and then to theatres, which would have to refit with expensive new sound-projection machines.

But the audiences were clamoring for talking pictures, forcing the studios and theaters to move on. Most of “The Jazz Singer” was silent except for a few portions of sound recorded on discs that had to be played as the film ran, the operator carefully synchronizing the record to the film.

When “Saturday Night Kid” played in Altamont in December 1930, featuring Clara Bow’s “lovable, slangy, sloppy chatter,” Ray Rau handled the accompanying discs.

A brief announcement in June 1929 informed the public there would be no movies over the summer, though they were back in operation in September, managed by a party from Albany. In spite of the warning, “If Altamont people want their shows continued, they should support them by attendance.” By December, the unnamed Albany operator closed down the theater due to lack of patronage.

A week later, movies resumed under the management of Roy F. Peugh, who was joined by Ray Rau.

The issue of sound had reached a point where the decision had to be made: Close down or invest in new equipment to show sound-on-film productions.

In March 1930, a committee of Masons had been in Schenectady checking out a “sound outfit” there with the idea of running talking movies regularly. By December, it was announced that a talking-picture outfit was to be installed at once.

Finally, on Feb. 20, 1931, a front-page headline said “Altamont Sound Movies To Start With a Free Show.” Two Simplex projectors and a crystal-beaded sound screen were ordered by managers Peugh and Rau. The walls were padded with Celotex panels to provide the proper acoustics, all at a cost of $2,000. 

Installed were seat cushions for everyone’s comfort with the seats tilted back one inch for better viewing. To operate all the new equipment, a second electrical power line had to be run into the building.

A public-inspection night was free, but the regular price of admission would now be 35 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. With the coming of warmer weather, patrons were assured not to worry about the heat since electric fans were now available.

Headlined “Talking Movies Big Success in Altamont,” The Enterprise reported the free demonstration night brought out 300 people who packed the hall, delighted at the perfect synchronization of voice and picture. Although at first only one projector was in operation that night, causing a delay between reels of “Cuckoos,” in time for the next Saturday’s showing the second projector would be in place for a non-stop performance.


Second life

Thus began the second life of Altamont’s little movie theatre.

The headline “Talking Movies Capture Altamont and Vicinity” reflected the enthusiasm the public from the village and the surrounding area felt about having talking pictures offered locally. Large audiences crowded the house.

During the Depression, the public turned to movies for escape and the modest admission cost at Altamont brought in a steady audience throughout the 1930s. Movies came to Altamont after their first-run showing in city theaters.

“Gone With The Wind,” one of the most successful and popular movies of all time, opened in 1939. Two years later, it finally arrived in Altamont for a two-day run. “Full Length Nothing Cut But The Price” read the half-page ad in The Enterprise.

During the war years, the theater provided much-needed escapist fare, but war-related films were often part of the schedule, some to boost morale as when the 1942 production “Our America At War” was added to the bill with the regular feature “Look Who’s Laughing.”

Others were far more serious; when and how to handle incendiary bombs was the topic of one shown to Civil Defense workers and volunteer firemen.

Movies continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Attendance had reached new lows by early 1957 and it seemed as if the show was over at the Masonic Temple.

In February 1957, an announcement appeared in The Enterprise that Jack Jalet, at the time a well-known Altamont resident, had the approval of the Altamont Business Association to manage the theater, being aware of “the need for entertainment in this village, especially for young people. Saturday matinees will be enjoyed by all.”

Jalet commented, “Hearing that plans were underway to remove the projectors from the Masonic Hall caused me to present a plan to bring back regular shows to Altamont.”

He proposed that each Saturday’s schedule was to include a two-and-a-half-hour matinée with the feature film and five to eight additional cartoons, then running an adult performance in the evening.

A week later, he wrote “An Open Letter to Teen Agers” in The Enterprise, requesting them to be quiet during the movies to allow the adults present to hear the dialogue. These customers would then return for future programs to help keep the theater open.

For a few weeks, longer movies were offered. However, in a blurb about the April 6 feature “A Yank in the RAF,” Mr. Jalet reported attendance was very disappointing and, unless more adults attended, movies would come to an end with the last show scheduled April1 13, a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy, “Pardners.”

Because The Enterprise ran no additional movie ads or mention of movies in the next few months, it seems the Masonic Hall Theater shows had come to an end.

Competition from TV, drive-ins, and more advanced film and sound systems in bigger city theaters put an end to our local show, just as happened to many small neighborhood movie theaters in towns and cities all over America at this time.

For over 40 years, the little theater had brought pleasure and entertainment to the people of Altamont and the surrounding area.