Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally Vitagraph Studios, then Warner Brothers Studio, now JC Studios
Address: 1262-1286 East 14th Street
Cross Streets: Corner Locust Avenue
Year Built: 1905, 1912, 1914, and later
Architectural Style: Original building, 19th century brick factory, plus additional buildings, last one built in 1956
Architect: W. L. Stoddart, and unknown others
Other works by architect: Stoddart- Ponce De Leon Hotel, Atlanta, and other hotels, mostly in the South
The story: In 1897, two enterprising visionaries founded a company called American Vitagraph, here in Brooklyn. They were going to start a business not too many people knew anything about back then: movie making. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, with later distributer William “Pop” Rock were among the first American movie entrepreneurs. Blackton had seen Thomas Edison’s new film projector, and after inventor talked him into buying one, Blackton couldn’t get enough. He wanted to make his own movies. Vitagraph produced some of the first American newsreels, and produced the world’s first animated movie, “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” which was also the first use of stop-motion photography.
The men opened offices in Lower Manhattan, and by 1907, they were the most prolific film production company in America, producing hundreds of silent movies and newsreels. Their first feature film was shot on the roof of their Nassau Street offices, but they soon realized that in order to really produce quality films, they needed space to build sets, store costumes and props, and coordinate special effects. They needed someplace large and cheap, preferably away from the distractions of the city. They choose the fields of Brooklyn; Midwood, to be exact.
It was perfect. The land, which had belonged to the Lot family, was still undeveloped farmland, with plenty of space to build. The site was along the Brighton Beach rapid transit line to Coney Island, so it would be easy for workers and actors to get to. They built the oldest factory looking building in 1905, and added on until the film factory was complete. Many of the buildings were designed by W. L. Stoddart, a Manhattan based architect, including the corner factory building shown in the above photo, which was built in 1914.
William Lee Stoddart was a well-known Beaux-Arts era NYC architect best known for his lavish hotel buildings. He studied under George Post, architect of the NY Stock Exchange and the Brooklyn Historical Society buildings, before starting out on his own. These buildings must have been fun for him, especially when he was asked to design a glass enclosed studio, the first of its kind, for filming underwater and sea scenes. I was able to find at least four of the buildings in the complex credited to him. He also designed a tall smokestack tower, which still stands.
Vitagraph Studios filmed hundreds of movies here, and groomed stars such as Fatty Arbuckle, Florence Turner, Norma Talmadge, Constance Talmadge and others. They would go on to establish a studio in Hollywood, but Brooklyn was their heart. But by the time World War I was over, Hollywood had taken over as the movie making capital, and established a monopolistic studio system, restricting an actor’s ability to work outside of his/her studio. Instead of fighting the system, the Vitagraph men decided to sell this facility to Warner Brothers for a tidy profit.
Warner Brothers renamed it “Vitaphone Studios” and used it as a satellite studio for early sound short films. Famous actors and entertainers such as Al Jolson, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Burns and Allen, Ethel Merman, the Nicholas Brothers, Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy and many others filmed short films here. But Hollywood was still their main location, so when fledgling television studio NBC offered to buy the complex, Warner Brothers let it go.
NBC bought the studio in 1952, when television was just beginning. They shot the soap opera “Another World” here for 21 years. In 1954, they built another large studio across the street. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, this was the largest television studio on the East Coast. Perry Como and Sammy Davis’ shows were shot here, as was the historic production of Peter Pan, with Mary Martin. The “Hallmark Hall of Fame” dramas were shot here, along with specials for Judy Garland, Lawrence Olivier, and Frank Sinatra.
But again, Hollywood took over, and television, once scorned by “real” movie people, began to be filmed almost exclusively in California. The studios went dark. Only “Another World,” and “As the World Turns” and a few small productions kept the studio alive. By the end of the 1960s, the original Vitagraph Studio building was sold for use as a girl’s yeshiva. The later 1954 building remained. It might have gone the way of the rest of the studio except for Bill Cosby.
When his now-famous sitcom was proposed, Cosby, who lives in Manhattan, insisted on filming in New York. Since his network, NBC, owned these studios, it became the location for the famous brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, which was actually a façade from a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Ah, television. The show aired from 1984 until 1992, but it only filmed in Midwood for a couple of years. They moved to Kaufman Studios in Queens for most of the run. The building was sold to JC Studios, which now owns it. A lot of entertainment history took place here in this nondescript building. That’s movie magic. GMAP
(Photo: Google Maps)