Airdomes: Open-Air Ancestors Of Cincinnati’s Drive-Ins

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When the Oakley Drive-In turned out the lights around 15 years ago, Cincinnati lost its last open-air movie theater. Few people recall that Cincinnati’s first outdoor movie theaters opened long before automobiles were popular. They were called airdomes. It is difficult these days to track down information (or images!) of these sky-covered motion-picture halls, yet Cincinnati boasted quite a few of them.

Airdomes sprang up like mushrooms in urban vacant lots from around 1905 to 1925. Most, as in this illustration, had a refreshment area outside the screening enclosure.

Illustration of a typical airdome. From “Motion Picture Work” by David Hulfish, Published 1913 in Chicago, Page 590, Digitized by Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=nrs4AQAAMAAJ&dq. Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

David S. Hulfish, in his 1913 book, Motion Picture Work, described the basic concept:

“Airdome: This name has been adopted to define a motion picture theater in the open air. A fenced enclosure is chosen, or a canvas 8 to 10 feet high is erected upon stakes to form an enclosed yard. At one end a projection house or even a projection platform is built; at the other end, a picture screen of usual theater size is erected. Chairs are arranged before the screen as in any motion picture theater, and the entire conduct of the airdome is quite the same. A platform may be built before the screen for vaudeville. The airdome is for fair weather only. The novel idea seems to please the general public, whether the airdome is operated in a country town or upon a vacant lot in a large city.”

The heyday of airdomes was 1910 to about 1930 and they could be found from coast to coast. Airdomes were particularly popular and long-lived in the tropically southern Plains states from Kansas to Texas, but they were equally prevalent in regions where even summer nights could get downright chilly, like Long Island and the shores of Lake Michigan.

The interior of the Saugatuck, Michigan airdome indicates the standard layout of the open-air theaters. There is a piano located beneath the screen to provide the “soundtrack’ for the silent movies shown there.

Used by permission of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society

Airdomes sprang up so quickly in Cincinnati that a reader was inspired to write [22 June 1912] to the Cincinnati Enquirer asking where the name of these establishments came from. The Enquirer replied:

“The airdome is a term not more than two or three years old, and is used to describe open-air theaters of motion picture shows. It is simply a show term.”

A partial list of Cincinnati airdomes finds them distributed from the West End to Avondale, from Covington to Oakley and from Westwood to Linwood.

Airdome Theater, 4909 Central

Arcade Airdome, Reading & Hutchins

Bon Ton Airdome, Evanston

Brighton Airdome, Colerain & Dayton

Burnet Airdome, Burnet & Rockdale

Coney Island Airdome, Coney Island

Covington Airdome, 16 West Sixth, Covington

Dixie Airdome, 663 West Fifth

Fairview Airdome, Warner & Flora

Fifth Street Garden, Fifth & John

Forest Airdome, 671 Forest

Linwood Airdome, 4771 Eastern

Mars Airdome, 3320 Montgomery

Moving Picture Airdome, 940 West Ninth

Oakley Airdome, Madison & Markbreit

Orpheum Sky Theater, Peebles Corner

Redland Airdome,,Cincinnati Baseball Park

Vine Street Airdome, 1420 Vine

Westwood Airdome, 2843 Shaffer

Even Coney Island and the Cincinnati Reds opened airdome theaters. The 3,000-seat venue at Redland Field was one of the very few airdomes with a roof. Most of the others depended on fair weather and at least one Cincinnati airdome was forced into bankruptcy because of a rainy summer.

Although airdomes flourished unmolested in Cincinnati, some neighboring municipalities took a dim view of these new-fangled operations. Norwood Mayor William M. Fridman decided to crack down on an airdome showing films on Sundays. While Norwood’s indoor movie theaters paid $20 per month for a license, Mayor Fridman announced that the airdome had to pay $5 each and every day. Owners of the Norwood airdome sued and Mayor Fridman was forced to treat it like any other movie theater.

The main attraction for the airdome concept was fresh, cool air. Movie theaters at the time were poorly ventilated and allowed smoking everywhere. On hot summer nights they could be stifling. Watching a film outdoors under the stars provided a refreshing break from the stuffy nickelodeons, but airdomes had their own drawbacks, as a correspondent reported to the Cincinnati Post [28 August 1924]:

“Only a person devoid of his five senses could fail to appreciate the real atmosphere of the place – especially on cold nights. And as the mosquitos rally on and around me and my chair I ponder, ‘Why go to Latonia, when one can see so many scratches in our own neighborhood?’”

Yes, airdomes attracted mosquitos, lots of mosquitos. As the Post correspondent continued:

“At my right, a free-swinging fan (human) has put a mosquito to the sleep that knows no waking – and instantly 1,000,000 of the late mosquito’s brethren spring to the slayer’s arms, seeking elbow room.”

Although most airdomes exhibited only moving pictures, some, notably the Coney Island airdome, presented live vaudeville shows as well. Airdomes made good locations for politicking and the Linwood airdome was not the only one used for a public debate.

It appears that airdomes lost their cachet as indoor movie theaters adopted air-conditioning as a selling point, and Cincinnati’s last airdome sputtered into obscurity around 1929.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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