For 25 years, the village of Schoharie in Upstate New York was an epicenter of motion picture innovation. As the host of the very first open-air motion picture presentation, entirely free to the public, this rural hub of only a thousand people ushered in what would later become the drive-in movies of the mid-20th century.
From 1917 until 1942, every week of every summer there was a “Free Movie” night in Schoharie, a modest village 30 miles west of Albany. Initially a scheme to boost the town’s commercial activity by showing outdoor movies on a huge screen in the middle of Main Street, thousands of farmers, shop keepers, teenagers and retirees would spend Thursday nights in town, grabbing seats (bring your own or rent one for 10 cents), standing in the back, or snuggling in the comfort of the old Ford.
After the screenings, the movie-goers took to the streets for some late-night dancing, and (happily for the town merchants), spending some of their summer cash.
For the first eight years, silent films entertained the town, and when talkies hit the screen in 1928, Schoharie found itself in a bind—there were no public address systems yet developed to show sound pictures to an outdoor crowd. Luckily, it was in the hands of an engineering whiz-kid named Ed Scribner, the town’s projectionist and amateur inventor, who had learned about broadcasting to a crowd while he was in the Army. He rigged up his own system, creating the complete outdoor movie package long before drive-ins figured it out decades later.
Today in Schoharie you can visit a plaque commemorating this memorable time, and afterward head over to the Old Stone Fort Historical Museum to learn more about its history. It also has Ed Scribner’s actual projection system and tons of photos and memorabilia. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Free Street Movies, and in June the town will be warming up the old projector to screen a few, a centennial celebration called “A Century Under the Stars.”