Friday, September 5, 2008

Saying Goodbye to a Mythical Pool

Recording studios are highly specialized spaces that require a lot of raw space to begin with to carve out rooms that sound decent. There are some noteworthy studios that adapted available spaces to suit their needs. Some examples are Columbia 30th Street Studios which was an old Armenian church, Village Studios in West Los Angeles a Masonic Temple, and Mediasound an old Baptist church. Aside from the fascinating things that happen inside studios, sometimes the building that houses studios have interesting past lives of their own.

The building that Avatar Studios is in is over 100 years old. Before Avatar Studios, it was The Power Station and before that, it was a television studio called LewRon Television where the gameshow Let's Make A Deal with Monty Hall was taped. Before that, the building served as a Consolidated Edison substation (thus the name Power Station), which supplied DC power to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. We've had Consolidated Edison engineers / historians come visit to tell us where the generators were and how the power lines fed through and out of the building. Being in this kind of environment, you cannot help but wonder about all the things that transpired here throughout the years.

Sony BMG Music Studios, which was located next door to us at West 54th Street and Tenth Avenue, was another building with a long and interesting history. The studio closed at the end of August 2007 and was just recently demolished to make way for another condominium. Before Sony purchased the building in 1993, it was Camera Mart where you could purchase or rent photographic and film gear. Before that, it was Ceco Studios (where reportedly many of the interior scenes for The Exorcist were shot) and before that, it housed Fox Movietone Studios - a movie studio that was in business from the 1910's.

New York used to be the center of film production up until the 1920’s. The building on West 54th and Tenth was used as a production space, initially for silent films and then with the advent of Movietone sound system, for sound feature films. The facility may have been one of the first major soundstages in the U.S. that was built specifically for motion pictures. According to Wikipedia, the "Movietone sound system is a sound-on-film method of recording sound for motion pictures which guarantees synchronisation between the sound and the picture. ... All of Fox's sound feature films were made using the Movietone system until 1931, while Fox Movietone News used the system until 1939." The building served as a center where Movietone newsreel footage was edited and archived. When Sony purchased the building, the Movietone library was still being stored on the fourth floor of the building. Shortly thereafter, the library was moved to a location in New Jersey.

During the 1930’s, the facility was used as a broadcasting studio in front of a live audience for such programs as the popular radio show Your Hit Parade. John Williams, the film composer, fondly remembers being taken to the studio by his father, who played for the house band, to meet Frank Sinatra there.

Because they were adjacent to our building, we were witness to the painstaking demolition progressing slowly day after day. It was sad watching the building slowly disappear floor by floor and by July 2008, it was pretty much gone. We always heard about how there used to be a pool buried underneath Sony’s soundstage, once the site of popular music programs like Sessions at West 54th (PBS), MTV Unplugged and Hard Rock Live (VH-1). In preparation for the foundation work, excavation of the grounds began where the soundstage stood and on the morning of August 29, the pool reappeared again for one brief moment in the sun.

The pool was used at Fox Movietone Studios primarily for underwater camera shots and Esther Williams was reportedly filmed in the pool for some of her films. The pool that resurfaced was 20 feet by 10 feet and roughly 6 feet deep. The surface of concrete had a blue coating on it that rubbed off when you ran your fingers over it. On the east end along the short side, there was a 4 feet by 4 feet “protrusion.” After observing a 2-inch by 2-inch brass L-shaped bar along the edge between the main pool and this protrusion and hearing accounts about how filming took place, we concluded that the protrusion was where the camera and operator was situated. The camera space was separated from the pool, and thus the water, by two glass panels, which allowed the camera to look directly into the water.

After they purchased the building, Sony covered over the pool with a layer of concrete to better utilize the space. It remained hidden there until last August. Once uncovered, the pool was broken up, but not before we had a chance to take pictures and take a closer look. We saved a few fragments of the pool, but the rest of it was quickly hauled away and was gone without a trace that afternoon. It seemed important to us that this information was documented somewhere for posterity.

I’d like to thank Bob Belden and Marc Kirkeby for sharing historical information about Sony Music Studios.

Additional References:
For people who are interested in disappearing New York Cityscapes and culture:
Jeremiah's Vanishing New York


ken mac said...

This town dissapears block by block, no placards, no statues, no memories. It's like it never existed. The only thing that seems to exist in NYC is THE FUCKING BUCK. History, culture, romance, beauty be damned, the past doesn't exist nor is card for here.

MetrocardMan said...

Thank you BIG time for this post. We are neighbors as I live at 431 west 54th. i ran across a link to your site at jeremiah's vanishing new york. i'm a big fan of history and the owner of the metrocard bike. you may have seen it in the 'hood. Andy

Nancy Albino said...

I worked in NYC recording studios from the mid-80's until the mid-'90's, and there were still people around to tell me about some of the history. I didn't know about this particular piece of history, so I appreciate the post. I miss the way NYC used to be. I miss those days of living and working in NYC. They were the "best years of my life", as the song says.

Mama Pajama said...

hey there - Camera Mart was my family's business. I heard about Esther Williams' pool growing up, and often wondered about it while walking on the stages. glad you got to see it while it was there to see. thanks for this post!

Anonymous said...

I was the one of the 1st t people to climb into the pool when I worked at Sony. They cut a hole to gain access to see if they could create an Orchester pit. They initially had to find an old stage manager to show them the pools footprint. It was rumored that a model T was buried in it. That wasn't the case. There was a smaller pool next to the larger one separated by glass to film Ester Williams under water scenes . It was a very cool memory indeed!!!