Film History: Edison, Griffith, and Babbitt – part 2

2826 DecaturThe tall concrete building at 2826 Decatur Ave in the Bronx was owned by Edison Studios  up through 1929.  Animation director Paul Terry and top animator Frank Moser were fired from the Van Beuren animation studio [1] – perhaps because money was tight after the stock market crash; perhaps because Terry was too slow to jump on the talkie bandwagon.  In the autumn  of ’29, Terry and Moser formed the independent company Terrytoons and partnered with financial backing company Audio-Cinema Incorporated. According to Paul Terry:

I went over and made a deal with Audio Cinema first.  They were to put up all the money for Moser and myself; we were going to do the work for no compensation until the thing paid off …[2]

Audio-Cinema was run by motion picture director Frank Lyle Goldman, whose best-surviving work is “Finding His Voice,” a charming educational cartoon he co-directed with Max Fleischer in (presumably early- to mid-) 1929.

Goldman moved into the Edison Studios building and shared its headquarters with Terrytoons. During that time, Audio Cinema Inc. was involved with Terrytoon cartoon distribution.

Terrytoons_Audio Cinema

A poster for a 1931 Terrytoons Cartoon, presented by Audio Cinema

The Struggle Movie PosterIn 1930/31, Audio Cinema got involved in feature-length movie-making, and was presumably hired by United Artists to produce the latest (and eventually last) film by cinema giant D. W. Griffith.  Titled The Struggle, the film follows the rise and fall of a drunkard played by Vaudevillian Hal Skelly, opposite his love interest Zita Johann.   (The film score was written by Terrytoons in-house composer Phil Scheib.[4])  All interior scenes were filmed at 2826 Decatur, and as remembered by Art Babbitt,

…We worked in the old Edison Studio, on 199th and Decatur Street, in the Bronx. There was a costume room downstairs where we cold pick up old Buster Keaton costumes and so on, you know, just come back when it would least be expected dressed up as somebody else. And it was there that I saw D. W. Griffith direct a picture with Zita Johann and Hal Skelly.[3]

In a hand-written list of Terrytoons memories, Babbitt wrote:

Babbitt Griffith Notes“9) D. W. Griffith – shooting one of his last pictures on Soundstage of old Edison Studio. 198th + Decatur st.

“10) Moving cabin to kill camera noise + shooting through glass. …

“11) D. W. Griffith making little girl cry by whispering in her ear.”

My best guess of what this “moving cabin” is would be a booth that fit around the camera so the mechanical camera sounds would not be picked up by the actors’ microphones.

D W Griffith Hal Skelly Edna Hagan 2

This reference to making “little girl cry”  must be eight-year-old actress Edna Hagan.  (Hagan is now 90, and if anyone knows how to get in touch with her, I would be interested to know if she remembers this experience.)

The Struggle was released on December 10th, 1931, and, unfortunately for both Audio Cinema and Griffith, was a box-office failure.  Of Audio Cinema, Terry said that the film “ruined them; they got themselves into financial trouble. […] We were talking about the creditors moving in on Audio [Cinema].  And so, we were renting space there, but we didn’t want to get locked into Audio’s troubles.”[2]

It was around this time that Babbitt had set his eyes on Disney.  By July 1932 he received the invitation for an interview with Walt at his Hollywood studios.  Babbitt said,

I did a commercial film, Buster Brown shoes for Frank Goldman who was with Audio Cinema at the time, and this was sort of an interim step before I went to California. [5]

Babbitt’s cousin Elsie remembered:

On his way to Hollywood he stopped in Sioux City to visit for a few days. I remember he had with him one of his own films called “Squeaky,” about a little mouse with over-sized shoes that squeaked. It was quite witty because we all laughed. [6]

Meanwhile, Terry, Moser and their crew moved out of the Bronx building overnight and relocated to a new headquarters in Harlem [3].  Between April and October 1933, Goldman and Audio Cinema permanently moved out of 2826 Decatur. [7]

As the years rolled by, the concrete building was eventually abandoned and then demolished to make way for the Edison Arms apartment building.  The name “Edison” remains as a tribute known only to those familiar with the brief but significant contribution of this corner in the Bronx to the history of film.

2826 Decatur Today

2826 Decatur today (photo by Jake Friedman)

Sources

  1. Hollywood Cartoons by Michael Barrier, p.168
  2. Interview with Paul Terry, by Harvey Deneroff, 1969.
  3. Art Babbitt audio recording at 50th anniversary dinner, 1974.
  4. IMDB listing
  5. Interview with Art Babbitt, by John Canemaker, 1975.
  6. Interview with Elsie Babbitt, by John Canemaker, 1992.
  7. Bronx White Pages/ Bronx Address Telephone  Directory, 5/14/1929-10/23/1933
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