“Silent film studio? In Brooklyn?”
My questions were in response to an idea Rebecca tossed out during a brainstorming session in January of this year.
I work out at Brooklyn College, as an academic advisor for the Scholars Program of the Honors Academy, and wanted to design an Urban Memory Project workshop within our community for my students and colleagues. Located in Flatbush, bordering both Midwood and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn College is well-situated for historical exploration: Dutch countryside meets Native American settlements; the Battle of Brooklyn; the current BK College campus property in the 1920s as the supposed stomping grounds (literally) of Barnum and Bailey’s circus animals.
As we mused about the possibility of developing any of these topics, Rebecca added,
“Hey, there is also that silent film studio in Midwood.”
It is not irrelevant to note that I am convinced that in a former life I worked the vaudeville circuit, performing pantomimes and “tableaux vivants” across the dimly lit stages of American cities and small towns… I sat up a little straighter, immediately intrigued, and asked for more information.
From that moment, I have been hooked on The Vitagraph Company of America, the country’s first prolific producer of silent film shorts and newsreels—and later sweeping silent epics and serials—founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, who began their careers as “magic lantern” performers at the end of the nineteenth century. They started Vitagraph with an early version of Edison’s Vitascope projector in 1897 on a rooftop in Manhattan, and then expanded their operation to Brooklyn’s Avenue M and 15th Street in 1906, where they produced over 3000 silent films until 1925. The footprint of the main studio building still stands, as does the smokestack with its V-I-T-A-G-R-A-P-H C-O written down the side, proclaiming to all Q train riders that the Avenue M station stop was once the destination for a pioneering company of over 400 employees—actors, directors, “techies,” carpenters, designers— heading to work at a bustling movie studio.
I began my research on the web, and discovered a significant amount of information about Vitagraph, which by 1925 became known as Vitaphone Studios, under the ownership of Warner Brothers. I saw images of the studio buildings, the Vitagraph “lorry” for transporting equipment, and head shots of its founders and various stars: Norma Talmadge, John Bunny, Maurice Costello, Florence Turner, and Jean, the Vitagraph dog. I learned that many early Vitagraph movies were filmed outdoors in the woods and fields surrounding the studio in what was then called South Greenfield, Brooklyn. I read the overview from MoMA’s 2006 retrospective film exhibit, Vitagraph: The Big V on Avenue M, and I watched excerpts from Vitagraph short films I could find on YouTube, including: The Thieving Hand, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I discovered that the old studio is now the site of the Shulamith School for Girls, a Jewish parochial school, which reflects the demographics of Midwood today.
I couldn’t believe all of this industry, artistry and invention had occurred a century ago in developing Brooklyn, and that I had never heard of Vitagraph studio before. I began researching all I could about Vitagraph and South Greenfield (also referred to as Flatbush) in the 1910’s, the most productive years for the nascent film studio. I discovered one comprehensive book on Vitagraph, written by Anthony Slide entitled The Big V, A History of the Vitagraph Company of America. The latest edition was published in 1987, is out of print, and there is only one copy in circulation at the New York Public Library. I checked out the volume, pored over Slide’s research, including an index of all Vitagraph film titles, and ended up renewing the book twice before buying it on line.
I began to conjure Vitagraph’s vital – and perhaps oddball- presence in the 1910’s residential Brooklyn neighborhood, still mostly dirt roads, family owned businesses, simple wood-frame homes, and surrounding woods and pasture. From 1910 Census data, I gathered that residents were of Italian, German, or Swedish descent, with many listed as “American,” with English as their primary language. I pictured the daily tasks and spirit of adventure that marked the beginning of the film industry, as described by Slide’s account: the flurry of carpenters and artisans constructing sets and trompe l’oeil backdrops; actors sewing their own costumes while rehearsing for their upcoming scenes; neighbors lending furniture from their living rooms to decorate a set and local young women ditching high school to become one of the new Vitagraph Girls; directors such as Blackton orchestrating elaborate battle scenes or plotting out slapstick routines, calling for order on the set as he experimented with storytelling through a single camera lens.
After a couple of weeks of intense research, I was eager to visit the site. On a cold February morning, I headed over to the former studio, a quick car ride away from the Brooklyn College campus. As my car turned onto Avenue M from Ocean Avenue, I looked out for the beacon of the Vitagraph smokestack to guide me. Urban development and blocky buildings erected since the Vitagraph days hindered a plain view of the structure from east of the train overpass. I circled the block twice, before homing in on the Vitagraph smokestack next to the train tracks in a weedy corner of a parking lot. My heart raced when I finally spotted it, though it was not quite as tall as it appeared in renderings—maybe because newer buildings dwarfed its earlier prominence. I found its yellow bricks beautiful and its endurance on the site moving. It was a bit like seeing an elderly celebrity in real life– she’s smaller in person, and you stand in awe of how much she has witnessed.
I drove past the historic smokestack, and onto Avenue M, then turned in to 14th street, and found a parking spot. I noticed my pulse had quickened, and I had a slight adrenaline high. Sitting in my car a block away, I studied the maroon school building in front of me and happily divined the old studio. True, I knew the history, and was discerning it, but what remains of the old Vitagraph complex is impressive. Looming the length of the block, the former studio is a series of two-story concrete buildings that line three out of four streets in a square block. The eastern end of the square block, where the smokestack stands amid scraggly trees, is now a parking lot, right below the elevated subway tracks. A hundred years ago, these buildings surrounded an interior open-air lot with several smaller studios and factory buildings within.
As I got out of my car, I felt like an adventurer on a treasure hunt that few people know about, even many of the inhabitants of the same physical space today. As I headed to the southern edge of the empty block, I noticed the double storied height of what appeared to be a warehouse attached to the two-story building, with the wide doors that mark a factory. I approached the warehouse—now housing an indoor swimming pool–that stood like a proud memorial to an industrious past. Significantly, there were no Vitagraph plaques or markers, nothing to indicate that movies were made on this property back when Hollywood was just a section of Los Angeles.
Eager to endow the scene with any sign of the Vitagraph days, I spotted some high windows in the warehouse section that had been bricked over, and repainted. I would later learn that Vitagraph directors relied on natural light to film in some of the studio buildings, and perhaps these windows were originally used for that purpose. But were they bricked over later to preserve delicate film reels, keeping a storage area cool and dark?
I rounded the corner to walk along the western façade, where a modern film studio is located across the street, built in the 1950’s, and formerly owned by NBC. Looking to my right, I saw what I imagined might be the gated arched entrance to the old Vitagraph studio (and currently to the Shulamith School). I had a fleeting vision of a gaggle of actors, dressed in long wool coats and bowler hats or feathered caps, arriving at the front gate for a day of filming. Such a mundane moment could be made profound by the passage of time—ordinary lives, excavated as extraordinary by a little research and imagination.
2013 faded away, and 1913 strained in as I invoked the hum of movie cameras in operation and the hammering and sawing of set pieces, the chatter and laughter of actors on break and the booming voice of the directors speaking perhaps through a bullhorn like in Singing in the Rain. I had channeled the spirited pioneers of Vitagraph, still making their movie magic amid the modernity of the nearby Q train, Duncan Donuts and Amazing Savings discount store.
In the February chill of that first of many “time traveling” visits to Vitagraph, I finished my tour at the eastern edge of the property, abutting the train tracks, and craned my neck to see the original black brick lettering descending the yellow brick smokestack: VITAGRAPH CO., in chunky font, doggedly declaring its legacy to all who take the time to notice in an ever-changing neighborhood.
I wanted the students at Brooklyn College to experience a similar visceral wonder about the depth of our local history and the breadth of stories and experiences that exist on so many street corners of New York City. Following the mission of the Urban Memory Project, I knew that if I could bring to life Vitagraph studio and its people, I could inspire in the young people an immediate curiosity about the rich unexplored history that lies amidst the most familiar neighborhoods of their city.
I began to imagine an interactive workshop that would heighten the students’ innate curiosity and appreciation for their local history, while also broadening their awareness about the significant contributions made by Vitagraph to the national and international film industry. In this sense, Vitagraph is a classic “American” story of two hard working, talented, and innovative immigrants who build a successful company from the ground up; their prolific, lucrative output of silent films is a hallmark of other “high tech” industries of the early twentieth century.
With the help of Rebecca and Jason, and friends and collaborators Peter Musante, Rachel Jennings, and Mike Salop, I designed a 4-hour workshop to take place on Friday, May 3, 2013. An exploration of the former Vitagraph site would kick off at Brooklyn College, with a silent film, directed by Mike Salop, introducing participants to Vitagraph’s history, both through the content and the form of the short film. In the process of making the film, a great team of actors came together —Peter Musante, Matt McGill, Amy Jensen, and Rachel Jennings—to recreate key moments in Vitagraph history, including re-enacting (with lots of poetic license) some actual Vitagraph films. I even lived out my former destiny, co-starring in a remake of Vitagraph’s 1909 Vanishing Lady.
On the clear blue day of the workshop, after viewing the introductory film, sixteen Brooklyn College Honors Academy students were divided into four groups, and were given “dossiers” that I prepared of various documents—photos, maps, census data– related to Vitagraph and the Midwood and Flatbush neighborhood circa 1910. Most of the resources were gathered from the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, as well as from the map archives of the NYPL and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Peter Musante was instrumental in coming up with the theatrical “hook” to engage participants: each group was given a shot list from a fictional “unfinished Blackton documentary” and a flip camera, and sent into the beautiful day to create a silent film of Midwood today—an homage to Vitagraph, and a fun way to explore the neighborhood and collaborate as a creative team. The primary goal of the film shoot was to document changes in the neighborhood since 1910, as well as elements that have remained or appear relatively consistent since the Vitagraph days.
The final component of the workshop consisted of sharing the film footage, debriefing the observed changes and constants in the neighborhood of Midwood since 1910, and raising the questions that the workshop inspired, such as: what was the relationship between the studio and the neighbors or local businesses? How and when did Midwood become a primarily Orthodox Jewish community, and how, if at all, does that demographic shift relate to Vitagraph in the neighborhood?
Stay posted for the wonderful student films, as well as amazing photographs by Sara Bader, that capture some highlights from the walking tour, and showcase the architectural remnants of the Vitagraph Company of America, still inspiring creative exploration a century later.