A Film Studio Grows in Brooklyn

As of Fall 2015, America’s oldest architectural artifacts to the early film industry still remain in Midwood, Brooklyn — the Vitagraph Co. smokestack and the square block open lot of the first modern film studio ever built on American soil– and are in danger of imminent demolition as the site is owned by a real estate developer.

On Sunday October 24, 1915, on the front page column “Film News in Short Reels” of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, there appears a short blurb:

The Vitagraph Theater, where the Battle Cry of Peace is being shown, has been the first theater on Times Square to have its Broadway entrance blocked by the new temporary wooden sidewalks erected by the subway construction company in the North end of Times Square. The theater has established a precedent by being the first to be given permission to put a sign on the temporary structure.

Today this article contains intriguing facts and inferences about life in New York City exactly one hundred years ago. The subway construction referred to is the extension of the 7-train, from Grand Central to Times Square, akin to the MTA’s recent expansion to the Hudson Rail Yards stop. And apparently early 20th century Broadway theaters respected the law to “Post No Bills”; the precedent set by the Vitagraph Theater implies that placing a sign on the “wooden sidewalks” (our version of the plywood mazes at construction sites) represented advertising acumen back then and, perhaps, a little red tape or palm greasing with an unnamed city agency.

But the intrinsic journalistic value of the piece is not obvious. Today, this same information would likely go unpublished by anything other than, say, a community board newsletter, and it begs the question: why would a Brooklyn newspaper take the time to print such a pedestrian (in more ways than one) news item?

I believe the answer lies in the context of the patriotic significance of Battle Cry of Peace and the booming Brooklyn business that produced the film: the Vitagraph Company of America, in 1915 one of the world’s leading silent motion picture studios, its behemoth headquarters presiding over a square block of residential Flatbush.

The Battle Cry of Peace, among America’s first propaganda films and one of Vitagraph’s most expensive productions, depicted a fictionalized European enemy (commonly interpreted as Germany) invading the shores of New York City, promoting America’s urgent military involvement in the war overseas. The feature length film opened in September 1915 and remained through that autumn in extended release at the Vitagraph Theater on Broadway and in movie houses across America.

Given these factors, and likely some neighborly pride, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle would have been capitalizing on Vitagraph’s popularity in 1915 by placing this item in its “Film News” section. The globally acclaimed Brooklyn-based studio found an innovative way to conduct business in a construction zone, and the Battle Cry of Peace remained accessible to the movie-going public. The film’s success had implications for Vitagraph’s box office revenue and, quite possibly, for the course of world events. How could that not be newsworthy?

By early 1916, the Battle Cry of Peace had earned back all of its production costs and then some, marking the zenith of Vitagraph’s success as a pioneering movie studio, and encouraging Vitagraph founder and director, J Stuart Blackton, to celebrate the idea that his motion pictures could be at once artistic, entertaining and politically galvanizing for the movie-going public.

In 1916, Vitagraph gave into industry pressure, and closed its Broadway movie house, ending the studio’s controversial practice of producing, distributing, and screening its own motion pictures. That same year also heralded Vitagraph’s slow decline. The progression of WW 1, so championed by Blackton in Battle Cry of Peace—edited and re-released upon America’s 1917 entry into the war under the title Battle Cry of War— ironically had devastating effects on the success of Vitagraph films internationally, as many European distribution offices remained closed until after the armistice of 1918.

By 1924, after producing 3500 silent films over a more than twenty-year span, Vitagraph’s studio lot was sold to Warner Brothers and reincarnated as Vitaphone, so named for the revolutionary new sound technology. But the Vitagraph legacy remains in the continued presence until 2010 of film and television production in the same location of the neighborhood we now call Midwood.

Since 2013, Urban Memory Project Board member and drama-in-education consultant, Nellie Perera, has been conducting research on the Vitagraph Company of America, among the nation’s earliest silent film studios, in operation in Midwood from 1906-25. Vitagraph, with its prodigious output of silent films and its roots in residential Brooklyn, has inspired Perera to generate several Vitagraph-related creative collaborations, including an Urban Memory Project interactive silent film walking tour for Brooklyn College students; a multi-media solo show at NYC’s IRT Theater; and a short silent film based on a Vitagraph original from 1911, “The Upper Hand.”

 

 

 

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