On the Trail of Alice Guy-Blaché in Flushing (by Joe Kennedy)
Alice Guy-Blaché, the first woman film director, and the Gaumont Studio in Flushing, NY, circa 1907
In this time of sheltering at home, one can fall into the most interesting rabbit holes.
Recently, as I was sitting at my computer, Alice Guy-Blaché's name popped into my mind for no particular reason.
I had seen Pamela B. Green’s wonderful 2018 documentary, Be Natural, about Alice – the world’s first woman film director, who began in 1896 at Gaumont in France – and I recalled that when she came to America in 1907, she made films at the Gaumont studio in Flushing, Queens, before moving her own production company, Solax, to Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Since I grew up in Elmhurst, which is not far from Flushing, I began to wonder where exactly the studio had been located. Queens today is home to several major film studios – the Kaufman Astoria Studios, which began in the 1920s as Paramount’s East Coast production center; and Silvercup Studios, which, since the 1980s, has been home to both film production (The Devil Wears Prada) and television (Mad Men, 30 Rock). But Gaumont, and Solax, dating from cinema’s earliest days, had faded from memory.
A Google search unearthed a clipping from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated Sept. 23, 1909, citing a new Gaumont building at Congress Avenue and Park Place:
Many street names in Queens were changed in the late 1920s, and neither Congress Avenue nor Park Place exist today. Further Googling, however, located a website that lists all the old street names in Queens and the new ones that replaced them. There I learned that Congress Avenue and Park Place corresponded to today’s 137th Street and 34th Avenue. (https://stevemorse.org/census/changes/QueensChanges1a.htm).
The documentary Be Natural included several still photos of the Flushing location. A grainy image of the studio’s exterior headed an undated news article:
In the frame shot below, a smiling Alice poses before the new Solax studio space under construction on the Gaumont property. This is very likely the structure referred to in the 1909 Brooklyn Daily Eagle item above:
Google Street View provided some final views of the former studio complex in 2012, shortly before its demolition. The building has been heavily altered but details such as the upper floor windows are still recognizable. In its last years, it was home to a sign company and the New Apostolic Church, a Korean congregation:
A residential condominium stands on the site now. The Gaumont studio property had survived there for more than a century, its history completely forgotten:
The cross street of 34th Avenue has been renamed Latimer Place, in honor of Lewis Latimer, an African-American inventor who was involved in the development of the light bulb, among other projects. His home is now a museum in a park down the street.
With the demise of the Solax Company in 1922, Alice Guy-Blaché’s quarter century-long career in film came to an abrupt and complete end, though she lived until 1968. For her pioneering contribution to world cinema, there should at least be a historical marker honoring her at the Flushing Gaumont Studio site – now that we finally know where it is!
Alice Guy-Blaché on location, setting up a camera shot