Local newspapers wrote the Leland movie theater’s obituary in the spring of 1965, with the headline “Curtains for Albany’s Oldest Theater”[i] A little less than a year later, the wrecking ball demolished its last remaining wall. The last photograph of the building, labeled “Last Days of a Landmark,”[ii] shows the building just before demolition, and briefly describes its past glories. The side and rear walls had already been demolished, and the marquee and fire escape removed, displaying, for the first time in that century, its graceful 1825 façade.Most in Albany would know the theater in its last, sad state, showing salacious films at bargain prices. Few would remember its glory days, when the best of British and American actors played Shakespeare on its stage, when Charlie Chaplin performed some of his first comedy, or when it was early part F.F. Proctor’s chain of theaters. Certainly few Albanians would remember that this building had also housed St. Paul’s Church for almost a quarter of a century. Over the next several posts, we will tell a bit more of the story of this marvelous old building in its various forms, as the Albany Theatre, St. Paul’s Church, the Academy of Music, Trimble Opera House, Leland Opera House, Henry R. Jacobs Opera House, Proctor’s Leland Theater and finally simple The Leland.
In 1825, Albany had a population of 16,000. It was a city on the move, with the Erie Canal completed that year, and business already beginning a boom that would double the population by 1840. And the city had no theater. The first theater, on Green Street, had opened in 1813, but survived only five years. The city was again without a theater. In January 1824, a group of prominent businessmen formed a joint stock company, and raised subscriptions for a new theater, to be located on South Pearl Street. They hired Philip Hooker to design the building, and construction began in August 1824 on the west side of South Pearl Street, between Beaver and Hudson. [iii]
The Albany Theatre (sometimes called the Pearl Street Theatre) opened in May 1825, under the management of Charles Antonio Gilfert. Gilfert was manager for only one year, but that year was among the finest the theater was to have. The Albany audience saw the great Junius Brutus Booth, patriarch of the Booth theatrical family, in twelve different roles.Booth ended the season with a week in which he took major roles in three Shakespeare plays. In this single week, June 17-24, 1825, he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the title role in Othello and Brutus in Julius Caesar. Another star of the Gilfert period was Edmund Kean, “The Monarch of the British Stage,” who first appeared in the fall of 1825. Kean was joined by Edwin Forrest, then at the beginning of his career, but destined to become one of the great American Shakespeareans of his generation. Forrest perfected his craft here in Albany, playing in Shakespeare histories and tragedies with Kean: Othello (Kean in the title role, Forrest as Iago), Julius Caesar (Kean as Brutus, Forrest as Titus), and Richard III (with Kean again in the title role and Forrest as Richmond).[iv] Forrest was only 20 years old, and quite a wild young man. He once escaped arrest by reciting Shakespeare to the Albany watchmen, known as leather-heads, who were trying to break up his party. He was not so lucky on a second occasion, and spent the night in another Hooker-designed building, the Albany Jail, located on the southeastern corner of Howard and Eagle Streets. The next morning, he was reprimanded by police justice John O. Cole, in words from Othello: “ – what’s the matter/ That you unlace your reputation thus,/And spend your rich opinion for the name/Of a night brawler? Give me answer to it!”[v]
Despite these stars, the seasons were not financial successes, and Gilfert resigned in May 1826.
The farewell benefits now began, and were, many of them, poorly attended. To show to what a strait even the best actors were reduced to fill the house, it may be noticed that for Forrest’s farewell benefit, Hyatt, the comedian, played Richard! Forrest supporting him as Buckingham! The season, having proved disastrous, closed May 2d, Gilfert being unable to pay his company, many of whom were left destitute. Forrest himself was forced to leave his wardrobe at his boarding-house, as security for arrearages, when he went to New York. As before stated, a majority of the company were re-engaged by Gilfert, when he opened the Bowery, October 23d, 1826.[vi]
Between Gilfert’s exit and 1829, a period of three years,the theater had eight managers, none of the them able to make a profit, despite a continuing string of well-known actors. The one manager we should mention is George Vernon (born George Verrall), who in addition to his acting and management skills, was also an artist. In the same period, he designed the ornate pulpit, screen and altar for St. Paul’s church on Ferry Street.[vii]A somewhat more successful period was between 1829 and 1836, when William Duffy and William Forrest (brother of Edwin Forrest) managed the theater. This was interrupted by William Forrest’s death, and then finished by Duffy’s death in 1836 at the hands of one of his actors, John Hamilton, in a fight next door to the theater at the Rising Sun Tavern.[viii]
The downward spiral continued, with another five managers between 1836 and 1839. The final manager, H.W. Preston, carried on until early 1839, when the stockholders, tired of losing money every season, sold the building to St. Paul’s Church. The last performance, on March 30, 1829, was “The Hypocrite.” After the main attraction, the playbill also promised (in jest we assume) another offering: “After which, the interlude of H.W. Preston, The Manager in Distress.”[ix] The next day, Preston surrendered his lease to the Albany Theatre Association.
Despite the financial problems, The Albany Theatre featured some of the best of British and American actors. We have mentioned Booth, Kean and Forrest. But there were many other famous actors of the time who appeared in the Albany Theatre:
- Edwin Booth
- William Augustus Conway
- Thomas Apthorpe Cooper
- James Henry Hackett
- Thomas Hamblin
- Charles Kemble
- Fanny Kemble
- James Sheridan Knowles
- William Charles Macready
We will continue the story in our next post, as we see the theater came to be the home of St. Paul’s Church.
[i] Albany Knickerbocker News 30 Mar 1965.
[ii] Albany Times Union 3 Feb 1966.
[iii] A full description of the theater may be found in H.P. Phelps, The Players of a Century (Albany: Joseph McDonough, 1880), 63-64:
The new theatre is situated on the west side of Pearl street, extending to William; sixty-two feet front, one hundred and sixteen feet deep; height in front, forty feet; divided into a basement, principal and attic story. The entrance to the boxes is by three lofty arched openings; the piers and arches are of free stone, beautifully rusticated; they occupy three-fifths of the front; the entrances to the pit and gallery are on each side in plain brick work. Above the rusticated basement, the center is embellished with six stone pilasters, supporting an entablature and angular pediment; the pilasters are coupled at the angles, and the order is the antique Ionic; the cornice only is continued the whole length of the front, which is crowned with a bold balustrade, surmounted with appropriate acroteria. The outer lobby is entered by two steps, from which you are conducted by easy flights of winding stairs to a spacious corridor surrounding the first tier of boxes. Over the outer lobby in the second story is an elegant saloon or coffee room, with an adjoining chamber, and over these in the third story, are similar rooms for refreshments The auditory is divided into a pit and three tiers of boxes, the gallery being in the front of the third tier; the boxes advance one seat in front of the columns which support them; the second and third tiers are brought forward on arches springing from the capitals of the pillars. The ceiling is in the form of a dome, painted in stone-colored panels, with rosettes. The glass chandelier is to be lighted from above and lowered through the fret worked circlet in the centre of the dome. The proscenium and the panels of the boxes are to be splendidly ornamented. The stage is fifty-eight by fifty-two feet, above which are painting rooms, carpenters’ galleries, etc. An adjoining brick tenement contains a green-room and very comfortable dressing rooms. The whole is furnished in handsome style, and is somewhat larger than the Baltimore theatre. Mr. P. Hooker is architect, and Mr. Grain the scene painter. The probable cost, including lot, is about $25,000.
The hard novitiate of Edwin Forrest was now drawing near its close. Securing a stock engagement with Charles Gilfert manager of the Albany Theatre he opened there in the early fall and played for the first time with Edmund Kean then on his second visit to America. The meeting with this extraordinary man and the attention he received from him were foremost among the directing influences of Forrest’s life. To his last hour he never wearied of singing the praises of Kean whose genius filled the English speaking world with admiration. Two men more unlike in mind and body can scarcely be imagined. Until now Forrest had seen no actor who represented in perfection the impassioned school of which Kean was the master. He could not have known Cooke even in the decline of that great tragedian’s power and the little giant was indeed a revelation. He played Iago to Kean’s Othello Titus to his Brutus and Richmond to his Richard III.
[Brandon Mathews and Laurence Hutton, Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States (New York: Cassell & Company 1886), 38]
[v] Players of a Century, 85-86.
[vi] Players of a Century, 103.
[vii] As described in Albany Gazette 25 Aug 1829:
The screen is 24 feet wide, supported by four octagonal gothic columns, in panel work, and rising about 18 feet from the chancel floor. The columns are finished at the top with pinnacles, ornamented and encircled with carved leaves and vines; in the centre of the screen and immediately over the pulpit, there rises a pediment supported by clustered columns and an arch; the pediment also surmounted with a richly ornamented pinnacle extending to the ceiling and standing in relief, in a niche prepared to receive it. The top of the screen and bases of the pinnacles are finished with castellated battlements, and the panel work in quatre foils.
[viii] We don’t know whether this sort of violence was typical of the Rising Sun. In 1863, a new bar, Oriental Palace Hall, opened in the same block. It was definitely a violent and seedy place. When it closed in 1874, the Daily Argus described it as a “vile den.” [Daily Argus 24 Oct 1874]
[ix] Players of a Century, 215-216.