When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood – By Bruce Berman (The New York Times – June 19, 1977)

When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood

By Bruce Berman

The New York Times – June 19, 1977

BACK in the early 1920’s when Mamaroneck was a center of movie‐making, Joseph Rigano was an employee of D.W. Grif fith’s studio at Orienta. “I was atone mason and mechanic,” the energetic 80year‐old said as we toured on foot Edgewater Point, at the top of the Orienta Peninsula.

Griffith_Studios,_Orienta_Point,_Mamaroneck_NY_1921
Griffith Studios, Orienta Point, Mamaroneck NY 1921

“After the studio was finally built, Mr. Griffith asked me to stay on as a set builder. Stone fireplaces were my specialty, but I worked on everything from Gothic walls to painted desert backdrops. The actors were almost always friendly, and I was getting $55 a week and drove a $1,200 Buick. What more could a young man desire?”

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

In those days the area was less the “East Coast Hollywood” than Hollywood was “the West Coast Mamaroneck.” The town boasted a distinction to which few communities could lay claim: a silent‐screen‐era movie studio. The studio built by Mr. Griffith, the most significant American director in pre‐sound films, attracted such stars as Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy and Lillian Gish.

Way Down East set filming Mamaroneck Arch
Way Down East set – filming “The Barn Dance”- Mamaroneck Archive

Mr. Griffith himself lived on the studio site in a modest cottage, built in part by Mr. Rigano, and attended to by Japanese couple. Before Mr. Griffith took over the area for the complex, which was completed in 1919, it was part of the huge summer home of Henry Flagler, the railroad and hotel leader. Before finding the site, Mr. Griffith had been looking for an alternative to shooting exteriors on California locations, having long since fled his Biograph Studios on 19th Street in Manhattan. Mamaroneck seemed the perfect alternative.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Remodeling Her Husband

The first movie shot on Edgewater Point, “Remodeling Her Husband,” was not directed by Mr. Griffith but by the young, multi‐talented actress, Lillian Gish. It starred Mae Marsh and Miss Gish’s sister, Dorothy. Mr. Griffith gave the elder of the two Gishes the assignment less to start her on a new career than to “test” the still incomplete facility while he supervised another production in Florida.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios - Orienta Point
Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

In her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me,” Miss Gish remembers the Flagler site as “a great peninsula of land jutting into Long Island Sound, and surrounded by a seawall of rocks and glorious old trees with branches chained together to withstand the sweeping winter winds. When I first worked there, it was late November and we had no heat. The weather turned so cold that we couldn’t photograph our actors without photographing their breaths. It looked as if they were smoking at each other. We hurriedly transferred to a small studio in New Rochelle while a furnace large enough to heat the large studio was installed.”

D.W. Griffith on filming set for Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish wearing an “extras” costume, with Joseph Schildkraut (Chevalier de Vaudrey), “Orphans of the Storm”

The Gish sisters and their mother lived in a stone and shingle house, which is still standing, on the corner of Bleeker and Walton Avenues. The house was built in 1889 by Stanford White. “Every room had a fireplace,” Lillian Gish said. “There was a spacious porch and an acre of beautiful landscaping. We loved it. We who had used trolleys for so long now had three cars in the garage—a big Cadillac, Dorothy’s sports roadster, and a small Ford for the staff.”

Mamaroneck filming sets – Orphans of the Storm

About all that remains of the moviemaking complex is a pier where supply boats once tied up, some foundation supports for the studio restaurant, and legacy as rich as anything that came out of the early days of Hollywood. Much of the complex, which was plagued by maintenance costs and poor film grosses after the box‐office smashes “Way Down East” and “Orphans of the Storm,” was razed not long after its completion. Currently, about a dozen homes dot the restricted peninsula.

Mamaroneck filming sets – Way Down East

But despite the disappearance of the Mamaroneck studio, the peninsula still maintains much of its original splendor. Flanked on three sides by the Sound, it is not difficult to imagine a bustling crew of technicians and actors under the leadership of chain‐smoking D.W., shouting directions through his megaphone. Said Mr. Rigano: “In those days we’d get people like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin visiting. Even Mr. Rockefeller Sr., would come up from the city to see Mr. Griffith at the studio. I’m not fooling when I say Mamaroneck was more exciting than Hollywood back then.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

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