Joseph J. McDonald For The Knickerbocker News
Section: ENTERTAINER,  Page: 1T

Date: Friday, November 6, 1987

The renovated Madison Theater will reopen shortly, resuming an Albany history that began on May 29, 1929 when it opened as the latest gem in the far-flung Warner Bros.

theater chain. The inaugural program distributed for the opening showed what a major undertaking the opening of a new motion picture theater was in those pre- television days:

GALA OPENING TONIGHT AT 8:30 P.M. Heigh-Heigh. Brilliant opening. Swing in with the Caravan of Joy. Make Way for the Bright Lights of Madison Avenue.

The opening-night program consisted of the Warner Bros.-Vitaphone Trumpeteers, Francis Alda singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," Judge James J. Nolan, president of the Pine Hills Association, making the introductory address, Mayor John Boyd Thacher 2nd making the dedicatory address, and the legendary stage and film star Al Jolson acting as master of ceremonies.

After the Pathe

Sound News newsreel, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon - "The Opry House" - W.R. Wiley provided a solo on the house organ, and then ... ta da! ... the major attraction: Warner Bros.' singing-talking-acting spectacular "The Desert Song."

The film was the first version of the Sigmund Romberg operetta to be shown on the silver screen after a successful Broadway run.

John Boles starred as "The Red Shadow," with Carlotta King as his true love and Myrna Loy, in an early pre-"Thin Man" role, right at home with the rest of the cast cavorting on what looked like the desert sands.

(The film was remade twice: With Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning in 1944, updated to deal with the World War II Nazis in French Morocco, and in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson.)

The introduction of "sound film" had taken place three years earlier when Warner Bros. presented a movie with sound effects and a musical score, but no spoken dialogue: "Don Juan," starring John Barrymore, Mary Astor and Myrna Loy. The sounds of Barrymore's sword play as he dueled with Montague Love - who later appeared in Albany on the stage of the Palace theater - and the sound of church bells ringing were a novelty, but not a complete success at the box office.

To equip a movie theater in those days with the necessary sound equipment could cost up to $25,000, and the independent "mom-and-pop" theater owners of the Depression days were hesitant to take such a financial risk.

But things changed during the next 14 months in Hollywood where the Warners - Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert - took the financial gamble and signed up Jolson, billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer" to star in "The Jazz Singer," a musical "talkie" that ushered in the age of sound.

Samson Raphaelson, author of the story on which the film was based, had Jolson in mind when he wrote the story of the cantor's son who became a jazz singer on Broadway (a film later made in less-than-successful versions starring Danny Thomas and then Neil Diamond). Raphaelson's inspiration came when he was a student at the University of Illinois and saw stage star Jolson in the road version of "Robinson Crusoe Jr."

"The Jazz Singer," which played for the first time on Oct. 6, 1927, at the Warners' New York City theater, was so successful that by the time the Madison opened in Albany less than two years later, a large percentage of the new films were "talkies."

In fact, the Albany newspapers during the week the Madison opened published an advertisement from the Harmanus Bleecker Hall Theater listing both talkies and non-talkies that were coming up.

A look at the movie houses operating in Albany the week the Madison made its debut - and what happened to them over the years - vividly illustrates how much the business has changed in the intervening years.



Joseph J. McDonald, an Albany resident, collects film history and has written on the topic for several publications.

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