Film History Grows in Brooklyn
Original Vitagraph Studio Enters Its Second Century
by Kevin Lewis
The cutting room at Vitagraph Studio, circa 1916. Historic photos courtesy
of Marc Wanamaker / Bison Archives
Before the major studios of the sound era existed, there was actually the
giant Vitagraph Studio, which was built 100 years ago. It was the veritable
cradle of the film industry??roughly comparable to Henry Ford?s revolutionizing
of the auto industry with the assembly line. Its Flatbush, Brooklyn studio was
the model and forerunner of the studio system. Vitagraph was also at the
forefront of the development of sound after it was acquired by Warner Bros. in
the mid- 1920s. Today, the site marks the only place in the United States??and
perhaps the world??where editing has occurred continuously for a century.
While the Fort Lee, New Jersey studios of Fox, World, Goldwyn, among others
had been leveled long ago, and American Mutoscope and Biograph, the Manhattan
studio where D.W. Griffith made his films, is now an apartment complex, the old
Vitagraph Studio building is still in use as the Shulamite School for Girls. The
studio across the street, built by Warner Bros. in the late 1920s, is now JC
Studios, where As the World Turns is produced (see accompanying story). So if
Vitagraph can have any vindication, it has survived. Though the site is not
landmarked, to film historians this is hallowed ground.
Unlike other historical writing, film history abounds in contradictions and
falsehoods. The history of Vitagraph and its adjacent buildings has been
disputed by film historians, but what follows is as close an approximation as
this writer can achieve.
English newspaperman and cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton, who wrote for The New
York World, interviewed Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the Kinetoscope, in
1896. Edison liked his drawings so much that he made a film starring him called
Blackton, The Evening World Cartoonist (1896). Blackton and his partners Albert
E. Smith and Ronald Reader were intrigued by the nascent motion pictures, so
they bought equipment from Edison and filmed their first production on a Nassau
Street rooftop near City Hall in downtown Manhattan in 1897. Appropriately, this
maiden production, The Burglar on the Roof, was a crime drama, a genre that is
still the bread and butter of the film industry.
Aerial view of Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn, circa 1921. Historic photos
courtesy of Marc Wanamaker / Bison Archives
The year after, Blackton and company faked a military endeavor, the Battle
of Santiago Bay, for the film Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), making what
film historian Ephraim Katz calls "the world?s first propaganda film." Katz also
credits Blackton with inventing the close-up and pioneering single-frame
animation for his cartoons. ?Like Griffith, he emphasized film editing,
especially noteworthy in his Scenes of True Life series, a realistic group of
films he directed beginning in 1908,? Katz wrote.
Blackton and his partners were so successful with their early films that they
bought land in then semi-rural Flatbush, Brooklyn and began building the
Vitagraph Studio in 1905. The name was a nod to the Vitascope, Edison?s patented
early film projection equipment. (Not honored by the homage, Edison sued
successfully for royalties for use of the moniker.) Vitagraph opened in November
1906, between E. 14th Street, Avenue M, E. 15th Street and Locust Avenue in what
is now the Midwood section of Brooklyn, it was a marvel. Blackton produced the
first animated film, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, there that year.
To call Vitagraph an innovative studio would be an understatement because
there was no precedent. Its competitors, American Mutoscope and Biograph and the
Edison Company, were primitive by comparison and out of business within a few
years. Vitagraph boasted the first glass-enclosed studio, a studio tank for
battle and sea scenes, costume and set design shops, vast editing and processing
rooms and lavish sets. Historical spectacles such as Washington Under the
American Flag (1909), drawing room farces featuring Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew,
slapstick comedy with John Bunny, literary classics like A Tale of Two Cities
(1911), and religious epics such as The Life of Moses (1909-10) were filmed here
or at the beach in nearby Coney Island. The Life of Moses was truly ahead of its
time; it was filmed in five reels before feature film production even
The landmark Vitagraph smokestack
remains the only visible hint of this
Brooklyn site's historic past. The building
on the left was the original Vitagraph
Studio, currently the Shulamite School for
Girls. The photo was taken from the roof
of Edward R. Murrow High School.
Photo by Kevin Lewis
Vitagraph helped inaugurate the star system and the movie magazine. In 1911,
it published the first movie fan magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine, and
groomed such stars as Bunny, Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew, Norma and Constance
Talmadge, Anita Stewart, Clara Kimball Young, Flora Finch, Maurice Costello and
Mabel Normand. There were over 100 players in the studio?s stock company.
Unfortunately, however, Blackton and his partners were not prescient enough
to associate their studio with a theatre chain. Their competitors in the 1913-
1919 era realized that they needed theatre chains to show their productions??
and, in fact, to survive. Famous Players- Lasky, owned by Adolph Zukor and Jesse
Lasky, had the Paramount Theatre chain behind it. Marcus Loew of Loews Inc.
bought the Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer Studios to produce films for his theatres,
and theatre mogul William Fox founded Fox Film Corporation.
By the early 1920s, Vitagraph could not find screens on which to show its
movies and in 1925, Blackton sold the studio to Warner Bros. (then only two
years old,) which used the Flatbush studio for its sound experiments with
Western Electric (Bell Laboratories) to produce Vitaphone synchronized sound
shorts and music scores for feature films, of which Don Juan (1926) was the
first. And, of course, there was the biggest theatrical attraction of its
day??The Jazz Singer (1927), with which Al Jolson launched the feature film
?talkie? revolution. Warners already had a theatre chain, which it acquired when
it bought First National Studio, and early on equipped the theatre with sound
Though the early Vitaphone films were recorded at the Manhattan Opera House
or the Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood (also formerly Vitagraph), the Brooklyn
studio was refurbished in 1928 to produce sound films. An East Coast studio was
necessary in those early days of sound because the Vitaphone shorts featured
vaudeville artists such as Burns and Allen and Metropolitan Opera stars such as
Giovanni Martinelli, who would not travel to Los Angeles.
Warner Bros. built an adjacent studio across the street from the Vitagraph
Studio, but it was constructed during the 1928-30 period. Warners sold this
newer property around 1952 to NBC, which produced many television specials at
the studio, including one of the most famous TV shows, Peter Pan starring Mary
Martin in 1960.
From 1934 to 1959, Warner Bros. used the Vitagraph Studio for its Ace Film
Laboratory. However, it was sold in the early 1960s to Yeshiva University High
School for Boys and Girls. The school opened in 1965 and was sold by Yeshiva in
1980 to the Shulamite School for Girls, which still occupies the site. Older
Yeshiva students recalled in 1990 that the gymnasium boasted Vitagraph artwork
on the ceiling. All of that has since been covered over by Shulamite School, but
fortunately the smokestack in the parking lot, which still has the black brick
letters V-I-TA-G-R-A-P-H down its side, remains as the only hint of this site?s
New Vitaphone stage at Warner Bros., formerly
Vitagraph, on Avenue M in Brooklyn, circa 1930.
The adjacent studio bought by NBC as the home of The Cosby Show in the 1980s
and housed sets for the network?s daytime drama Another World until it ended its
long run in 1999. In 2000, JC Studios bought the studio from NBC and Proctor &
Gamble moved its legendary As the World Turns daytime series from CBS Broadcast
Center on 57th Street in Manhattan (where it had been produced since 1956) into
the studio. Both production and postproduction of the longtime soap opera have
been done there since. So, it?s a double anniversary in 2006 for this historical
site. The original Vitagraph Studio celebrates its centennial, while As the
World Turns turns 50.
On the Vitagraph Studio lot, circa 1920.
Editors Guild Magazine thanks film studio historian Marc Wanamaker of
Bison Archives for his help reconstructing the history of the Vitagraph Studio.
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