The movies were not even out of their diapers back in 1908 when producers made the first film about Brooklyn, The Thieving Hand, and then, in 1927, set The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie,’ there. The entertainment world has always loved the storied and glorious borough of New York City that over the years gave us George Washington’s escape from the British, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Dodgers. Hollywood has made over 200 movies about Brooklyn, almost as many as it made about World War II, and continues to roll them out (the recent police story Brooklyn’s Finest).
And now, yet again, the historic borough is back on top in entertainment on several fronts. This week, Joe Pintauro’s new Off Broadway play Snow Orchid, about life in Brooklyn in the 1960s, opens on Theater Row, in New York. At the same time, you can watch one of the episodes of the new hit comedy series, Brooklyn Ninety Nine, on Fox- TV. Then, too, there is the hit new HBO series, Girls, set in the Williamsburg section of the borough. On the internet, on YouTube, there is a new series, Money and Violence, that has garnered five million viewers in just one month. Comic Kevin Hart did a bit skewering Brooklyn’s gentrification on Saturday Night Live titled ‘Flatbush, Brooklyn, 2015.’ Just last week, the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, built in 1929, was re-opened with a splash, featuring Diana Ross in concert in front of a huge crowd. Watch ANY black and white World War II movie on demand on television and there will be a character in it from Brooklyn. Flip through the television channels and you will find all the great movies about Brooklyn, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The French Connection, Annie Hall, the Lords of Flatbush, Saturday Night Fever, Sophie’s Choice, Dog Day Afternoon (Attica! Attica! Attica!) and, most recently, 42, the Jackie Robinson story.
Hundreds of entertainment and American celebrities were born or raised in Brooklyn. Entertainers include Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Mary Tyler Moore, Eddie Cantor, George Gershwin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jackie Gleason, Spike Lee and Joan Rivers. In public life, there is now California Senator Barbara Boxer and Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. You want more? How about the fabulous Houdini? Al Capone? Larry King? Mike Tyson?
The borough across the river from glitzy Manhattan is swaggering its way through entertainment history yet again.
All of the arts are thriving in Brooklyn, too. There are several new concert halls, outdoor music and theater festivals, entertainment at Coney Island and jazz clubs. The busier than ever Brooklyn Academy of Music is home to numerous plays, operas, films and music events.
Why the historic revival in entertainment in Brooklyn?
There are a lot of reasons. First, Brooklyn, like many urban areas in the U.S., from Los Angeles to Chicago to Charleston, is experiencing a new influx of residents from other parts of the country who are again interested in urban life. New York’s population has been increasing over the last ten years, as has that of Brooklyn. Certain sections, such as Williamsburg, have undergone near miraculous restorations.
Second, it is cheaper to live in Brooklyn than Manhattan so thousands of entertainment writers, producers, directors and actors are moving there and discovering the wonders of the borough and getting those wonders on to the silver screen and small screen.
Third, it is less expensive to make movies and TV shows in Brooklyn, or any city across the country other than New York and Los Angeles.
Fourth, two large film studios have been refurbished there, Steiner Studios (Sex and the City, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3) and Broadway Stages (Blue Bloods, Revolutionary Road, It’s Complicated), and they house dozens of film crews making movie and TV shows and series. That luscious Atlantic City boardwalk in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire? It’s actually a production set in a large lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Fifth, Brooklyn has always had an All-American mystique to it, like New Orleans, Nashville and Palm Beach, which make it special.
Sixth, and foremost, somehow, someway, everybody in the United States is from Brooklyn. Just about everybody’s family ties run back to the borough. Brooklyn is America.
My father told me this story about a bar in London he was at as a GI during World War II. A bunch of soldiers came in for a drink. The bartender asked “Are you guys from America?”
“No,” the leader of the soldiers said. “We’re from Brooklyn.”
The renaissance of pop culture in Brooklyn and about Brooklyn, matches dramatic revivals of different kinds in the borough. There are hundreds of small companies that proudly feature a “Made in Brooklyn” label on their products. There is a Brooklyn Beer. The old Brooklyn Navy Yard has undergone a transformation, with hundreds of small shops and thousands of new workers. Entire neighborhoods of old housing have been revived and sell briskly. Brand new seven and eight story apartments and condominiums dot old neighborhoods to house the thousands of new residents moving into the borough.
Brooklyn has been unique through history, but for different reasons. The hopeless and hapless Dodgers (chronicled in several movies and documentaries, such as The Boys of Summer and Ghosts of Flatbush and 42) were the fabled baseball ‘bums’ for decades, hailed in song, stories and movies. They, like all Brooklynites, were America’s underdogs. The American people love underdogs. Throughout the 1960s and 1970, film and television showed Brooklyn as a gritty borough, rough and tough, where the gangsters roved and rugged guy cops chased them. There was the quirky nuttiness of the basically true story bank robbers in Dog Day Afternoon, the hardnosed police in The French Connection, all the immigrants in Sophie’s Choice, and Brooklynites of every kind in the numerous baseball movies made there. And, of course, there was the smash 1970s television comedy series set in Brooklyn, Welcome Back Kotter, the launch pad for actor John Travolta.
The rebirth of Brooklyn and its entertainment history, writ large in just about every film about it, could trigger a rebirth of interest in the outer reaches of many cities and life in smaller urban centers. We are seeing far more television series than ever. They are all looking for new and special locations, such as Brooklyn. They are looking at other cities, too, such as Miami, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
Saturday Night Fever showcased a disco night club in Brooklyn, and the point was that the borough was as interesting, or perhaps more interesting, than Manhattan across the river, bathed in its millions of bright lights at night. The larger point, though, was that other cities around the country – Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Miami, Austin, Honolulu – were just as important in the entertainment world as Brooklyn, compared to Manhattan. That still holds true today. You see so many other cities as settings for films, plays and television shows. It is not just Manhattan and L.A. anymore.
You can attribute that to the tidal waves of entertainment movies and television shows coming out now about Brooklyn.
How many? Fuhgeddabout it!