Hollywood on the Hudson: Early Uptown Westerns

Independent Motion Picture Company, Dyckman Street, circa 1910.
Independent Motion Picture Company, Dyckman Street, circa 1910.

Near the dawn of the Twentieth century, before the motion picture industry moved to Hollywood, New York City filmmakers churned out silent movies from a makeshift studio atop a boiler factory on West 56th Street and Eleventh Avenue.

The early sound stage of the Independent Motion Picture Company, later Universal, was well-suited to interior shots– but when producers needed to film a “wild and woolly” western the crew headed to northern Manhattan where the dirt roads, hills and trails could still pass for the American west.

As early as 1909 IMP constructed an outdoor set near Dyckman Street and Broadway.

IMP star Mary Pickford in 1916
IMP star Mary Pickford in 1916.

With a stock company including Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore, Thomas Ince, King Baggott and George Loane Tucker,” one industry writer stated,  “they managed to turn out two single reels a day.” (New York Dramatic Mirror, 1917)

The IMP Studio,” wrote Billboard, “ is located in a new place, near Broadway and Dyckman Street, New York.  The new studio is of the open-air type, and through the summer months is being utilized to good advantage.”  (Billboard, August 31, 1912)

“Residents of the northern end of Manhattan,” a reporter later opined, “perhaps would scoff at the suggestion that less than two decades ago their neighborhood had a touch of frontier life with cowboy and Indian costumes to be seen there.  Nonetheless, one of the earliest exterior locations for motion pictures was a place known as Dyckman’s Hill, where western thrillers were ground out.

“A handicap was the Broadway streetcar lines,” the account continued. “The trolley poles of that time, tradition has it, were hidden behind teepees or by some other artifice.  But the cars had a habit of getting within the camera’s scope and there was no way to camouflage them.”

IMP star Wallace Reid, publicity photo, 1920
IMP star Wallace Reid, publicity photo, 1920.

Witnesses to this pioneering uptown film set claimed that silent star Wallace Reid, described as the greatest on-screen lover of all time, was discovered on the Dyckman Street movie lot.  “It was his duty, according to legend, to watch for approaching cars and warn the director so the latter could halt activities while they passed.”  (Daily Sentinel, February 14, 1927)

Within years apartment buildings covered the old movie lot.  The moving picture folks briefly set up shop across the Hudson River in Fort Lee, New Jersey before relocating to California.

IMP Films, On the Shore, 1912IMP Films, On the Shore, 1912
IMP Films, On the Shore, 1912.

In 1912 Independent Moving Pictures was sold to the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.

IMP’s matinee idol, Wallace Reid, described by Cecil B. DeMille as a “180 pound diamond,” succumbed to morphine addiction in 1923.  He was 31.

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  1. I heard years ago that the building I grew up in 130 Post Ave. had been a hotel and many movie stars stayed there. We moved there in 1942 and there was a doorman, a switchboard and the operator was Rose. The mail was put in slots that had our door # on it. You had to go through Rose give her the phone # and she got it for you. OMG imagine the poor doorman Arthur putting up with all us bratty kids that moved up from Harlem? We would make him ride us up in the elevator even though we lived on the first floor. They didn’t last long sadly an era had ended. Seeing this story it makes sense now that it was a hotel.

  2. My comment disappeared? I lived at 130 Post Ave where we moved to in 1942. I always heard it was a hotel where silent film stars stayed. The building had a doorman who also operated the elevator and a switchboard operated by Rose. Behind the switchboard were slots with our door # where the mail was put. So, reading this story 130 Post must have been the hotel for the people making movies. Thank you again Cole. Sincerely, Pat Farrell

  3. My grandfather was an excellent horseman. In fact he took care of Florenz Zigfield’s horses when he was still married to Billie Burke (Glenda, the good witch of Wizard of Oz fame). He always told us stories of being in the Westerns that were filmed in Firt Lee. He used to do trick riding on the horses. It’s so interesting to see Inwood was also a movie producing area

  4. Nice piece of history for Inwood and its Dyckman Street. I wonder if that ‘hill’ on Dyckman Street may have been what decades later was ‘Snake Hill’ leading up to Washington Heights?


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