Tag Archives: Gertrude Ryder Bennett

That Time Lady Moody’s House Was In a Movie

It absolutely floored me. It was Sunday, seven years ago. Or maybe eight. I lay slumped on the sofa thumbing a book. TCM murmured on the television. I dozed more than I read, and only half-eyed the screen. Whichever classic film was on had ended, and some black-and-white short followed it to fill the hour. I yawned and counted the pages left to go. Suddenly, a tenor, warbling the sappiest ballad I’d ever heard — words about truth or love or hearts or death above a trembling piano — snapped me awake. I often wonder what made me focus when I did. Thinking back, it could only have been the ghosts of Gravesend whispering “Look up. Look up, and see.” Behind the singer pictures flashed, still images of bathers in the surf, drinkers in a bar. They looked like magic lantern slides, those photographs on glass that Victorians projected on parlor walls. And this is the one that floored me:

Neck.Road.27.south.Vitaphone.edited

The image glowed for all of four seconds before the next slide popped up. By the time I realized what I’d seen it was gone. But through the magic of DVR I rewound the film and paused on the image. There was no doubt: it was Lady Moody’s House, the building still standing at 27 Gravesend Neck Road (currently for sale and due for designation review by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 8, 2015). What the heck was it doing in this movie?

I started the film from the beginning and learned it was “The Nickelette,” a 1932 Warner Bros. production poking fun at the early movie-going experience of the nickelodeon: “When movies were silent and money talked, a nickel bought an evening’s entertainment. Let’s enter one of these ancient nickelettes.” Eddy Gilligan, the “silver tone tenor,” belts out the melodramatic 1913 hit, “The Curse of an Aching Heart” (music by Al Piantadosi; lyrics by Henry Fink), to underscore fifteen appropriately old-fashioned, if unrelated, pictures. The Moody House slide comes twelfth.

Vitaphone_Cavalcade_DVD_setAt the time, I managed to find the film online. I saved it and shared it with some fellow Gravesend fanatics (we’re a small but noble group). But then I put it out of mind. That was several computer crashes ago. I lost the file and the emails in which I had shared it. (I since back up regularly to that white, puffy cloud.) I even forgot the title of the film.

Recently I recalled one of the people with whom I shared the news and he had, incredibly, preserved my message. The link to the online version of the film is defunct, but now it is available on DVD, part of a six-disc set in the Warner Bros. Archive Collection called Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts. I bought it, naturally, and captured the screen shot seen here (for which I pray the Warner Bros. honchos won’t sue me!).

P.S. 95 does not appear to the left of the house; it was constructed in 1914-15, so the image had to have been made earlier. Still, it must date from after 1905, by when William and Isabelle Platt, owners of the house, had added dormer windows to the second floor. Compare the screen capture with a positively identified view of the building in the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society, taken at a slightly later date, and you’ll agree it’s the same house:

But the question remains: How did this picture of Lady Moody’s House wind up in a movie? I have a theory. One of the early twentieth-century occupants of the house was an actress, Carlota Cole — sometimes spelled “Carlotta,” and sometimes known by her stage name, “Charlotte Townsend” — who lived there with her brother, Bert, between 1912 and the early 1920s. (Bert M. Cole bought the house from the Platts.) As this write-up from the Brooklyn Eagle attests, Carlota enjoyed some popularity, and even worked with John Drew Jr. (1853 – 1927), uncle to John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore (hence Drew Barrymore’s name):

I haven’t found evidence of it yet, but it is entirely possible that Carlota also worked for Vitagraph Studios, the pioneering movie company founded in Brooklyn in 1897. The Vitagraph lot was in South Greenfield, a forgotten neighborhood in the vicinity of Avenue M and the Brighton Line (today’s B/Q subway). In her history of the Wyckoff-Bennett HomesteadLiving in a Landmark (Francestown, N.H., 1980, p. 116), Gertrude Ryder Bennett recalled how the “dunes, beaches, woodlands, quiet lanes and country homes” of southern Brooklyn served as locations for Vitagraph films:

One year, the company built the fronts of several houses on the shore of Gerritsen’s mill pond. Time disintegrated them[,] but while they stood, the people in our neighborhood walked there with box cameras after the actors had finished work, and posed in doorways pretending to be popular movie stars. . . . Around these little false-front shacks the mill pond made an exquisite wilderness background with its great willow trees close to the water’s edge and miles of meadow land stretching beyond the pond. Today that site, filled in, is the baseball field of Marine Park on the north side of Avenue U surrounded by an urban community.

Vitagraph even shot a scene on the porch of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Gertrude believed it was from The Prisoner of Zenda). Isn’t it possible that they also used the Lady Moody House as a backdrop for some other project? Warner Bros. bought the Vitagraph Company in 1925. Could this lantern slide have been among the stock? A leftover promotional still from some forgotten flicker? And just the sort of nostalgic image needed for making “The Nickelette?”

Carlota Cole does not appear in the “Vitagraph Family” list of actors in Anthony Slide’s The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., revised edition, 1987), so maybe that isn’t her, dressed in white, on the arm of her beau at the picket fence. But these are clearly actors, posed, perhaps, as newlyweds about to cross the threshold. (Or maybe he’s trying to stop her departure?) And it is unmistakably the house. In any case, isn’t it wonderful that I looked up when I did to catch it? Who else would have noticed?


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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The Fiery End of Gerritsen’s Mill

If I share this story you might think me guilty by association, especially since I’m Gravesend’s self-elected cheerleader, but the crime happened eighty years ago today, so I should be safe.

“Gerretsen’s [sic] Mill at Gravesend,” image from Charles Andrew Ditmas, Historic Homesteads of Kings County (1909).

When I began to research Gravesend history seriously about twenty-five years ago, I showed my late granduncle some book or other of old Brooklyn photographs. He was well over seventy then and enjoyed recalling the Brooklyn he moved to as a teenager from Manhattan, around 1932, with his parents, five brothers, and only sister (my grandmother). Thumbing through the pictures, he stopped at one of Gerritsen’s Mill, as rickety a building as ever there was. It stood on the west bank of the Strome Kill (Dutch for “storm creek”), also called Gerritsen’s Creek, the tidal inlet that formed a natural boundary between the historic towns of Flatlands and Gravesend. The creek survives in truncated form south of Avenue U in Marine Park, but the mill is gone.

Uncle Frank wore his bifocals oddly, with the tops tilted way forward. He lifted his head back to see me through the bottoms of his lenses and said, matter-of-fact, “You know, I burned that thing.” My jaw dropped.

When we think of the Netherlands we conjure up tulips and windmills. But the Dutch who settled western Long Island did not use windmills to grind grain. Instead they built dams across the tidal creeks that fringed the marshy coastline. As the tide flowed in the water level rose behind the dam. When the tide ebbed, the receding water forced the flood gates shut. The trapped reservoir, or mill pond, could then be channeled as needed over a paddle wheel to turn the gears and grindstones inside an adjacent mill.

Hugh Gerritsen owned land at the Strome Kill before 1645. But while it is believed that the Gerritsen clan first operated their tide mill that long ago, the first definite, historical reference we have to its existence is in the 1765 will of Johannes Gerritsen, who bequeathed it to his son, Samuel. Legend has it that during the Revolution, Samuel, rather than grind grain for the Hessians, submerged his millstones in the creek. Forced at bayonet point to retrieve them, he unwillingly served the enemy for the duration of the war.

The historians Charles Andrew Ditmas (1909) and Maud Esther Dilliard (1945) have detailed the genealogy of the Gerritsen property and its long-running mill, which fed Gravesend and the surrounding towns into the 1890s. It passed in 1899 to William C. Whitney, former United States Secretary of the Navy during Grover Cleveland’s first presidency (1885-1889). Whitney’s son, Harry Payne Whitney, trained racehorses on the grounds. The Coney Island Jockey Club’s track at Sheepshead Bay was quite near.

By the early twentieth century the abandoned mill had become a picturesque backdrop for the sightseers who posed for photos in front of it, and, sadly, a destination for souvenir hunters who took away pieces of history in the form of nails and bits of timber. When the City finally acquired the Gerritsen-Whitney property to create Marine Park in 1925, the mill was a wreck. Preservationists called it the oldest surviving tide mill in the country. “It is a sacrilege for our generation to allow this relic of Revolutionary days to crumble into ruin,” cried Gertrude Ryder Bennett to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday, June 24, 1931.

The City listened. A fence went up around it to keep what remained of the mill intact. Plans were drawn — see “Gerritsen Mill, Old Landmark, To Be Rebuilt” in the Brooklyn Eagle, August 26, 1934 — and the exterior carefully restored. But then, on September 4, 1935 — tragedy. An early-morning fire destroyed the ancient building. The cause of the blaze was never determined. Some have speculated that it was set by a disgruntled employee of “master builder” Robert Moses.

The charred remains of Gerritsen's Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

The charred remains of Gerritsen’s Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, Wednesday, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

Do I believe my uncle really had a hand in it?  Who can say? He had no reason to invent such a tale. Back then, he was nineteen years old and had a bit of a wild streak in him. (When the family still lived in Manhattan, he was off one day on a bicycle ride. He got struck by a car and landed in the hospital. This happened just when they were poised to move to a new apartment on the opposite side of Thompson Street. No one knew where he was, so the move happened without him. Somehow, he got out of the hospital and made it home, only to find that home had left him behind.) He could very well have been in Marine Park, goofing off with friends in the tall, dry grass. A single spark from a match — flicked deliberately or not — would have been enough.

An abandoned grindstone, very likely from Gerritsen’s Mill, survives somewhere in the marshy reaches of Marine Park. And the mill’s foundation, along with the pilings that formed its dam, remain visible at low tide. These traces, and two relics — a hand-forged iron nail and a wooden peg — preserved by someone who picked them from the ruins and fixed them in a shadowbox, are all that is left of Brooklyn’s first industrial plant.

[Be sure to read Thomas Campanella’s haunting essay on this vanished landscape, “The Lost Creek.”]


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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The Mud-Gutter Band


Post-1907 real photo postcard identified on back as “Ed Clark’s Band, Brooklyn, NY / X is Ed.” (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Occasionally a small group of street musicians would find our community. On impressive brass horns which could be heard a long way off they played rollicking numbers, filling the children with excitement. Their serious, energetic approach and the loudness of their music on the quiet lanes amused the farmers who, to please their offspring, sent coins for these impromptu concerts, but among themselves, called the invaders, “The Mud-Gutter Band.” — Gertrude Ryder Bennett, Living in a Landmark (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1980), 65.


Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Dandelion Wine

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), sketch of a dandelion gatherer, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), sketch of a dandelion gatherer, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

In the early years of the twentieth century, after the Bennett family sold the bulk of the farmland surrounding their Gravesend homestead — the Wyckoff-Bennett House at 1669 East 22nd Street — the soil, no longer planted to crops, erupted in wildflowers. “The land, waiting to be developed, turned into meadows where as a child I gathered wild strawberries. Elderberries ripened for jelly, blackberries for pies.” So recalled Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982) in her memoir, Living in a Landmark (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1980). “In early spring each year, colorful dandelion gatherers came from the city with knives and worked in the meadows until almost sunset, filling huge bags and taking them away.” Gertrude’s mother, the poet Nellie May Bennett (1873-1951), penned a sonnet inspired by one of these women:

DANDELION GATHERER

A hungry hawk could be no more intent

     Than she with yellow kerchief, crimson shawl

And purple apron. Shabby, shapeless, bent

     Above the field with eager blade, the call

Of mating robins fails to flush her seamed

     And sallow cheek. Could she have been that gay

And blushing, dark eyed flower girl who dreamed

     Of love and life in newer lands one day

In Italy? . . . With bold dexterity

     She cuts the tender weeds, a silent thing

That moves from patch to patch inquiringly.

     A leaf of autumn in a field of spring.

Upon her head she lifts her bulging load

And stately, proudly takes the dusty road.

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), Dandelion gathering, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Charles W. Bauhan (1861-1938), Dandelion gathering, April 25, 1911. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)


Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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