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“No Roof Except the Sky” The Rise and Fall of Airdomes in American Popular Entertainment Landis K. Magnuson Upon the opening of W. F. Brinton’s new airdome in the southeastern Iowa community of Washington early in the summer of 1908, the local Evening Journal heralded: “The great craze in the larger cities for the past several years during summer months has been open air games, exercises and performances of different kinds which has given rise to the construction of air domes, which have become so very popular in the larger cities that the theatres and indoor places of amusement of any merit close during the summer months and all enjoy the pleasant, mirthful and healthful summer breezes in the air domes.”1 Built with an impressively ornate front facade (figure 1), the Washington airdome (like many others) was strategically located among businesses near the town square, in this instance only a short distance from the community gathering place of the local post office. In highlighting the development of such entertainment venues, the Evening Journal claimed that a general progression of airdome construction from larger to smaller cities was under way at the time, having moved in recent years from cities the size of Chicago to cities of “only twenty-five and thirty thousand inhabitants” to cities of “ten and fifteen thousand” to towns the size of Washington, which barely exceeded 4,250 in population at that time.2 Each and every airdome built, boasted the local press, offered seating in the open air, which benefited “the general health of mankind, for after being shut indoors through the winter the health of every individual demands all the outdoor air possible in work or pleasure, hence from natural causes and the public good has the fad for the air domes sprung.”3 “No Roof Except the Sky” 31 Much of the rich history of airdomes must be gleaned from the depths of local newspaper accounts and the popular trade publications of the era. For example, the editorial page of Billboard in the fall of 1909 provides an optimistic, but certainly not prophetic, assessment: “The airdome is a branch of the amusement business that has come to stay.” Although providing a rather romanticized view of the airdomes, the editorial does outline its chief characteristics: With the stage erected out-of-doors, and with no roof except the sky, and with the moon furnishing most of the light necessary, the airdome proved to be the ideal place to spend the evening, furnishing an opportunity to enjoy the entertainment without courting suffocation. With no expensive building to rent and vacant lots being cheap, the airdome immediately proved to be not only a more comfortable place of amusement, but an inexpensive one for the promoter. This is the reason why there will be more airdomes next summer, and they will be erected and conducted on a scale more elaborate.4 Contemporary accounts and historical overviews of the period establish the development and flourishing of airdomes from around the beginning of the twentieth century until the World War I era, perhaps reaching their greatest period of expansion a few years prior to 1910. DeFigure 1. Ornate front facade of the Washington, Iowa, airdome. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Repertoire Americana, Midwest Old Threshers, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. 32 L A N D I S K . M A G N U S O N spite being a significant popular entertainment format, which flourished well beyond a single decade and continued in various levels of practice for decades to follow, only a scant amount of academic analysis and subsequent publication has taken place. Why? Perhaps it is because airdomes have been viewed as only a short-lived, second-tier entertainment practice . Possibly the phenomenon has been overshadowed by the major investigations during the past thirty-five years into other popular entertainment formats such as tent repertoire, circle stock, vaudeville, and touring stock ensembles. It simply may be that the story remains more difficult to recover. In response, this essay aims to expand significantly the story of airdomes, with particular emphasis on the performance offerings in the venues and, perhaps more important, to augment and integrate the existing visual...