Before Hollywood, Brooklyn made movies

Midwood, Brooklyn was a quiet, neighborhood with lots of open space back at the turn of the 20th century.

So in 1905, the American Vitagraph Company, then on Nassau Street in Manhattan, picked East 15th Street and Avenue M as the site for a vast movie studio described as “the model and forerunner of the studio system.”

“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,” writes Kevin Lewis in Editors Guild Magazine.

More elaborate facilities meant more films were made, keeping up with the demand from a movie-loving public.

Stars were groomed: John Bunny, Norma Talmadge, and Florence Turner. Local residents rented their homes and furniture when the studio needed extra props.

Brooklyn’s movie-making era didn’t last long, thanks to World War I and the relocation of the industry to Los Angeles.

In 1925, Vitagraph was sold to Warner Brothers, who used the building to film shorts into the 1930s.

In fact, this clip from a 1933 Fatty Arbuckle short, Buzzin’ Around, was filmed right outside the studio, with the elevated B and Q line behind them—looking the same as it does today.

Today the Vitagraph building is an Orthodox Jewish school. The old smokestack, however, remains.

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13 Responses to “Before Hollywood, Brooklyn made movies”

  1. Bobby Costa Says:

    I beg to differ with the author hee. But, before Hollywood there was Mount Vernon, New York To Wit: California Road. More movies were shot there especially from the Warner Brothers Lot that almost all of New York at the time. Because of tax increases and the issues they were having at the time with the local govenments. Hollywood was moved to it’s present site in California. Sure there were always small studios and lot’s, other than Hollywood. But it was in Mount Vernon, that they wanted to make Mount Vernon the Capital of Hollywood. This is a fact since I lived in Jack Warners house for over 23 years~

  2. r185 Says:

    In the fall of 1976 I had audience tickets to Saturday Night Live (Steve Martin hosted). Since their studio at Rockefeller Center had been taken over for the coming presidential election coverage, everyone was taken out to NBC’s studio on Avenue M. I assume it’s the same one.

  3. Leslie Says:

    I walked and drove past the part of the complex that remained a TV studio for so many years! I never knew the history. I do remember the smokestack and the big NBC logo on the building with people waiting in line to watch taping of The Cosby Show. Thanks for the post.

  4. wordgrl Says:

    For a while NBC’s Hullabaloo was shot at the Ave. M studios.

  5. booger1 Says:

    Yes! I live across the street on 17th and Ave M and can see the Vita stack when I look out my window every day!

  6. JJ Says:

    the soap opera , “As The World Turns ” was filmed there as recently as 2010 , before it was cancelled , and ” Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close “, the new movie with Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, was recently filmed there as well

  7. Jennifer Says:

    Terrific blog!

    I have a petition going to have the Vitagraph smokestack declared a historical landmark:

    Hope we can get this restored before it is lost forever. 🙂

  8. Roy Hershey Says:

    Growing up in the 50’s friends & I used to go to the abandoned house on California Road and we referred to it as the Warner Brothers house. My uncle later told me that one of the brothers lived there but abandoned it after the Lindburgh kidnapping …

  9. The Chelsea block where silent films were made « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the rest of New York’s nascent film industry at the time, the studio’s days for movie-making were numbered. A fire consumed it in September 1915, and […]

  10. Ellen Levitt of Brooklyn Says:

    Update: I’ve been tracking what’s going on over there because more and more scaffolding has been slapped on. A few times I asked the hard-hats working there and a few said they heard it would be dismantled. City Council Member David Greenfield’s office person told me no, over the phone. But this has been in the news lately. (Oct-Nov 2014)

  11. This parking garage was once a silent film studio | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] who often played the lead in dramas and romantic comedies; she got her start doing bit parts at the Vitograph studio in Flatbush while still a student at Erasmus Hall High School in […]

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