It was in 1930 that RKO theatres under the Radio-Keith-Orpheum organization decided to build a "palace" at the corner of Clinton Avenue and North Pearl Street. Formerly the major business located on the site was John Battersby's meat market. Construction began in June 1930 and was completed by October 1931. As indicated in the TIMES UNION some of the features of the new Palace included a seating capacity of just under 4,000 - listed as the third largest in the world at that date. It was "done in Austrian baroque architecture" designed by architect John Eberson. The center chandelier contained 375 light bulbs, the stage 68 by 42 feet. It was to employ 100 men and women, of those 40 were ushers.
The grand opening night occurred on Friday, October 23, 1931 with Lieut.Gov. and Mrs. Herbert Lehman, Mayor and Mrs. John Boyd Thacher and Joseph Plunkett, vice president and general manager of R.K.O. in attendance. The event was a benefit for the Albany Community Chest. ($4000 was raised for the organization). Prior to the formal program in the Palace there was a parade that began at Capital Park, down State Street and over North Pearl. There were floats as well as music provided by the American Legion, LaSalle school and the Musicians' union. A battery of floodlights as well as fireworks lit up the sky around the Palace.
The beauty of the theatre was described as including "paneled walls, gold and tapestried with the utmost taste in blending". "The murals, splendid works of art. Paintings by Andrew Karoly of the school of Fine Arts and Jules Zartot of Budapeat, Hungary."
After the formal speeches, the audience was entertained by vaudeville acts, a concert orchestra conducted by Anthony Morrelli, melodies on the "grande" organ played by Ray Turner and the film DEVOTION starring Ann Harding and Leslie Howard two of the favorite movie stars of that era. Both the orchestra and organ were raised and lowered from below by elevator. Reserved seats for the gala premiere were $1.00.
On Saturday, October 24th regular performances began Ticket prices were 25¢ until 6:00 P.M., 35¢ until 6P.M. and then 55¢ for loges and orchestra with 35¢ in the balconies; children 15¢.
During the thirties, forties and into the fifties going to the Palace to see the largest movies as well as variety and big production stage show were high on the list for many not only in Albany, but surrounding communities. Movies such as GONE WITH THE WIND, SNOW WHITE, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and many favorites of that period were first seen at The Palace. To go down town to the movies on Friday nights, plus the weekends was a major form of entertainment. Quite often a line to the box office would extend over North Pearl Street.
As for stage productions the major "big bands" appeared such as Tommey Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. Included on the vaudeville menu were many of the top vocal artists of those days. For example in December 1932 the ads listed "exceptional stage and radio talent Frances Langford" who went on to be a favorite in radio's golden age on the comedy and variety shows. On New Year's Eve 1932 they advertised gala midnight show, all seats reserved, orchestra $1.00, balcony $.75 and loges $1.36 (plus tax)
Special productions appeared for a "one night stand" such as San Carlo Opera Company, (which appeared quite often on an annual basis) the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and on two occasions the Metropolitan Opera included the Palace on their spring tour. The acoustics of the theatre, before the first renovations in the late 1940s were such that many times solo artists appeared without the use or need for microphone. No doubt many can recall some of those exciting events to see a famous singer, instrumentalist or actor in person. Just a few artists of the past that performed were Nelson Eddy, Lily Pons, Lauritz Melchior, Rise Stevens, pianist Jose Iturbe, Victor Borge, Artur Rubinstein and Leopold Stokowski with his All American Youth Orchestra.
In the mid 1940's it was legislated that producing motion picture studios such as R.K.O. could not own the theatres where the films were shown. Thus entered the Fabian Corporation which acquired many movie houses including The Palace under Fabian Theatres, the late Alex Sayles was appointed manager with Bill serving as assistant.
A decision was made in 1960 to put a modernization plan into play. It included replacing the original marquee as well as removing a number of seats to make it more comfortable for the audience. New stage draperies in gold and blue were installed and the interior received a new paint job.
As multiplex movie theatres were being introduced in the out-skirts of the city, patronage of the Palace decreased. It was in 1969 that Fabian Theatres made the decision to withdraw from Albany. In September 1969 with the approval of the Albany Common Council Mayor Erastus Corning acquired the then 2800 seat theatre for $90,000. From that point on the theatre was used for various purposes with the Albany Symphony Orchestra being its most consistent tenant. Business manager for the symphony Jack Firestone was first in charge of the daily operations. However, soon Mayor Corning appointed Evelyn Knoll to the position of manager with the responsibility of booking programs for the theater. Emphasis was then placed upon rock concerts with few other attractions booked for the Palace. Albany High School was among the education institutions to use the building on an annual business for graduation exercises. On a number of occasions road companies of Broadway musicals such as MY FAIR LADY appeared for a split week engagement.
Within the last several years Mayor Gerald Jennings wished to embrace the Palace to be the anchor of the north end of Albany's down-town entertainment district; the south anchor, The Pepsi Arena. To that end in 2002 plans came to fruition to privatize the building and begin a three phase renovation to bring the beautiful historic theatre back to its resplendent glory as it first appeared at its opening on October 23, 1931. The summer of 2003 will see further renovations including the recreation of original magnificent marquee. Once again The Palace will become a place for entertainment to be enjoyed by the people of Albany and surrounding communities.
Virginia B. Bowers
February 21, 2003