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Brooklyn's Vitaphone Studios

Mar 10, 2011 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Jack Benny about 1930. The woman on the right may be Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny's wife and comedy partner.

The photograph collections of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle are stored in two locations in the library: the 30,000 or so showing Brooklyn scenes are maintained for convenience in file cabinets in a small room close to the Brooklyn Collection reading room. These are the images that are most in demand with our patrons, and it is these that we have made available online where copyright issues permitted. At some time in the distant past these photographs must have been separated out from their companions during a grand triage.

The bulk of the collection remains in the "morgue"--and what a collection! No one who opens a drawer and starts looking can prevent him or herself from being inexorably drawn into the next folder and then the next.  Will it be an original photograph of the Emperor Haile Selassie, or one bearing witness to a touching rescue of kittens from a hole in the wall? An ancient Native American with a face lined like a dried riverbed, or Mrs Erna Smith who hosted a luncheon for ten ladies in remarkable hats? Scenes direct from the trenches of World War I, or construction photographs from a 1930s skyscraper? And in fact, the great triage left plenty of images of Brooklyn still to be discovered in the library's lower decks. Just last week, for example, I came across a folder of images of the old Vitaphone Studios, successors to the better-known Vitagraph Co. down near Avenue M in Midwood.

Exterior of the new sound stage at the Brooklyn Vitaphone Sudios (no date)

The Vitagraph Studios were considered leaders in the art of the silent movie in the early years of the 20th century. Between 1898 and 1926 the studio turned out hundreds of films that enthralled audiences nationwide. Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925, and in 1928 they created a subsidiary that they called Vitaphone to exploit the new field of talkies. The first production was a short film showing the New York Philharmonic.

The discovery in the Eagle morgue files is a group of 8 photographs of the Vitaphone Studios dating from the 1920s and 1930s. Specializing in short movies, the Vitaphone studios often employed vaudeville stars and well-known musicians.

Mischa Elman violinist 1926. The pianist is Josef Bonime. 

The reason we know the name of the pianist is that the invaluable Youtube has yielded up footage of the very recording session documented in the photograph above:

Eddie Craft (Bell Lab) Herman Heller (Musical Director) on sound stage, Brooklyn Vitaphone Studios 1926

An invaluable source of information on Vitaphone is the Vitaphone Project  which seeks to obtain and restore Vitaphone movies. An article in the Editor's Guild magazine by Kevin Lewis provides a short history of the company. He writes, "An East Coast studio was necessary in those early days of sound because the Vitaphone shorts featured vaudeville artists such as Burns and Allen and Metropolitan Opera stars such as Giovanni Martinelli, who would not travel to Los Angeles."

Here for your listening pleasure is that same Giovanni Martinelli in an aria from I Pagliacci, recorded at the Vitaphone studios in Brooklyn in 1926.


The building, at 1277 E. 14th St., currently houses the modern orthodox Shulamith School for Girls.

Left to right: Albert S. Howson, Stanley Watkins, H.M. Warner, Will N. Hays, W.C. Rich, Herman Heller, Henry Hadley, S.L. Warner