Universal Studios decided to stage the première of Fools Highway far from the glittering lights of Times Square. Instead, they selected the Atlantic Garden, a seedy movie house, at 50 Bowery, that normally offered a steady diet of tenth-run photoplays. There were reasons for this rather odd choice.
Based on the novel My Mamie Rose, the film centered along the Bowery at Pell Street during the 1890s. The neighborhood reconstructed on the back lot with the “L,” the street cars and buildings. From old photographs, Steve Brodie’s saloon and other resorts along the Bowery recreated.
Established by William Kramer in 1858, the Atlantic Garden was formerly among the most notable of the old haunts. A large hall extending back to Elizabeth Street, it could hold more than a thousand people while offering a variety of events and amenities. As the Garden’s best years faded into the past, it became a Yiddish theatre and then a boxing arena before turning to motion pictures in 1919.
On February 29,1924, a bit of that past would be recaptured with the opening of Fools Highway starring Mary Philbin.
The Sun and the Globe, February 28, 1924:
“Elaborate preparations have been made for putting the Atlantic Garden, one of the landmarks, of the Bowery, back into the period when it was a popular eating and entertainment establishment.
The Sun and the Globe, March 1, 1924:
“Members of the Universal staff greeted us and showed us to a picturesque bar on side of the lobby. ‘This,’ they said, ‘is a replica of the old bar of the Atlantic Garden of the olden days. Have a drink?’”
Among the invited guests were George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Jessie Lasky.and James J. Walker (standing in for Al Smith, whose official duties kept him away). The Sun and the Globe reported a rumor of notable gangsters in the audience.
The air of nostalgia continued with a stage presentation featuring performers that had once graced the stage of the Atlantic Garden. Harry Von Tilzer sang a few favorites, accompanied by a ladies’ orchestra, two members of which had played in the first ladies’ orchestra at the Garden.
Maude Nugent, who wrote Rose O’Grady, led the audience in singing “this heart-hymn of Irish America.”
Composer Charles Lawler “swept the crowd with tears and memories with his famous ballad ‘The Sidewalks of New York.’’’
In terms of publicity the evening had been a triumph, but the reviews for the film were less than ecstatic.
Excerpts from the Sun and the Globe, March 1, 1924:
“Along about 10 P.M. the picture started . A few rather interesting views of the old Bowery –all sets in the Universal studios—were shown. For some reason these didn’t excite us. We waited patiently for the story to start; the picture got half over, and still the story hadn’t started.”
With Hollywood gone, the old Garden sank back into its misery, closing in 1928 as a “cheap Bowery restaurant.” In that year the exteriors altered on Elizabeth Street and on the Bowery. The interior gutted with only a few architectural elements remaining. Those were lost in a 2013 battle for preservation.
The Bowery Boogie
Cezar Del Valle is the author of the Brooklyn Theatre Index, chosen 2010 Best Book of the Year by the Theatre Historical Society.
He is available for theatre talks and walks in 2014, historical societies, libraries, senior centers, etc.