Cudmore: Crowd unruly but premiere boosted theater’s business

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When the movie “Drums Along the Mohawk” premiered on Thursday night, Nov. 2, 1939 in Amsterdam, the crowd outside the Rialto Theater on Market Street was out of control according to a local newspaper columnist.

Hugh Donlon in his Main Street column in the Amsterdam Recorder the next night wrote, “Help … Leggo my arm … out of the way … I wanta get a peek at ‘em … Darn it I can’t see a thing … It’s a wonder they wouldn’t have more police and troopers out … There goes Arleen Whelan … Quit shovin’ you or I’ll poke you one … Wotta night … They oughta held this in Madison Square Garden.”

Directed by John Ford, “Drums Along the Mohawk” starred Henry Fonda as American Revolutionary War era settler Gil Martin.  Claudette Colbert portrayed Martin’s wife.

Fonda, born in Nebraska, was descended from people named Fonda who settled the Montgomery County village of Fonda after first leaving their native Italy for the Netherlands in the 1600s.

The movie’s plot was based on a novel of the same name written by Walter D. Edmonds.  A native of Boonville, N.Y., Edmonds’ book was on the bestseller list for two years in the 1930s.

In the movie, Martin [Fonda] and his bride settle in the Mohawk Valley and for the next six years, Martin fights in the Revolutionary War.

Schine Theaters’ Rialto in Amsterdam was one of 27 movie palaces in the United States chosen for the premiere.  The film also debuted regionally in Gloversville, Schenectady, Utica and Albany.

Neither Fonda nor Colbert were at the Amsterdam screening but actors including Arthur Shields, Arleen Whelan, Lynn Bari and Joan Davis did come to the city for a parade and welcome from Mayor Arthur Carter.  Shields played Rev. Rosenkrantz in the film.  Whelan, Bari and Davis apparently were not in the movie but had been featured in other Hollywood films.

“What a wild, crazy crowd these movie fans can become,” Donlon wrote.  “Even the veterans among the producers’ officials discarded the trite descriptive terms colossal, stupendous, amazing and super-this and super-that. 

“After battling their way backstage they slumped to inquire in awe: ‘Howin’ell are we ever going to get out of here?’  And when the stage door was broken, they looked more frightened than the beleaguered pioneers in the frontier fort in the picture.”

Donlon wrote that a souvenir hunter took actress Arleen Whelan’s hat, “Twice on the way through the mob it looked as though she was going to pass out.  And then when she finally came on to the stage there were those in the audience who thought it strange that an actress should be so nervous.  They, of course, had no idea what had been going on outside.”

Donlon wondered whether movie stars would come to Amsterdam again unless wearing “suits of armor” and having the protection of the National Guard.

The Recorder later reported that the Rialto did a stupendous business with standing room only for five days after “Drums Along the Mohawk’s” premiered.

Entrepreneur Edward C. Klapp built the 1,400-seat Rialto in 1917.  In 1933, it became part of Gloversville’s Schine theater chain and was known for stage performances by the likes of Jack Benny and Burns and Allen.

In his 1980 history of Amsterdam, Donlon wrote that boxer “Sailor” Barron directed the Rialto usher corps: “Barron’s ring expertise enabled him to administer fistic anesthesia to potential troublemakers so quietly that there was no awareness of the operation by most patrons.” Bothersome customers were removed to an alleyway north of the theater.

The Rialto and other downtown Amsterdam movie theaters are long gone, succumbing to pressure from multiplex theaters in the 1960s and 1970s.

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