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Long Before Hollywood There Was Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn

Brooklyn was the original birthplace of the movies!

If you haven’t seen all nine movies nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Picture” category, you only have one week left for binge watching.

The 2018 Oscars with Brooklyn’s own Jimmy Kimmel as return host, airs live on ABC Sunday, March 4th, 6:30 p.m. EDT. The awards ceremony celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. The 1st awards ceremony, honored films of 1927 and 1928. Over 250 people celebrated at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. This year, the Academy Awards will be held, as usual, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Long Before Hollywood There Was Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn

Poster for Vitagraph Studios Brooklyn location

When we think of movies, stars, and the walk of fame — Hollywood immediately comes to mind. But did you know, it was actually Brooklyn that birthed the art of film? Yes Brooklyn! In 1896 J. Stuart Blackton, a reporter and cartoonist, and Albert E. Smith, a traveling showman and magician, founded the Vitagraph Company of America. Its first studio was located on the rooftop of a building on Nassau Street in New York City.

The team did well creating the first news reels, animated movies, and short films. Viewers were captivated by their moving pictures and demanded more. In a serious expansion effort in 1905, Blackton and Smith purchased land in the spacious and less expensive neighborhood of Midwood in Brooklyn. Vitagraph, located on East 14th Street and Locust Avenue off of Avenue M, was equipped with business offices, editing room, set, design and costume shops and a state-of-the-art glass enclosed studio created for filming underwater scenes.

Vitagraph, the first modern motion production company in the U.S, perfected silent films and showcased many future actors in Brooklyn.

Long Before Hollywood There Was Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn

A scene from Vitagraph Studios. | Photo via Brian Merlis’ Welcome Back To Brooklyn.

“Neighbors, residents, and even passersby were occasionally asked to be extras,” wrote John B. Manbeck and editor, Kenneth T. Jackson in their book, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Vitagraph rented homes in the area and house furnishings, to bring sophisticated stories to life. By 1916 Vitagraph Studios stretched over two acres in Brooklyn.

“I did grow up in a house that backs that studio, and my parents still live in that house today,” Russell Khaimov details in an October 31, 2014, Linkedin post. “As I walked up and down Avenue M, I would pass by, and couldn’t help but to imagine, what happened in that facility back in the early days of Vitagraph.”

World War I slowed down the production of filming in Brooklyn. The company, however, remained operational and in 1925 Warner Brothers bought it. Most of the film industry relocated to Los Angeles. Warner Brothers kept the Brooklyn studio and used the newly named “Vitaphone” for early shorts with actors Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis, Jr. and others.

During the Depression in 1933, Ethel Waters and Sammy Davis, Jr. starred in the 21-minute musical-comedy, “Rufus for President”. Presented by Vitaphone, seven-year-old Rufus played by Davis, is celebrated by his mother, Waters, as a great man and a possible candidate for president. Those who have seen this short agree that Waters and Davis were outstanding in their performances. However, the stereotypical satire was quite derogatory; the chicken, the watermelon, and dice were too much.

But the fact of the matter is, 75 years after this short film, America did experience its first black president. Interestingly enough, President Barack Obama was one of America’s youngest presidents. He left the nation’s economy in better condition and with affordable healthcare. Children of color feel inspired and empowered to run for office, if they so desire. Unlike Rufus’ story that was steeped in the impossibilities of that time, today diversity in politics is real. In addition, Waters went on to become the second African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1950 for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Sammy Davis, Jr., though he never won an Oscar, will go down in history as one of the greatest entertainers. Vitagraph captured him first — exposing him to the world.

In 1952, NBC bought Vitaphone. It was there that the famous long running soap opera, Another World was shot. How apropos! Sometimes we Brooklynites feel, because of the greatness of our borough, we are in fact, living in another world. Years later the original Midwood studio location became the first home studio of the Brooklyn Heights Huxtable family from “The Cosby Show”.

According to Curbed, “At it’s [Vitagraph Studios] peak, the company was producing up to eight films a week on the Brooklyn lot.” And despite outcries by neighbors and concerned groups, the epicenter of Brooklyn’s early film production industry was tragically torn down in 2015.

As Kimmel hosts this year’s Oscars, let this Brooklynite who grew up in Mill Basin, just neighborhoods away from Midwood, be a strong reminder of the great movie making that took place before Hollywood in the “lights, camera, and action” of Brooklyn.

For a visual history of Vitagraph Studios see below:

By the way OurBKSocial selects “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” as 2018 Best Picture. Other nominees include: “The Shape of Water”, “Call Me by Your Name”, “Darkest Hour”, “Dunkirk”, “Get Out”, “Lady Bird”, “Phantom Thread”, and “The Post”.

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