cinema’s golden age

A trip to the movie theater to see a Hollywood blockbuster, foreign film or independent documentary is a popular destination during the cold winter months. Did you know New York developed as the epicenter of the entertainment industry starting in the late 1800s? Audiences flocked to watch vaudeville acts, stage plays, Yiddish theater, concert hall performances, and silent movies.

Lights! Camera! Action!
And in the early 1900s, two innovative film producers set up movie studios in Westchester. Director D.W. Griffith purchased a multi-acre waterfront estate on the Long Island Sound in Mamaroneck in 1919 and turned the property into his motion picture studio. He produced six silent films from 1920 through 1925, including the acclaimed Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish (pictured above). Griffith is credited with inventing creative film techniques including the close-up. While many of his early films were well-received, Griffith was forced to sell the Mamaroneck property in 1925 to pay mounting debt.

A decade earlier, in 1909, former actor Edwin Thanhouser opened his movie studio in New Rochelle. The Thanhouser Film Corporation released its first silent film in 1910. Thanhouser’s studio made more than 1,000 films, shorts and serials, often featuring the studio’s most famous actress, Florence La Badie. In 1917, Florence’s career ended after a fatal car accident; the Thanhouser studio closed soon after.

Past and Present
As audiences embraced the entertainment appeal of silent movies, sumptuous movie “palaces” began to be built around Westchester. Audiences were as impressed with the grandeur of the ornate movie theaters as they were by the dramas and comedies depicted on the silver screen.

The Tarrytown Music Hall is the oldest theater in Westchester. Built in 1885, this opulent brick Queen Anne-style structure presented concerts, musical entertainment and elaborate balls. The Music Hall was one of the first theaters in Westchester to show silent films, starting in 1901. After closing in 1976, the venue was purchased as a non-profit educational and cultural organization and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. This thriving theater continues to serve as a cultural destination offering music, theater, dance and film.

Opened in 1921, the Picture House in Pelham is the oldest continuously running movie theater in Westchester. A landmark in the community, the Picture House has undergone extensive renovations over the years, adding state of the art technology. The original theater building, with classic neon script above the marquee, has provided entertainment for generations of movie audiences by offering new, independent and classic films, as well as educational programs and cultural events. Senior Cinema, free movie matinees on Tuesdays at 2:30pm, is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and Con Edison.

The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville is located in the old Rome Theater, originally built in 1925 in the Spanish mission-style. A favorite destination of early movie fans in the 1920s and 1930s, audiences still gather at this non-profit cultural arts center for a variety of educational programs and screenings of independent, documentary and world cinema, as well as for their monthly Senior Afternoon Cinema series.

The Bronxville Playhouse opened in 1926. Remodeled over the years into a three-screen theater, Bronxville Cinemas has been operated by Bow Tie Cinemas since 2013.

The Paramount Theater in Peekskill originally opened in 1930 as a movie palace. This landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now a live music and performing arts venue operated by Paramount Hudson Valley Arts. The annual Peekskill Film Festival is presented at this historic theater.

Let’s not forget the Larchmont Playhouse and the Mamaroneck Playhouse, two old movie theaters that are currently closed for major renovations.

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