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Silver Screen Thrills

Albany’s Madison Theater reopens on Halloween night for a first look at its ambitious renovation

by Ann Morrow on October 31, 2013


It’s . . .  showtime! Maybe not for the Madison Theater itself—that will be tonight (Thursday, Oct. 31) when it welcomes the community with a Halloween screening—but on Tuesday it was the moment of truth for theater’s gleaming new popcorn machine. In the freshly painted lobby, atop a newly constructed concession stand of speckled-red concrete, the machine cheerily filled with snowy-white popcorn. The new owners of Albany’s beloved Madison taste-tested the debut batch from old-fashioned paper bags while discussing the arrival of a newfangled butter dispenser that will guarantee freshly melted butter atop the popcorn.

Restoring a neighborhood asset: Grout, Laiosa and Fishgold photographed by Ann Morrow

The partners, Gunther Fishgold, Darren Grout and Dan Laiosa, certainly know their snacks: Fishgold and Grout are also the owners of Tierra Coffee Roasters, which sells organic nuts and fruits with its fair-trade coffees and chocolates in a storefront by the theater. (Laiosa was involved with the company’s farm-market sales for a decade.) Next door, another storefront–which had been an ice-cream parlor and a bookstore before conversion to two small screening rooms in the 1990s—is being converted back to a storefront that will sell Tierra products. The gourmet treats are manufactured at their headquarters in Valatie, Grout’s hometown. The store is their first retail endeavor in Albany. “We love the demographic here,” says Fishgold, who lives in Chatham. “Our clientele is great.”

At the top of the ramp that once led to five screening rooms is a speckled-concrete service bar that will offer smoothies and cappuccinos to moviegoers, along with wine and beer. Eventually it will have a full liquor license for events, because under construction behind the two completely updated screening rooms is a 400-seat venue for concerts, theater, comedy, and more.

The Madison Entertainment Group, as the venture is now called, grew from the company’s Tierra Coffee Roasters coffee shop, opened two years ago on the other side of the theater. The three businesses actually occupy one large building, and the first-time entertainment mavens expect to have full ownership of it by April. “It’s a real-estate investment,” said Fishgold, explaining that the group wanted to exercise their option to buy on their coffee shop lease (they also have a coffee shop next door to the Spectrum Theater on Delaware Avenue), and decided to take the plunge and buy the entire 14,000 square feet.

“We’ll make money on the sides, and the theater in the middle will be for fun,” he says. Though the Madison will serve as a lead-in to the flanking shops, there is no doubting the group’s enthusiasm for showing movies, as Fishgold names a long and varied list of films he is eager to book. Tonight’s screening of Night of the Living Dead is to give the neighborhood a sneak peek at the ongoing renovation. Tickets are $3 and include free popcorn. The Madison Theater will officially reopen in December, and it will show second-run films, including silent-film festivals, themed retrospectives, and “and as much local film as we can,” says Fishgold. “This is really going to be a community theater.” Laiosa, the general manager, is already in talks with local filmmakers.

One screening room has a matte-white screen, the other a classic silver screen, and both are 33 feet wide. The original theater was noted for the innovation of its “talking apparatus,” and that apparatus will again be state-of-the-art: the screening rooms are outfitted with Dolby surround-sound systems of eight surround speakers and four center-channel speakers with especially powerful PV woofers, which will accompany their top-of-the-line Christie digital projectors. The new “rocker” seats are 41 inches in height and have 5 inches of comfort foam. Grout says the pitch and spacing of the seats ensure that every single seat will have excellent sight lines. The descending ramp is being dressed up for a dramatic entranceway.

The original Madison Theater lobby

Though the theater will never again be the opulent movie palace it was in 1929, when theater designer Thomas W. Lamb’s art deco jewel box astonished locals with its glamour and stunningly modernist interior, the partners are doing their best to reuse and refurbish the elements that are left from its drastic 1968 modernization, while expunging all remnants of the 1990’s remodel into a mall-style multiplex. They are doing much of the work themselves, and hired historic consultant Bill Allen, a longtime historic-architecture preservationist, to guide the décor. The lobby now glows with rich historic colors such as New London Burgundy and evocative silvery grays and golden yellows, and will be lit with custom-replicated modernist sconces. “They look very ‘movie palace,’” enthuses Grout.

An art deco globe will illuminate the ticket booth. Vestiges of the lavish original, such as Moorish arches and craftsman doorframes, are being integrated, and since the foyer couldn’t be reproduced at any price, it is being stripped down to exposed brick.  Fishgold says much of the project is a gesture of goodwill to the community.

Allen describes the renovation as “a visible and creative reinvestment in a neighborhood theater.” He also describes the meticulous refurbishment of the façade, right down to the delicate cleaning of the marquee’s fragile lighting tubes, which will boost its wattage. Installed in the 1960s, the block-letter marquee has become a neighborhood icon in its own right, and the addition of running lights will add some mid-century dazzle. The color scheme is being changed from aqua to red, and eventually, the sculptural terra-cotta façade, a signature of Lamb’s designs, will also be repainted. A missing piece is being custom-replicated out of rubber.

Of the partners, Allen jokes, “Whenever I call them, they just laugh and say, “What do you want now?” The consultant then mentions the possibility of re-creating the theater’s original balcony someday, while peering down at the renovations through its surviving opening.

Along with gasps of fright from Thursday’s Halloween screening, moviegoers may hear just as many ooohs and aaahs at the old theater’s return to stylish new life.