In the early 1900s, delighted audiences sat in darkened theaters, mesmerized by the shimmering tinted or tinted images projected onto a screen. The films had no soundtrack; movies were silent at that time, before the invention of synchronized dialogue. To mask the roar of the movie projector, a musician seated in front of a piano near the screen would improvise musical scores to match battle, car chase, melodrama, or slapstick scenes.
Such was the scene in New York and across the country, particularly in Nassau and Suffolk counties. But Long Island went beyond showing shorts and features: it took the action to the next level when it became a hub for film production, unaware that after a few years, Hollywood would become the world capital of the commercial film industry.
As Vicki Berger of the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum said News12, “Long Island was the original Tinseltown. We were Hollywood East before the industry moved to the West Coast.
SOUTH SHORE FIRE
It all happened because American Vitagraph Company, a Brooklyn-based film studio, opened a Bay Shore location in January 1916. That year, Vitagraph produced 26 silent films. Before that, Vitagraph had established itself in 1897 in Lower Manhattan to compete with the projection kinetoscope, the ancestor of the cinema projector created in 1896 by Thomas Edison.
Vitagraph’s early mutes in Lower Manhattan consisted of shorts and newsreels about the 1898 Spanish-American War. Many of them did not include newsreel footage: they were actually re-enactments that would later become known as propaganda. But paying audiences were hungry for entertainment, and the studio thrived, feeding them steadily with its productions. By 1907, Vitagraph was known as America’s most prolific motion picture production company, producing hundreds of newsreels and famous silent films.
In 1916, the normally peaceful hamlet became the favorite hangout for masters of comic timing and others who wanted to be seen on the stage. Directors, producers, costume designers, make-up artists and all the creative talent in the silent film machine have flocked to the place known as “Slapstick City” to produce silent films full of sight gags. The New York Times describes how “the cinema technicians behind the primitive cameras discovered that the South Shore, with its southern exposure, offered perfect conditions for filming”.
The busy studio attracted legends such as beloved writer-producer-director Charlie Chaplin, known for portraying his character The Tramp in films that tucked “the pathos perfectly into slapstick,” like The Guardian wrote. Chaplin was so impressed with the surroundings that he bought an East Islip mansion on Suffolk Avenue with a bowling alley in the basement. Oliver Hardy, half of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, owned a house on Maple Avenue in Bay Shore, and stars like Mae West, queen of faded one-liners, rented summer cottages there. Another movie star spotted in the city was Fatty Arbuckle, who appeared in the popular Keystone Cops series produced by Vitagraph. Arbuckle’s claim to fame, according to History.com, was his talent for “comical stunts and pie-throwing.”
The bustling hamlet’s main street was full of car horns and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages, a lovely respite from New York for the many well-to-do vacationers who flocked there. Vitagraph’s offices were located in the Vitagraph Building at 94 Fourth Ave., formerly General Keystone Appliance Repair. The building was also used as a fictional police headquarters.
The clumsy and incompetent peacekeepers of the Keystone Cops movies (also spelled “Kops”) were created by producer/director Mack Sennett, dubbed “The King of Comedy” by Turner Classic Movies, “a ring master for a team motley of comedic talent that included Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops, who slipped, slid and slapped across American movie screens.
Bay Shore residents got in on the act, earning about $5 a day extra. Some observers said that the directors also invited the real Suffolk police officers to act as extras. Others said the ideas for the early films were created by local Suffolk County screenwriters after observing local police at work.
Pranks on inefficient and incompetent cops were popular from 1912 through the early 1920s; the golden age of silent music flourished until 1927, fading with the release of the first feature films with synchronous dialogues, called talkies. With this invention, the genre of films without soundtracks fell silent – for good. After the cameras went down, Vitagraph closed up shop and the Vitagraph building was turned into apartments.
Sign up for Long Island Press email newsletters here. Sign up for home delivery from Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press Community Partner here.