Vitagraph 2 continued from page 1

lowered upper window, giving me a panoramic view of the onrushing scenery (still with the help of the said seat, alas).
     From this vantage point a rather unusual landmark near the Avenue M station catches my attention: a smokestack. A very tall smokestack, with serifed block letters running down it: VITAGRAPH Co. I ask my parents about it and I'm told NBC has a studio there. Vitagraph = NBC? (Better not to ask about the discrepancy—you know how parents hate that.)
     I picked up bits and pieces about Vitagraph over the years but I wouldn't learn all that utilitarian structure represents until fifty years had passed, and it is a story that is by turns ambitious and adventurous, wacky and inspired, crowded with colorful characters and extraordinary achievements—in short, the kind of thing that (in the words of the Jule Styne song) "could only happen in Brooklyn."
     What happened actually began on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, where a film company was founded by two young men from the other side of the Atlantic, J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, whose families emigrated from England during their childhoods. Both had a flair for show biz and, with the addition of fellow Brit Ronald Reader, performed in a novelty act in which Blackton was billed as the "Komikal Kartoonist," Smith the "Komikal Konjurer." The act did not prosper and Smith took a job as a bookbinder while Blackton found employment as a cub reporter for the New York Evening World. In this capacity (one story goes), he was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his invention of a moving picture projector in 1896; in the next year the two men reunited to form a motion picture company they called American Vitagraph.
     Its first famous product, which has a claim to being the first real motion picture made in America, was of a train called the Black Diamond Express, augmented by the showmanship of the partners. As a photograph of the train suddenly came to life, Smith provided billows of smoke while Blackton in the wings manned dishpans, hammers and tin pie plates filled with dry beans for sound effects. If indeed a first, it was but the first of many. In Florence Turner, the "Vitagraph Girl," they had the first major film star; a collie named Jean, the "Vitagraph Dog" ("no-one could help making a fine story about her, and no actor could act badly in her support"), was the pioneer in animal stardom. The first of the great screen comedians was the "four-dimensional" funnyman John Bunny, whose death was mourned in Europe as fervently as in America. The Battle Cry of Peace was produced in 1915, with the outspoken approval of such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Admiral Dewey, Elihu Root and New York Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, to prepare America for the war in Europe, demonstrated the propaganda impact of the young medium. In the years between the Black Diamond Express and The Battle Cry of Peace, Vitagraph became the most creative and forward-thinking force in the young industry, and it couldn't have happened without the studio it built in Brooklyn.

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Vitagraph's “Open-air Studio” on the roof of Morse Building at 140 Nassau Street. (Sketch by Vitagraph co-founder J. Stuart Blackton, from Two Reels and a Crank, by Albert E. Smith.)


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Updated July 21, 2000.