The Catholic Union and the Eagle Theatre

Two generations of Albany children remember the Eagle Theatre, on the corner of Eagle and Hudson. It opened in 1926—a year before The Jazz Singer inaugurated the sound era—and remained in business for over thirty years.

The theater was housed in an antebellum armory, owned by the Catholic Union. Akin to the YMCA, the Union was a fraternal organization (with ladies auxiliary) dedicated to “the moral, intellectual, physical, and social well being of Catholic youth and adults.” Founded in 1887 with the encouragement of Bishop Francis McNeirny, the growing organization acquired the old arsenal later that year.

By the 1920s, the Catholic Union’s membership had declined and, along with it, funds—until local impresario, George Roberts, proposed a multi-year lease of the Union Hall’s main floor. He and his son, Ormond, converted the old armory’s 130 x 60 foot drill room into a 1,000-seat movie theater. But Ormond died soon after the Eagle opened in 1926. The following year, Roberts sold the theater to Abraham Stone, a 20-year veteran of the motion picture business.

 80 Eagle Street, South Mall Photographic Album<br /> Unidentified photographer<br /> September 26, 1962<br /> Gelatin silver print, 4” x 2 ¾”<br /> Albany Institute of History &amp; Art, PA95.B4num80, DI888
The Catholic Union, September 1962. Albany Institute.

Although the Union’s finances improved, relations with the local diocese soured. In 1928—five years before the founding of the Legion of Decency—Albany Bishop Edmund Gibbons complained that the movie theater was “a disgrace to the Catholic name” and threatened to denounce the organization publicly. The bishop urged Union leaders to dissolve the organization and sell the hall, proceeds to benefit the rival Knights of Columbus. The bishop’s threats and pleas, however, appear to have had little effect.

In 1929, Stone’s Eagle Theater converted to sound. In 1938,  the familiar marquee was installed. A final round of renovations took place in 1944, after Capitol City Theater Corporation acquired the Eagle. The new owner instituted a policy of showing first-run films. Unfortunately, motion picture distributors discriminated against independent operators, forcing Capitol City to sell seven years later.

The Eagle, nevertheless, remained in business, limping along for almost a decade. A 1951 deal with local schools for special Saturday afternoon children’s shows probably helped.

Demolition of the Catholic Union, January 1964. NYS Archives.
Demolition of the Catholic Union, January 1964. NYS Archives.

When the State of New York acquired the theater via eminent domain in 1962, the Eagle Theatre was already closed. The Catholic Union relocated to rented facilities at 480 Ontario St. And the city of Albany lost another landmark to the South Mall.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Leah says:

    Bishop Gibbons’ complaint made me think of the sisters who used to run the projector in the basement of Santa Barbara’s RC Church in Uranium City, where I grew up. Somehow, as soon as anything violent or even slightly risque was around the corner, the projector would magically go out of focus.

    Another great glimpse into the rapidly changing life of a neighbourhood. The end of an era in more ways than one.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. William Hoiuting says:

    Another great bit of research, Ann! Thank You. This brings back a lot of memories. My sister would take me to the Library (On the Eagle St. side of the building…My first Library Card!) Then, on to the Saturday Matinees……….NewsReel, Coming Attractions, Cartoon and Feature. If I remember correctly it was fifteen cents admission. Lots of Good Memories!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Cynthia Campbell says:

    That’s right Bill, and being your older sister, I was in charge of taking you with me to the movies on a Saturday afternoon. The first order of the day was to stop in the little grocery store that was next to the library for candy,Then on to the library. We would choose some books, hide them under the stairs for good keeping until we would retrieve them after the movies, then on to the Cathedral for confession. What a way to spend a Saturday!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ann, I look forward to every new article about your 98 acres. Today, not only is the theater story interesting, but the comments bring it even more to life. I wonder what today’s children will remember? People with their noses buried in tablets and phones?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. June Myers says:

    I remember going to the Eagle theater as a little girl. We saw a lot of Shirley Temple movies. I also went to the Union Catholic Library that was next door to the
    on the second floor.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Fitzpatrick says:

    Many memories of the Eagle. I lived only one block up on High Street. Also had a card for the Library. I think we used to call it the Union Free Library.
    I also seem to recall a bakery up the street on the corner of Hamilton and Eagle. Chocolate eclair for 10 cents after the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

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