The Death of Theatre Alley

Nothing annoys me more than scouting New York for an Ext. Dank Alley scene. For some reason (probably because of the movies!), everyone thinks of Manhattan as a city riddled with dark, grungy, dilapidated, smokey alleys that New Yorkers are constantly walking down and getting themselves into trouble in.

The truth is, of course, that Manhattan actually has very few alleys – space is way too limited on our small island to waste on forgotten backstreets. Half of the alleys are privately owned (Great Jones Alley, Franklin Place), and only a small number are of the type you’d want to shoot in (parts of Cortlandt, Staple Alley). One of these used to be Theatre Alley, located behind J&R Computer World.

006

Today, I drove by and was saddened to see that one of New York’s rare archetypal dank alleys is no more – all the buildings on the left have been torn down to make way for what I can only imagine will be a sterile high rise composed of glass and more glass:

003

I have a confession to make: the first film I made in New York as writer/director was set in Ext. Dank Alley. Yup, I’m as bad as the filmmaker’s I so often complain about.

I went to college as an undergrad at Columbia University. In 2003, Coca Cola began advertising around Columbia’s film graduate school about their annual Filmmaker’s Competition, in which ten students from film schools across the country are given a budget (then,  about $6,000) to make a 50-second short about filmmaking. Of the films, a winner is selected to play in movie theaters across the country during trailers.

As far as anyone could tell me, the competition was only open to grad students. However, I read the fine print, and it seemed like I was technically eligible as an undergrad, as I was a film studies major. So I wrote a minute-long script (largely set in an Ext. Dank Alley!), drew up some storyboards, completely guessed my way through a $5,000 budget breakdown, and sent it in.

Two months later, I got a call: I was one of the finalists! Woo! Not only did this mean I got a LOT of Coke products…

coke

…It also meant I actually had to make my film. I had made plenty of amateur shorts with my friends over the years, but nothing as complex as this. I was going from crappy miniDV to suddenly shooting on 35mm, and I had no idea what I was doing.

One of the most pressing tasks was to find a location – my first foray into the world of scouting. And of course, I very, very quickly learned that New York has very few alleys. Thank God for Forgotten NY’s write-up on Manhattan’s alleys – not sure what I would have done without it.

Most of the alleys weren’t right for the script, but I finally settled on a pretty iconic choice in Tribeca: Franklin Place (thanks for sharing the pic, larindame!)

Franklin Place

The location was locked. I began focusing on all the other aspects of the movie (casting, finding a crew, props, costumes, equipment, etc., etc.) knowing that at the very least, we had a killer shooting location.

Surprisingly, everything came together for the shoot. A film company I interned at allowed us to shoot in their corner executive office space. After a lengthy audition process, we assembled a great cast. And Panavision even gave us a full 35mm shooting package for free (how my producer, a Columbia grad student, negotiated this one remains a mystery to me to this day).

Then, a day before our shoot, Franklin Place alley found out we were planning to film there.

And told us it would cost $25,000 a day.

As it turns out, Franklin Place is privately owned. Each building abutting the alley owns about eight feet of it, and they’re very used to getting pay offs from big film companies like the ones I tend to now work for. I tried to explain that our budget was only $5,000, and we had no money, and could they please make an exception for student filmmakers?

Nope.

We jumped into a panicked scouting mode, and finally came across Theatre Alley. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise – Theatre Alley was perfect, even danker and more claustrophobic than Franklin Place. We feared J&R might have an issue with us, but they gave us the go ahead, and we had a new shooting location.

Shoot 04

Other than it being absolutely freezing (middle of February, shooting from sundown til sun up), the alley was perfect. With tons of trash scattered about and actual steam rising from a sewer, we didn’t even need to use our fog machine (which was useless anyway after the liquid froze).

While waiting for a set-up, I noticed an old fuse box on the the building on the left (recently demolished). I opened it up and saw this guy inside (it kills me this shot is so out of focus!):

Shoot 02

The building pictured below on the right, also gone, housed a porn store and theater. At one point, it became clear that we’d need to mount a light to one of their fire escapes, and I sent my AD inside to get permission. The owners said fine, and even let our lighting guys access the fire escape from inside the building. Of course, this meant they had to go through the porn theater, carrying lights over paying customers enjoying a movie in progress.

Shoot 05

No razor wire was going to keep us out! Incredibly, six years later and this scaffolding is STILL in place:

Shoot 01

Once the sun set, we began shooting. Other than an incident in which our eager grips pulled the camera dolly off the tracks, nearly ending the shoot, the whole thing went smoothly.

Shoot 07

And now, my 2004 entry into the Coca Cola Filmmaker’s Competition! A quick reminder: the film only had to be about filmmaking, and there was no requirement to include anything Coke-related (of course, in hindsight, nearly all of the winning films shown in theaters around the country have included Coke in some way; I probably should have considered this!).

Not bad, right? If it feels rushed, it’s because we had to cram everything into a scant 50 second run time. If it feels amateur, gimme a break, it was my first movie of any size, and I was the ripe age of 21!

Theatre Alley holds a very, very special place in my heart for the night I spent there making my first “real” short film. It was freezing, the damn vampire teeth kept falling out, and it started snowing around 4 AM (you’ll notice that toward the end). But man did that location shine in the film.

While I’m sad to see it go, I’ve always figured its demise was inevitable. Some buildings you hold on to because of their historical or artistic value. Theatre Alley was simply one of a dying breed – a forgotten back street of Manhattan. Its value was in its scarcity. Honestly, I won’t be surprised when Cortlandt Alley et. al. follow suit. Enjoy them while they’re here.

Good-bye, Theatre Alley!

001

And thanks for all the memories!

Shoot 09
(me on the right, younger brother on the left)

-SCOUT

PS – No, I didn’t win. However, it was a great experience, I got to shoot a 35mm short, and as a consolation prize, they sent me this very heavy solid glass Coke bottle trophy!

coke

PPS – If you’ve ever walked down the northern portion, you’ve probably noticed this seemingly ancient advertising painted on the western brick wall. It reads: Victory Theatre – Vaudeville / Photoplays:

006

Don’t be fooled, though! This is just left over from a film shoot pre-2004. The alley is actually named for the former Park Theatre, once located on Ann St (it burned down in 1848).

PPPS – Yes, the bum appearing in my most recent pictures is pissing in the alley. Seems only appropriate.

PPPPS – College Humor did an awesome Coke Refreshing Filmmaker’s Award parody, in which the guy goes a bit more artsy than they’d like.

PPPPS – Scout’s vampire vixen says, Drink Coke!

Shoot 08

If you enjoyed reading this post, would you consider making a donation to help me make my first movie? The goal is $30,000, and already, 1,487 generous readers have donated $32,128.00. Just $5 or $10 can make a difference - AND you get a snazzy Scouting NY sticker or magnet as a Thank-You gift! Click here to donate today!

And hey, if you've made it this far, why not follow us via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr?

31 comments

  1. Great stuff! The loss of the alley is sad, but I really like the film! Very cute, and a wonderful story about it.

    Thanks as always for sharing :)

  2. Third photo from the top: is that you??

  3. Struggling to express my thoughts but I think that short film is a long way from amateur! You should be making your own films!

  4. Thanks very much, Marc and Simon…I hope to be again sooner than later. And that is me about six years ago, and though I look about 12 or 13, I was actually 21.

  5. What a great story! I’ve always hated those Coke films just because of all the prominent Coke placement in it. It’s as if they were saying “We don’t care about the quality of your work as long as you’re able to make our product look desirable!”

    That was a good 50-second film. Yeah, it was rushed, but a hell of a lot better than I could do, and a hell of a lot better than most of the ones that actually made it to theaters.

  6. This is brilliant! Thank you so much for this story.. made my day! Would be making a trip down to NYC soon.. and this adds on to the anticipation! (as if its not enough already!) :)

  7. 1.) Great short.
    2.) The Victory Theater sign is from “Billy Bathgate”. The bottom got painted black to get rid of a bunch of graffiti and then somebody came and did that crappy job of re-writing the bottom of the sign.
    3.) Yeah, Manhattan alleys in movies are one of my pet peeves too. Remember the scene from “Look Who’s Talking” when John Travolta spends 5 minutes driving his cab through all of the alleys so he could avoid traffic? Feh!

  8. Matthias Sundberg

    your pitchman used to be my roommate! No kidding!

  9. Great movie! You manage to cram a lot of tongue-in-cheek New York movie imagery into 50 seconds, while poking fun at New York movies and the movie business itself. Well done! The office looks exactly like Faye Dunaway’s in “Network”.

  10. Woah, what is that skeleton of? I can’t tell!

  11. One of your best posts …. thanks for taking us down your “memory lane” ….errr, “memory alley”

  12. yours was great- loved the twist. The other was gross…

  13. I had that same Chasing Amy poster…

    Here’s a great Ext. Dank Alley in Gowanus:
    flickr.com/photos/plog/2102025472

  14. I love your film. I’d love to see the idea developed and turned into a feature film. It could be two films within a film…

  15. Really great story. i like the film and this blog.

  16. My most pressing question is why you openly admit to attending Columbia but blur out your Exeter sweatshirt?

  17. I just stumbled on your website–I’m at NYU for film right now, actually, and this sight is a godsend for our Sight and Sound: Film class…we shoot in b/w 16mm and were just kind of thrown out into Manhattan to shoot 20 short films in 5 weeks.
    I’m the same age as you were when you made this–21–and I wish I was experienced enough to make something like that!

  18. oh i remember that alley very well… and there is a plaque somewhere where the theatre used to be. old new york is disappearing at such a rapid rate, i can’t even keep up with all the losses. i was directed to this site by a friend who knows i am an architecture fiend. i can see it will quickly become one of my favorite sites.

  19. I WAS fooled by the sign. It’s been there for an awful long time, tho. I had always wondered if the building at the bottom end, the Lucille Roberts at 147 Fulton, had been the original theater, since it looks a lot like one. I think the building at the beginning of the alley, that’s now just an empty lot, was once a magical old book store, about 5 stories with shelves full of books up to the ceiling, and no discernable order to them.
    I just took some pics of an old movie theater in the Bronx, the RKO Chester at East Tremont and 174th, that’s being demolished. Built 1928, stopped being a theater in 1968. Held 2,500, and had a big Wurlitzer organ. The organ is now in a restaurant in NJ, but the theater is now just a pile of rubble. Hate to see theater die.

  20. Thanks for this fascinating article, perhaps if it did take quite a lengthy time to understand. (English is not my mother language) May I ask where you got your info from? Thankyou!

  21. Bless you this made for interesting reading. I enjoy your website design, i frequently come back here and i dont realize why. I just seriously like your website lol…

  22. I’ve followed your site for very a lengthy time and truly can tell that your subject material content frequently show to become of a higher worth and good quality for readers.

  23. Oh, damn, I used to work in a sushi bar (it’s now a sandwich shop I believe) right by there a couple of years ago. I would always take my smoke breaks in that alley. Funny to come across a random article about it. It always had character. I remember a group of homeless dudes who used to sit there on an old computer (they would tap into J&R’s electricity). Man, makes me want to go back there, I love the financial district.

  24. My Grandfather captured that mysterious, film noir look pretty well I think in his 1959 picture of Theater Alley.

    http://www.franklarsonphotos.com/Miscellaneous%20pages/068%2010%20page.htm

    I was down there last summer and notice the bookstore at the end of the alley is now a Starbucks.

    Soren Larson

  25. Wow… Very cool stuff. I have been using this alley as a means of business since 1990′. My father has had a closeout/discount store in that area since 1990′. We have always used that dank ass ,dirty foul smelling as a place top to make deliveries and unload trucks. And we still use it today on a daily basis. I grew up in and around that alley.
    The alley has alway been home to drug addicts and homeless, as well as daily ganja smokers. In 1990-1994, before Mayor Giuliani was in office and before he declared class warfare on the poor put everyone in jail, that alley was filled with people smoking weed all day. Guliani caught a whiff one day and demanded the police start locking everyone up for toking. So stupid! It obviously hasnt discouraged anyone and has cost the city and our civilians way too much money and heartache.
    The alley also acts as a bathroom to homeless as well as a rat den. At night there are tons of rats running around. Although there aren’t nearly as many as there were in the 90s. It was insane. They would run over your feet back then with out a care in the world. It was horrible. The removal of all the small dumpsters really helped.
    The alley still has steam coming out of the floors so it looks really cool and scary. I can assure you anyone you encounter in that alley is usually friendly or will totally mind their business and not even take notice you are there.

    THEATRE ALLEY is a piece of classic NYC.

    There are going to be two new buildings, one large and one small. The large building is supposed to be residential and the smaller one is supposed to be mixed use building. That’s what I have been told by the construction guys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>