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LI's silent film genius who died a pauper

This is a portrait, circa 1920s of Long

This is a portrait, circa 1920s of Long Island resident and Silent Era filmmaker J.Stuart Blackton. Photo Credit: Photofest

Movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton produced the first animated movie, the first propaganda film and possibly the first full-length feature. He hobnobbed with presidents, generals and celebrities. And he owned an 80-acre Gold Coast estate where his neighbors were Theodore and other Roosevelts to the north and Louis Comfort Tiffany of stained-glass fame to the south.

Yet, despite fame, fortune and talent, few today other than historians know his name.

In the early 20th century, Blackton's Vitagraph Co. produced more than 2,200 silent titles -- some shot on the North Shore. That allowed him to purchase a swath clear across Cove Neck from Oyster Bay to Cold Spring Harbor. There Blackton created a modest -- by Gold Coast standards -- farm-like estate called Harbourwood complete with an elaborate boathouse to protect the speedboats he raced to compete for international trophies, with an upper level perfect for entertaining.

But the studio was hurt by the loss of European business during World War I, and Blackton and his two partners sold out to Warner Brothers in 1925. He ran through the proceeds and died penniless in Los Angeles after being hit by a car while crossing the street in 1941.

"He was a rags to riches and back to rags story," said Daniel Walker of Oyster Bay, a retired accountant for the Town of Oyster Bay who began researching Blackton more than 15 years ago because of their mutual interest in powerboat racing.

Walker suggested to the Oyster Bay Historical Society that it mount an exhibit on Blackton because of his connection to the area. The society agreed, and the resulting compilation of photos, maps and other memorabilia runs through next weekend. (See oysterbayhistorical.org for details).

No success in vaudeville
Born in Sheffield, England, in 1875, Blackton emigrated to New York City with his family when he was 10. There, in 1894, he and two fellow English emigres, Albert E. Smith and Ronald A. Reader, formed a vaudeville act. Blackton was the "Komikal Kartoonist" who dashed off "lightning sketches" on an easel pad as he delivered rapid patter. The act was not a financial success and broke up.

Meanwhile, Blackton, an accomplished painter, was producing a series of maritime scenes, six of which are now owned by Noble Maritime Museum on Staten Island. One of them, depicting a square-rigged ship that he painted when he was 20, is featured in the Oyster Bay historical society exhibit.

However, Blackton could not support himself as a painter, so he got a job as a newspaper reporter and artist for the New York Evening World. After interviewing Thomas Edison in 1896, Blackton got the film bug. He left the paper and bought a Kinetoscope projecting machine from Edison, and he and Smith exhibited films all over the city. They made a bundle and decided to make their own movies.

They shot their first in 1897. "The Burglar on the Roof," featuring Blackton as the title character, was distributed by Edison. But after a falling out with the inventor, the pair formed American Vitagraph Company in 1896 to make and distribute films. Blackton provided the artistic inspiration.

The first of the animated films by Blackton -- who earned the nickname "the father of animation" -- was "The Enchanted Drawing," released in 1900. He sketched a face, cigars and a bottle of wine using stop-action photography. His best known animated work was 1906's "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces," which relies on stop-motion photography of stick puppets.

Vitagraph filmed classics including the first American film version of "Romeo and Juliet," shot in Central Park in 1908. Blackton acted but mainly directed before moving up to become supervisor of all productions while Smith served primarily as the administrative guy.

"He was like Disney in his management of all aspects of the Vitagraph studios and his creative genius," Walker said.

With the studio thriving, first in Manhattan and later in Flatbush, Blackton bought the property in Cove Neck in 1912, for $250,000. It had 3,200 feet of shoreline, but Blackton didn't move in until 1914. He built a U-shaped complex with a Georgian Colonial-style cottage, dairy and barn connected by loggias that he called "the Farm" on what is now Tennis Court Road, as well as the boathouse on the Cold Spring Harbor beach.

The boathouse's second floor was referred to as a casino, which in that era meant a gathering place for parties and recreation. A front-page feature in The New York Times real estate section on Dec. 21, 1913, marveled at the structure: "It is almost safe to say that it will be the most elaborate building of its kind in the country." The 100-by-125-foot building could accommodate a dozen large motorboats as well as smaller craft and had sleeping accommodations for "a dozen men, the mechanicians and the motorboat chauffeurs."

Blackton lived part-time at Harbourwood with his wife, Paula, and daughter, Marian. Blackton, who served as commodore of the prestigious Atlantic Yacht Club in Brooklyn and liked to affect that title in everyday life, and his wife shared a passion for powerboat racing. Before World War I, they had accumulated 15 vessels, including two steam yachts. Their speedboats competed unsuccessfully in 1911 and 1912 for the British International Harmsworth Trophy competition in Huntington Bay.

There were plans for a mansion, but it was never built before Blackton sold the property in 1918 for $500,000.

A subsequent owner rented the property to Rodman Wanamaker, who entertained the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII.

Out on his own
A year before Blackton sold his Cove Neck property, he left Vitagraph to produce films independently while also working as a director for hire for other studios. Unsuccessful, he returned to Vitagraph in 1923 and remained for two years, until the partners sold the company to Warner Brothers for $750,000. He produced four movies as an independent for the studio.

Blackton, who was married four times and had four children, made out well. He dabbled in real estate, tried to do film projects and lived extravagantly until the stock market crash in 1929. He filed for bankruptcy two years later. Blackton spent his remaining years trying to interest studios in letting him make films, but most of his time was spent showing his old films and lecturing.

After Blackton died attempting to cross a street, a silent- film director friend, William P.S. Earle, bought a plot in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, Calif., for Blackton's ashes.

The Harbourwood property was subdivided in the 1950s. The upland tract has had a succession of owners, including John McEnroe Sr., who bought it in 1982. His tennis star son and wife Tatum O'Neal renovated the carriage house and lived there for a while.

The property was in the news when Avianca Flight 52 crashed nearby on Jan. 25, 1990, and the front lawn became a triage station for survivors. McEnroe sold the estate in 2000.

When the property was for sale again in 2007, the listing described it as a 20,000-square-foot "palatial Beverly Hills compound" with a four-bedroom main house with spa, a gym and a wine room, a pool house, guesthouse, carriage house with a ballroom, and a garage with apartment space.

The boathouse -- where the next to last owner, Harry Maxwell, reportedly housed a pet lion -- was demolished in the mid-1980s.

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