Western New York Heritage

Lights, Camera… Action!

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Courtesy of Bill Cowell

In the middle of August 1983, the old Courier-Express Building suddenly sprang to life. It had been almost a year since the newspaper folded, but inside a relentless sportswriter was trying to uncover dirt about the 35-year-old rookie ball player Roy Hobbs. A week later, the Parkside neighborhood was abuzz as modern light poles were replaced with 1930s traffic signals and the block filled with period automobiles bearing Illinois license plates. Parkside became “Chicago,” All-High Stadium was now “Wrigley Field” and a “train” arrived at Central Terminal for the first time in four years — all for The Natural, the now-classic baseball movie that captivated the city for a few months that summer.

Folks all over Western New York were involved in the production, including a lucky few who scored speaking roles, as well as hundreds of extras, many of whom waited in long lines for their shot on camera. The Buffalo-based Trench Manufacturing Co. created period pennant flags for the set, the Buffalo Swing Band played during party scenes and restaurants all over town served acclaimed stars like Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey and, of course, Robert Redford. 

With shooting nearly complete that September, a crowd of over 12,000 converged on the Old Rockpile, the rusted 45,000-seat stadium and site of the most filming. Wearing a baseball jacket for Hobbs’ team, the New York Knights, Redford thanked the crowd for the warm reception the cast and crew had received. A few days later, he told WGRZ reporter Scott Brown: “I like the sense of tradition that’s still left in Buffalo. There’s a feeling that you feel from the people about pride in their city — that means a lot to me.” He continued, “They really got behind us and were supportive and enthusiastic. … The people here who helped us are very much a part of this film.”

Exactly 30 years later, many still carry memories about that film and others that have captivated our city, both before and after The Natural. In the past several years, from 2011’s Henry’s Crime to 2007’s The Savages, the Queen City has seen its share of Hollywood productions and smaller independent features. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and to truly understand our long relationship with the film industry, we need to go back to the late 19th century, when Hollywood was just a small community outside of Los Angeles and Thomas Edison first brought motion pictures to the public.

The Ellicott Square Building has figured into every era of Buffalo film history. In 1896, it was home to the Vitascope Theater, and about two decades later, the short-lived Buffalo Motion Picture Corporation had its offices here. For The Natural, it was the location for hotel scenes.

WNY Heritage Press Collection

Edison’s kinetoscope debuted in 1893, and while it was very profitable, only one person could watch the moving images at a time. In France, just two years later, the Lumière brothers held the first public showing of films shot with their cinématographe, a relatively light-weight camera that shot crisper images than ever before and could be projected onto a screen for many to view at once. Soon, on this side of the Atlantic, it would be Edison’s vitascope that launched moving pictures as major attraction in the United States — and induced Buffalo’s love affair with film.

The vitascope was unveiled to the public at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City on April 23, 1896. The new projector was a huge success and was quickly booked for engagements across the country. Buffalo’s turn came on June 8, 1896, when “the latest invention of the Wizard Edison” was demonstrated at the Buffalo Public Library. “The people of Buffalo will for the first time have the opportunity of witnessing and seeing in operation the marvelous methods of reproducing on canvas nature, active life, movement,” reported the Buffalo Morning Express, which noted that audiences would see a seacoast scene, with waves tumbling against a pier.

The Pan-American Exposition, captured in this photo by A. Simon & Bro., was filmed extensively by the Edison Company. Many of those short films are now archived on the Library of Congress’s website, www.loc.gov.

Library of Congress

Less than six months later, Mitchell H. Mark opened in Buffalo what’s purported to be one of the nation’s first purpose-built movie theaters. The entrepreneur owned a hat shop at 77 Seneca Street, but the would-be showman always had a flair for the dramatic; every spring and fall, he would clean house by throwing excess hats from his roof to the crowd below. With the movie industry in its infancy, he went to Europe to study film and was reportedly the first American to import Pathé films, the dominant pictures in Europe. He showed them at the Vitascope Theater, a 12-by-50-foot theater in the basement of the newly constructed Ellicott Square Building, with room for 80 patrons. One of the first designed specifically for films, the theater stayed opened about two years and earned $18,000 annually, as reported by The Moving Picture World. Sometimes referred to as Edisonia Hall or the Electric Theater, it charged just ten cents for admission. Miss Jerry, a picture about “the adventures of a girl reporter,” was the first showing, according to a Buffalo Evening News article from 1944. In addition, Mark — who would later open several other theaters locally and elsewhere with his brother, Moe — was lauded as “one of the first to raise the moral standard of photoplays” and for encouraging the use of films in schools for educational purposes.

At this time, movie showings featured a string of scenes with no narrative thread; the order of scenes was determined by exhibitors, not filmmakers. Niagara Falls was a popular spot for filming, as evidenced by early titles like Niagara, Upper Rapids and Niagara, American Falls. In January 1901, the Edison Company opened its new studios in Manhattan and had copyrighted 60 films within six months. Several Edison videographers created at least 20 films at the Pan-American Exposition that year, putting Buffalo, and the assassination of President McKinley, on screen for the nation to see. A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition, for instance, was a 625-foot, ten-minute film that took viewers around the grounds, while Pan-American Exposition By Night was a feat of technical brilliance for its day.

By 1911, there were about 40 production companies across the country and more than 10,000 nickelodeons and theaters. Someone was needed to store, maintain and deliver these pictures, ushering in the film exchange business. In the already cutthroat film industry, fast and cheap service was paramount, so regional exchanges cropped up in 32 major cities, including Buffalo, which was responsible for everything east of Cleveland over to Binghamton or Utica. Early exchanges were scattered throughout Buffalo’s downtown area, but by the 1920s, distribution was largely handled on Film Rows, which in Buffalo was on or near the 200 block of Franklin Street. According to the 1922 City Directory, 15 exchanges were based on Franklin, out of 28 total “moving picture supplies” companies operating in the city. “Few people realize how important a movie center Buffalo is. As soon as a picture is released, ten copies are sent here for distribution,” the Courier-Express reported in 1941.

The major Hollywood studios, several of which launched between 1912 and 1915, often invested heavily in their distributors to provide the best service, so each exchange was unique, often lavishly decorated and well equipped. In 1918, for instance, a new Fox Film Corporation office opened at 209-211 Franklin, with a 40-by-20-foot projection room for exhibitors to view films before renting and a 2,500-square-foot poster and shipping department. “New rugs, new furniture and large, stained glass windows add to the attractive appearance of the offices. Eighteen oil paintings of Fox stars give a rich, artistic tone to the exchange,” The Moving Picture World reported. Almost 20 years later, Twentieth Century-Fox opened a new exchange at 290 Franklin, which had “six vaults, all steel double-doored, for storage of films, as well as a room for storing film cans.” A 1937 article in the Courier-Express continued, “Just off the shipping room is the inspection department, wherein eight inspectors, equipped with the most recent machinery, inspect and splice films before they are sent to an exhibitor. Wherever they are essential, there are sound-absorbent ceilings.”

Taken in 1925, these employees are standing outside the Metro-Goldwyn regional distribution headquarters, then located at 505-509 Pearl Street. Shortly after, the company became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the building still bears its name today.

WNY Heritage Press Collection; Matthew Biddle Photo 2013

Dozens of motion picture exhibitors and distributors attended the opening of the Twentieth Century-Fox film exchange building in November 1937. Located squarely within Buffalo’s Film Row at 290 Franklin Street, it exemplified “the most advanced ideas in construction within the business of film distribution.” Seated here was the exchange’s Buffalo manager Sydney Samson, along with (from left) William Sussman, eastern sales manager; Jack Sichelman, assistant to the general manager; and George Roberts, district manager.

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library

Film strips were then highly flammable, so exchanges needed fireproof vaults and sprinkler systems and received frequent inspections from the Buffalo Fire Department. Exchanges would either ship the movies themselves or hire an independent film shipper, which usually delivered them by truck or automobile (trains were reluctant to transport flammable nitrate film). In one extremely unusual circumstance, in 1917, the Triangle exchange in Buffalo shipped The Tar Heel Warrior to Rochester by airplane because it would have been impossible to get it there on time any other way. Airplanes would obviously become much more important in later decades.

Exchanges also had advertising and poster rooms so that exhibitors could obtain “exploitation material” for their films. Years ago, film advertising was splashier; longtime promoter Ed Miller won national awards, for instance, for parading a line of elephants up Main Street for 1956’s Alexander the Great. Big stars would often visit exchanges and theaters to plug their latest pictures. By 1935, the six-floor edifice at 505-509 Pearl Street housed a number of major studios, including Universal, MGM, United Artists and others, and thus was the site of frequent celebrity visits. Gene Autry, Jane Powell, Ruth Roman, Roddy McDowall and Academy Award-winner Charlton Heston are just a few of the screen stars who passed through.

As movies became increasingly popular, more exchanges and theaters appeared in Buffalo and across the country. The Buffalo Evening News estimated that half of all Americans attended at least one movie a week in 1926. The following year, the paper reported that Buffalonians spent nearly $300,000 a week on motion pictures, meaning one in six residents went to the movies on any given day. With the advent of television and other forms of entertainment, however, the cinema’s hold on American popular culture declined. Many theaters closed during the 1960s, and exchanges relocated to tighter quarters. By 1970, studios had found cheaper ways to distribute films and need fewer exchanges. In the 1965 City Directory, there were 17 businesses listed under “distributors and exchanges.” By 1975 that figure shrunk to nine, and by 1985 there was just one major studio left in Buffalo — Paramount Pictures, which closed its office inside 300 Delaware Avenue later that year.

While the city’s most high-profile movie shoot is arguably The Natural, local film production dates back more than 100 years. Besides the Pan-American Exposition films, other early shorts include Buffalo Police on Parade from 1899 and Lafayette Square, Buffalo, N.Y., a panoramic street scene from 1903.

In late 1917, the first Buffalo-based production company, the appropriately named Buffalo Motion Picture Corporation, announced its premier film, a “drama of motherly love” called The Brink of Eternity (or The Price of Innocence in some sources), for which it filmed all outdoor scenes here and indoor scenes in a New York City studio. The company quickly opened an office inside the Ellicott Square Building, secured a second sales office on Sixth Avenue in New York and announced the construction of a local studio. It’s unclear if that studio was ever built before the company folded in the early 1920s, but it did release three five-reel features. The second was The Sport of Kings, an adaptation of Arthur Somers Roche’s book of the same title, distributed by First National Pictures. Its last film was The Daughter of Devil Dan, which filmed exteriors in North Carolina and was released in 1921.

In 1931, the film Keep Going was the first talkie shot in Buffalo. It used all local cast members, shot at several prominent locations and premiered at the Lafayette Theatre that August.

Private Collection

This rendering of the thrilling stunt from The Man with the Golden Gun hangs at JM Productions Inc. above the actual car shown here. Calls still pour in about the astounding feat, a barrel roll over a Bangkok waterway at 52 feet in the air.

JM Productions Inc.

Six years later, cinemas across the country began showing The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie. The first talkie filmed locally was Keep Going, a Columbia Pictures production shot over seven days in August 1931. Directed by Joe McGuire with an entirely local cast, the flick starred Frederick Kirk, who later was a captain in World War II and owned Century Carloading, a freight company that contracted with major downtown retailers like AM&A’s and Kleinhans Men’s Store. Among other locations, the production was spotted filming by the Rand Building; inside the Lafayette Theatre; and inside the newsroom at the Buffalo Times. “Teletypes, tickers and typewriters were set in motion while members of the cast distributed themselves before the various desks and proceeded to the synthetic business of meeting an imaginary deadline,” the Times reported. The picture premiered on August 20, 1931 at the Lafayette in a double-billing with Arizona, starring Laura La Plante and John Wayne. It played for a week before being shipped to Hollywood producers to consider for further distribution.

Just over ten years later, Flying Tigers, a 1942 John Wayne war film, shot several flight sequences at the Curtiss-Wright plant. “The Curtiss people had painted up a squadron of real P-40s with the well known tiger shark design to be used in these scenes and the company made their test pilots and stunt flyers available to depict some of the precision flight formations for which the ‘Tigers’ were famous,” the film’s pressbook revealed. These scenes had to be sent to Washington D.C. to ensure “no vital information could reach the enemy.”

Another exciting Buffalo film connection, meanwhile, still sits in Hamburg inside JM Productions Inc., the company responsible for the demolition derby at the Erie County Fair and over 25 others. Here, owner Jay Milligan Sr. still proudly displays the Hornet Hatchback used in a chase scene from the 1974 James Bond blockbuster, The Man with the Golden Gun. The ninth Bond film featured a stunt digitally designed by Cornell Aeronautical Labs in Buffalo and tested and performed by JM Productions (originally using a Javelin and later the Hornet Hatchback). Raymond McHenry and William Milliken from Cornell devised a stunt where the car approached a takeoff ramp at about 40 miles per hour, flew 52 feet into the air, rolled 360 degrees and landed safely. In January 1972, after six test jumps — three unmanned, three manned — the stunt debuted before a crowd of 98,000 people over two days at the Houston Astrodome. “A building full of Texans went berserk,” wrote Motor Trend magazine. “They hailed his survival of an astonishing stunt, a barrel roll in mid-air by an automobile that was all but stock, a breathtaking corkscrew spiral that stretched human credulity to its limits.”

Thankfully, Buffalo’s relationship with the film industry is not just history. In late May, Universal Pictures filmed a key scene for The Best Man Holiday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival has grown steadily as a launch pad for movies. Shown here, Cheektowaga-native William Fincher (from this summer’s The Lone Ranger) received the first star on the BNFF Walk of Fame in 2011.

Matthew Biddle Photo 2013; Courtesy Bill Cowell

Thirty international magazines covered the stunt, which caught the attention of Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who met with Milligan in New York City to discuss putting the feat in their next picture. Milligan built two stunt cars and supplied 12 stunt drivers for the productions, including himself, and flew to Bangkok, Thailand, for the shoot. During the scene, Roger Moore’s Bond drives through a window at a dealership and a car chase ensues, eventually leading to the fateful spot where this stunt takes place. The stunt was filmed in a single take, and Milligan recalls every actor on hand that day to watch. With a crane and two underwater divers in place for emergencies, the car hit the ramp, spiraled over the khlong below and landed on the other side to an eruption of excitement and a celebratory champagne toast. “They called it a ‘loo loo’ and that meant, in the film industry, perfect,” says Milligan, who still receives daily inquiries about the stunt.

Behind the scenes, Buffalo was also integral to the birth of the Todd-AO process, a revolutionary advancement that required just one wide-angle camera to shoot and one projector to show a film (rather than the traditional three projectors), and used 65mm film (as opposed to the standard 35mm film) to create a far better viewing experience for the audience. The process was co-developed by company founder Mike Todd and the American Optical Company, which had its Instrument Division in Buffalo. (For more on American Optical, see “Brass Beauties, Black Beauties” in our Winter 2013 issue; copies still available.)

The Regent Theatre, located at 1365 Main Street, served as the testing laboratory for Todd-AO. Test footage in mid-June of 1953 at Niagara Falls, Ellicott Creek Park and other spots outside the area, and on August 14, 1953, the 800-seat theater unveiled the process with these scenes and a couple others from the proposed film version of Oklahoma!. The musical’s hugely successful writing team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were there, and gave their wholehearted approval for Oklahoma! to be the first-ever feature fully shot in Todd-AO. They remarked on the seamless images, and Rodgers said, “This new medium of expression will revolutionize methods of storytelling, and for the first time we realize what can be done on screen with our important musicals.” The Sound of Music, Cleopatra and Airport were all filmed in Todd-AO.

In the past 35 years, dozens of other productions big and small have shot, at least partially, in Buffalo, including James Caan’s directorial debut, the 1980 thriller Hide in Plain Sight; 1982’s Best Friends, starring Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds; the 1987 Steve Martin comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and Manna From Heaven, the 2002 indie by the Buffalo-bred Burton sisters. Local director Peter McGennis Jr. hosted a red carpet premiere for The Queen City last November at the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre. Starring Vivica A. Fox, the movie features countless Buffalo spots like the grain elevators, police headquarters, the Colored Musicians Club and Central Terminal.

Buffalo was even the birthplace of Miramax Films, the studio launched by Hollywood heavyweights Bob and Harvey Weinstein in 1979. At the time, Harvey was better known for Harvey & Corky, the concert promotion business he started with Horace “Corky” Burger while studying at the University at Buffalo. In 1974, they purchased the Century Theatre on Main Street and re-opened it as a concert hall and movie theater. Acclaimed blues artist Bonnie Raitt and future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne were its debut acts. Five years later, the Weinsteins founded Miramax, named after their parents Miriam and Max, but moved the company to Manhattan in the early 1980s. They did shoot one picture here, a 1981 slasher film called The Burning, which filmed in Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties. Variety reported in June 1981, “The Burning lit up Buffalo-area screens this weekend” with a sizzling $33,000 gross from three theaters and two drive-ins.

Most recently, Universal Pictures transformed Ralph Wilson Stadium into the New York Giants’ stadium this past May for the climax of its upcoming film The Best Man Holiday, out in November. According to Buffalo film commissioner Tim Clark, the movie generated over $1 million for Buffalo, as production set up downtown for two weeks and shot the Ralph for four days, requiring many local crewmembers and over 1,500 extras. The Buffalo Niagara Film Commission assists producers with permitting and locations, and markets the region to filmmakers at festivals like Sundance and at trade shows, including the popular AFCI Locations Show. “Who would have ever thought we would be chosen to replicate Giants Stadium? Who would have ever thought that Jerry Bruckheimer would come here with Disney to shoot Pirates of the Caribbean?” says Clark, who notes that something — a film, commercial, music video, television episode or documentary — is filmed in Buffalo almost every day.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival has steadily made a name for itself on the festival circuit since being founded in 2007. It receives submissions from across the country and all over the world. In 2013, for example, films shown hailed from Switzerland, the UK, China, Spain, India and Canada. The Market Arcade in Buffalo, the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda and the Rapids Theatre in Niagara Falls hosts the festival, which continues to grow every year. For 2014, founder Bill Cowell and others are creating a special 30th anniversary documentary on The Natural and working to reunite many of its stars in Buffalo next April. (If you have stories, photos or memorabilia from that shoot, please contact Cowell at bcowell@thebnff.com.)

Clearly, Buffalo’s brush with Hollywood is far from over. There are the movie playhouses, whether open or closed, that still characterize the cityscape and the few remaining film exchange buildings that still line Franklin. (D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub resides in the former Warner Bros. building, for instance.) We continually roll out the welcome mat for films and their producers. For The Natural, the Bisons sent a limo and police escort to pick up production designer Mel Bourne at the airport during his initial location scouting trip. There are plenty of reasons why Buffalo has enjoyed such a long relationship with the film industry, including its varied architecture, abundant human resources and the new state film production tax credits. Robert Redford, however, said what he’d remember most was “the ease with which the people and the place made this experience. … I really like this city.” Clearly others do, too.

The full content is available in the Summer 2013 Issue.