Sure, New York is a big hub of film production, but did you know that when Hollywood was a glorified cow town, the New York area was the heart of the film business in America?
There are traces of that era all around, from the Vitagraph Studios smokestack in Midwood to the Roosevelt Building in Greenwich Village, the first home of the Biograph Company, as well as Kaufman Astoria, an original studio still cranking out films (and which is also home to “Sesame Street”). But New York as the nation’s premier film center once made lots of sense.
“It’s the center of the vaudeville circuit. It’s also the [country’s] economic center,” said Richard Koszarski, a Rutgers professor and expert in New York film history, of the city at the time. The advantages included transportation, access to talent and financing.
“So everything is over here, and this is a great place to be,” he said.
That began to change when film companies discovered the agreeable weather (and escape from Thomas Edison’s patent enforcement) offered out west.
amNewYork looks at the region’s role in shaping the American movie industry — and at how a longstanding revival is chugging along.
Midwood’s American Vitagraph produced the first propaganda films during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and many of the “first types of animated films,” Koszarski said.
“They were one of the first companies to start not only promoting their actors [among them early stars Florence Turner and Maurice Costello], but putting those actors in serious works — Shakespeare, Dickens,” he said.
D.W. Griffith and Thomas Edison
Biograph, on East 13th Street and Broadway, then on East 14th Street and later in the Bronx, is best remembered for its association with D.W. Griffith. The filmmaker directed his first movie for the company, “The Adventures of Dollie,” in 1908.
Edison Studios, in West Orange, N.J., and later in Manhattan and the Bronx, is frequently regarded as a tinkerer messing with its founder’s patents. Still, the seminal “The Great Train Robbery” was shot for the company.
“Edison made more money from his motion-picture business than he did from the electric light and a lot of the other things he invented,” Koszarski said.
The city as set
Vitagraph filmmakers frequently shot near the studio, in a neighborhood that was nowhere near as developed as it is today. Edison Studios filmed in the Bronx. Jamaica, Queens, was also used.
“Fred Scott’s Movie Ranch at the foot of Sand Lane in South Beach was the site where more than 100 cowboy-and-Indian movies were filmed before it closed in 1914,” said borough historian Thomas W. Matteo.
New Jersey: 'The Wild West'
Perhaps the most desirable location of all was Fort Lee, facing Manhattan atop the Palisades. D.W. Griffith and his counterparts loved filming in what was once a Hamptons-like resort town.
The tourist apparatus existed, with small hotels and helpful guides that could help fulfill a production’s needs, Koszarski noted, while everyday visitors that would have been prone to gawking at the camera and ruining shots had moved elsewhere.
Eventually, a standing western set was built, but the New Jersey borough’s unique geography ensured all sorts of films could be shot there.
“If you look in one direction, there’s a farm,” Koszarski said. “In another direction, there’s a Victorian mansion, maybe from the Civil War. In another direction, there’s a four-story building that looks like a Lower East Side tenement building."
While most of New York’s earliest studios and nickelodeon/silent-era cinematic landmarks have disappeared, one major relic remains: Kaufman Astoria Studios, constructed in 1920 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation to give the company an NYC presence close to Broadway.
Its walls have housed productions from the Marx Brothers to “Sesame Street.” Today, major TV shows and movies shoot here, including “Men in Black III.” Nearby Silvercup Studios is home to shows such as “30 Rock.”
“Astoria and Long Island City have always remained — and to this day this is true — a place where artisans and artists cross paths and fertilize each other’s creativity and imagination,” said Bob Singleton, executive director of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
Intrigued by all this? Want to learn more? You’re in luck. Richard Koszarski has curated “Making Movies in New York 1911,” which runs at the Museum of the Moving Image on June 4-5. The series features shorts centered on four overarching themes and will include examples of much of what we’ve written about here.
Photo credit: Fort Lee Film Commission