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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Brooklyn, Florence Turner & Vitagraph PART 2

Brooklyn's first movie star, the world’s second, Florence Turner. The girl From Sheepshead Bay.


What the heck is Brooklyn’s place in early film history?


By George Seminara




Turner Film Co.


Our Florence, Florence Turner, raked in over 10,000 smackers a week by mid-1910. Or in today's money, $328,770.53! A week! She kept this up for a couple of years and then left for England in 1913 to spend some of that money on her own production company called, appropriately enough, the Florence Turner Film Company, United Kingdom. (Anglophile much?) She brought her favorite dog, Jean. They made a Jean film, Jean Comes Home, to Florence, not Roddy MacDowell. Unfortunately, a little thing called World War One happened and destroyed the British film industry. She made bad investments, got mugged - hog-tied in a hotel with her jewels taken - and she went bust.


Marion Davies offered her passage back home. But when she returned, tastes had changed. There were new stars to love. Back in Brooklyn, she could barely get arrested, knocking on thirty, and she is already a has-been. Her only choice was to leave Vitagraph and head to Hollywood. The 1920s did her no favors. Florence had one small part of note as Buster Keaton's mother in College. It was a gift she was barely ten years his senior. Finding herself too old for Ingenue and too young for matron limited her options.


Flo w Buster


The Hollywood Brown Derby was one of the most iconic watering holes of the 1930s. Where one went to see and be seen. It was inspired by a similar joint in upstate New York that was a hangout for Vaudeville stars just passing through. The restaurant was constructed to look like a giant Derby Hat. Kids, this was a thing once upon a time. Fans would crowd around its brim, breathlessly awaiting the arrival or departure of their favorite stars. Less than a few blocks away on Cahuenga Boulevard, there was an entirely different celebrity scene.


The Screen Stars' Shop, when compared to the Brown Derby, this little drab building didn't make much of an impression on any passers-by, let alone any would-be star-chasers. Mary Pickford masterminded The Screen Stars' Shop as her special contribution to the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF). The charity organization is famous today for running the Motion Picture and Television Home. Pickford served as Vice President, and her goal was to create a store so that would be and up-and-coming actors "not over-flush with money," in Pickford's words - or "Broke!" in today's parlance - could buy some nice clothes to audition in.


Read Inset


In an April 1931 issue of Picture Play Magazine, author and celebrity hound, William McKegg explains that while "no fans wait at the entrance" and "no celebrities pop in and out," there was one head-turning exception to be found in the appearance of "a well-dressed woman, with snapping dark-brown eyes. Standing at slightly under 1.5 meters." (4'11", the same height as my beloved Grandmother, Josie!)

McKegg goes on, "Florence Turner maintains a commanding presence and vibrancy that would not have betrayed her forty-six years or the two decades of misfortune that took her from being one of the most recognizable faces of the silent era to her latest role as an obscure saleswoman at a second-hand thrift store.” Harsh!


When a series of personal and financial setbacks left Turner destitute, by the late 1920s, she was forced to seek assistance from the MPRF. Pickford hired her to work as a hostess at her store as a condition of her pension. Florence Turner's reversal in fortune is all the more bittersweet since in 1910s she and Pickford were perennial box office rivals. In a 1912 poll conducted by Moving Picture World, Turner was voted "America's Favorite Movie Actress," receiving nearly twice the votes as Mary Pickford. At the height of her career, Turner was well-known by her contemporaries for her compassionate and attentive nature. Fellow Vitagraph actress Norma Talmadge once said of Turner, "I would have rather kissed the hem of her robe than shaken hands with Saint Peter." Pickford's decision to place Turner in a role where she would routinely interact with struggling actors seems to have ultimately been a good idea. McKegg notes, "Any disheartened extra must surely feel brightener after speaking to her. She disregards her own misfortunes and sympathizes with those of others. She always had and perhaps always will."


Eventually, she moved to the Motion Picture Country House, a retirement community for the motion picture workers in Woodland Hills near Malibu. After starring in more than 160 motion pictures, Turner left this earth at 61. She was cremated in Hollywood, and at her request, there was no funeral service. To this day, her ashes remain at the Chapel of The Pines in the historic West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles.


Vitagraph from the air


But what about Vitagraph and Brooklyn? Four of New York's five boroughs have busy film and television studios. Slipped into all manner of odd locations, I once stepped out of the elevator into a prison. It was the set of the HBO series Oz. The day came when Vitagraph sold out to Warner Brothers and became Vitaphone. In 1952, NBC bought Vitaphone. It was there the long-running soap opera Another World was lensed. Years later, in the 1980s the original Midwood studio became the home of the Brooklyn Heights living Huxtable family on the NBC hit The Cosby Show.


Vitagraph Chimney over Tracks


All good things come to an end, and after 100-plus years of constant use, the Brooklyn facility needed upgrades and investment that wasn't financially feasible. After all, New York City has some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. Here's a tidbit: Manhattanites dream of a time they can afford to live in Brooklyn. Soon, parts of the studio were being demolished. All of a sudden, the studio, a local landmark was vanishing. "Hey," thought the cognoscenti of Kings County, "we should probably save some of this?"


Vitagraph Rubble


Just as things started to congeal into action, news reports all over the city made this announcement: The Vitagraph smokestack in Brooklyn, which is over 110 years old, will be torn down! The smokestack, at East 15th Street and Locust Ave, is an artifact of Vitagraph Studios, a silent film company founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1897. As many commuters know, the smokestack is visible from the Q train as you approach the Avenue M subway station. It is now shrouded in scaffolding after permits were filed to erect a heavy duty sidewalk shed and pipe scaffold at the location to begin the demolition.


Vitagraph Chimney pre demo


Suddenly, there were petitions. There were constant articles in the Brooklyn Eagle; celebrities were interviewed about the importance of this small relic of a bygone day. It was likened to the Hollywood sign by that arbiter of modest statements, the New York Post. When asked about his plans, the landowner complained that the chimney needed repairs, which was unsafe, and that it would cast a small fortune to preserve it.


Facebook groups formed. Virtually every early Hollywood website had an opinion in favor of preservation. The French or Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma jumped into the act, and that spurred the BFI who made it known in the pages of Sight and Sound that New Yorkers were trying to preserve this relic of early Hollywood. Ipetitions Launched the Save the Vitagraph Chimney petition. The petitions run on forever. Names from all over the world signed the Ipetition.


When I tried to find out how many people signed I only found this: 




Over 100,000 New Yorkers signed paper petitions that were presented to the Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams, now Mayor Adams, who announced that Brooklyn would do whatever was needed to save this important historical landmark. Tax incentives and threat of fines for unpermitted work were brought to bear.


The developer of The Vitagraph Apartments decided to keep the smokestack. It will live on!


Vitagraph Apartments Courtyard

View with Chimney


If you have an apartment with a view of the chimney, your rent is 25% higher than if you don't. Many residents consider themselves film buffs and love living on the same ground that many legends once trod. It's a little weird, but surrounded by a chain link fence adjacent to the property, you can see the last remnant of Brooklyn's contribution to cinema.


The Fenced Chimney.


From the moment Vitagraph exposed their first frame of film in 1898 until Warner Brothers took over in 1926, the studio made hundreds, maybe even thousands of movies. The best accounting is in the high hundreds, but that list only counts feature presentations and has no short subjects or news reels. And only for 15 years of operations! Why is that?


The history of early cinema is like studying Mesopotamia fan fic. We're sure they had a written language they just wrote it on clay. From the small amount of clay with Mesopotamian cuneiform writing on it that has survived, we can extrapolate that because fan fic is so big now, there must be some fan fiction in there, somewhere.


We know when Vitagraph started making films, we know when they started taking care of their records, and how much money they made. From those facts we can surmise they must have made a lot more films.


However, the point is moot. We will never get to see 99% of their total output as a movie studio because the films are lost. Not misplaced. Lost. Like forever. Early movie film tended to dissolve if not cared for correctly. It could spontaneously explode. And then cause all the other nearby film stock to explode in solidarity. Why do you think they are stored in metal cans?


Vitagraph is as represented on film today as the studio complex is by that chimney. And now you know why I wrote this.


Here's a brief list of legends that mostly aren't mentioned in the rest of the story: Fatty Arbuckle, Richard Barthelmess,  Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin, Dolores Costello, Dustin Farnum, Flora Finch, Hoot Gibson, Corinne Griffith, Alan Hale, Oliver Hardy, Mildred Harris, Helen Hayes, Hedda Hopper, Moe Howard, Rex Ingram, Al Jolson,  Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Rod La Rocque, Bessie Love, May McAvoy, Victor McLaglen, Adolphe Menjou, Antonio Moreno, Conrad Nagel, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, Billy Quirk, Wallace Reid, May Robson, Wesley Ruggles, Larry Semon, George Stevens, Anita Stewart, Constance Talmadge, Natalie Talmadge, Norma Talmadge, William Desmond Taylor, Alice Terry, Florence Vidor, and a teenaged Rudolph Valentino worked as an assistant set dresser but within a week was working as a background actor. Not bad.

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