The Air Dome

In the early 20th century a unique concept brought many popular forms of entertainment together. What became known as an “Air Dome”, held several different acts taken out of an indoor theater and put them outside. Rows and rows of chairs were set up in front of a stage or sometimes screen where the audience would then watch the performance. Being outside offered some distinct advantages. First in the summer months, being outdoors could be far more comfortable than being in a stuffy theater that didn’t have air conditioning. Also, being outside on a summer night offered a very pleasant ambiance. Singers, jugglers, vaudeville acts, and bands were some of the performers that one could see at an air dome. However, a relatively new technology seemed to be one of the most popular; motion picture films.  

Ad for the Air Dome from the July 23, 1914 edition of the McHenry Plaindealer.

During this time, McHenry was a resort town, there were locally several forms of entertainment that were available and many places to get them. An Air Dome conveniently put them all together, yet McHenry’s mainly stuck with movies. It ran from 1912 through 1916, at the Riverside Park along the Fox River. The River offered an ideal place with some great scenery. Also, being about a mile north of town, it was quiet and dark enough for showing films. The Air Dome was run by John W. Smith, a veteran theater operator and performer. Smith ran the theater in McHenry’s Central Opera House and would run the Empire Theater for many years. The Air Dome borrowed 5 pieces from the Central Opera House orchestra for the music played during the movie. Movies and other things, such as lighting, that required electricity had a line run to them. So goes life with outdoor activities. Yet, Smith then purchased a cover for the dome, how large the cover was and how often it was used, wasn’t noted. The Dome was open for business on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings at a cost of 10 cents. For the 1913 season, John Montgomery was brought in to run the films as the Air Dome was open every night of the week. He was an electrician who had experience operating movies in Chicago. During a particularly bad storm, power was poor enough to cancel the Sunday show.  

Ad from 6 Jun 1912 Plaindealer.

The popular movies of the day were comedies and western melodramas. One such western, The Flaming Arrow, was performed as a play when Smith ran the Central Opera House in McHenry. Many of the pictures shown at the Air Dome were Vitagraph, Lubin, and Kalem pictures. They were three of the premier movie companies during the silent film era. By 1915, Charlie Chaplin movies had their own day, Tuesday, when they were the featured films of the day. Smith also worked with the community, hosting meetings for the Boy Scouts and holding fundraisers for different groups in the community. Different concessions were made for guests to purchase. A peanut vendor from Woodstock even drove his cart out upon occasion. By 1916, the fifth season of the Air Dome, several movies were being shown starring many of the silent film era’s biggest stars including Mary Pickford and John Barrymore. 1916 was also the last season for McHenry’s Air Dome. Whether John W. Smith wasn’t making enough money or wanted to focus on the Central Opera House is hard to say. Maybe it was a bit of both. Air Domes themselves would hold on until talking films became more popular, thus changing the need for ways to project sound. Eventually, the technology would catch up and outdoor movie-going would be popular again in the form of the drive-in. 

Ad from 7 Aug 1913 Plaindealer.
Sources
  • “Electric Light Service” The McHenry Plaindealer. 4 Jul 1912, 4. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Electric Storm” The McHenry Plaindealer. 11 Jul 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “The New Top” The McHenry Plaindealer. 25 Jul 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Electric Light Service” The McHenry Plaindealer. 4 Jul 1912, 4. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Electric Storm” The McHenry Plaindealer. 11 Jul 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “The New Top” The McHenry Plaindealer. 25 Jul 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Extensive Patronage” The McHenry Plaindealer. 25 Jul 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “The Air Dome Continues to Offer…” The McHenry Plaindealer. 1 Aug 1912, 5. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “The Flaming Arrow” The McHenry Plaindealer. 31 Jul 1913, 4. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Program for the Movies…” The McHenry Plaindealer. 14 Aug 1913, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “The Program for the Movies” The McHenry Plaindealer. 11 Sep 1913, 4. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Peanut & Popcorn Wagon” The McHenry Plaindealer. 13 Aug 1914, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Peanut & Popcorn Wagon” The McHenry Plaindealer. 20 Aug 1914, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “Air Dome To Open” The McHenry Plaindealer. 22 Jun 1916, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “At The Air Dome” The McHenry Plaindealer. 10 Aug 1916, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “At The Air Dome” The McHenry Plaindealer. 22 Aug 1916, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 1 Jun 2020.
  • “J.W. Smith” The Herald (Crystal Lake, IL). 13 Jun 1912, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 18 Jun 2020.
  • “Special Attraction” The McHenry Plaindealer. 28 Aug 1913, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 18 Jun 2020.