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Oyster Bay History Is More Than TR and the Townsends

Meet Silent Movie Original James Stuart Blackton of Cove Neck

Oyster Bay Historical Society Executive Director Phillip Blocklyn had two aces up his sleeve that made the opening of the new exhibit of silent movie entrepreneur James Stuart Blackton come alive: the Walker brothers of Oyster Bay.

Steve Walker, OBHS longtime board member said, “The exhibit shows there’s more to the Oyster Bay Historical Society than Teddy and the Townsends.” For his part, Daniel Walker came dressed in costume – as James Blackton and his wife Tanya came dressed as Blocklyn’s wife, Paula. Gail and Steve Walker also dressed to reflect the silent era times. Mr. Blackton was a noted film producer and owned the famous silent film company, Vitagraph Studio.

Besides dressing the part, Dan talked about Mr. Blackton’s career, starting with the oil painting of a ship done when he was just 23. It is on loan for the exhibit time. Artist Blackton began the painting as he sketched at the Battery in NYC and finished it in his studio.

Mr. Blocklyn said he started life as an artist but found he could make more money in films. He founded Vitagraph in 1896/98 and sold it in the 1920s to Warner Brothers. Mr. Blackton had visited Edison who was working on the VitaScope, his film project, and used that name as his inspiration for Vitagraph. Mr. Blackton bought the Oyster Bay Cove home of William (Billy) L. Swan, Harbourwood, in 1912 and sold it in 1918. It is currently owned by the McEnroe family of tennis fame.

At the OBHS exhibit they were showing a film featuring Norma Talmadge, “She was the inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard,” said Mr. Blocklyn.

Helen and Charles Dolan were honored guests and were given a tour of the three floors of the new Angela Koenig Research and Collections Center, for which the Dolan’s provided the $300,000 matching grant that made the project possible.

OBHS Board President Frank Leone thanked Phil and Yvonne for doing a wonderful job and the whole OBHS team. “We’ve come a long way in one year,” he said. They now have a new building and have had a string of interesting exhibits last year and two this year.

Philip Blocklyn said he really wanted to thank people for their support. “Our goal is to bring people here and really be a part of the community and this place, the Koenig Center, allows us to do that,” he said. The entire project has been ongoing for about 10 years.”

Dan Walker took center stage wearing a replica of Blackton’s 1914 Baby Speed Demon II T-shirt commemorating when Blackton won the American Power Boat Association medal. “Blackton was a real live person and lived in Cove Neck.”

Mr. Walker gave his Top 10 List of Blackton’s career. Blackton was a great artist; did the first animated film called Humorous Faces; in 1898 he did the first propaganda film on the Spanish-American War; it showed his hand taking down the Spanish flag and putting up the American flag; he did the first full length film ever. It was Moses and was a five reeler. He did historical films on Shakespeare, George Washington, Napoleon and Caesar showing Vitagraph had an impact on culture. “He was one of the pioneers of stop motion photography,” Mr. Walker said. Blackton created the first Newsreel which were shown twice a week in movie houses.

The list of actors who appeared in the Vitagraph Studio films include: Stan Laurel, two of the three stooges; Rudolph Valentino, Victor McLaughlin, and Norma Talmadge who did seven movies and was the inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard. He brought Blackton into the present by saying, “He was interested in boats, just like Billie Joel.”

Phil Blocklyn ended the presentation saying, “Blackton’s story was one of ‘rags to riches to rags.’ His life ended when he was hit by a car or bus in 1941 when he was semi-destitute living in California.”

Delicious hors d’oeuvres and 100th anniversary martinis were served to guests. The raffle was last on the agenda and the items sold included: recording studio time, two oil paintings of Oyster Bay by Paul Bachem, an enamel box donated by Liz Roosevelt, and three drawings by Dan Cristofel. “Everything worked out well,” said Mr. Blocklyn. For information about the society and their upcoming events, please call 922-5032.