Edison, Bond, and Roy Hobbs: WNY Heritage Explores the History of Buffalo and the Silver Screen

natural lobby card

I suppose it’s no surprise that Buffalo has a fascinating film history, and not just the movies that were shot here — “The Natural,” “Buffalo 66,” “Henry’s Crime,” “Hide in Plain Sight.” There were gorgeous theaters, distribution companies for major studios, and more.

For all of these details, and other fascinating bits if cinematic minutiae, the summer issue of Western New York Heritage magazine is a must-buy. Matthew Biddle, a great writer and good friend (he interned for me at Buffalo Spree, and has been a dedicated contributor to Spree and Forever Young ever since), has written a wonderful piece about Buffalo’s “long and colorful history with the movie business” that is detailed, interesting, and wonderfully incisive.

Matthew starts with the movie that is perhaps most indelibly linked to the Queen City – in the minds of Buffalonians, at least: “The Natural.” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel is, despite its still controversial happy ending, a modern classic to just about every Western New Yorker. It is the story of Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, the “35-year old rookie” ball player, and for the film, Buffalo became 1930s New York, happily.

“With shooting nearly complete [in September 1983],” he writes, “a crowd of over 12,000 converged on the Old Rockpile, the rusted 45,000-seat stadium and site of the most filming. Wearing a baseball jacket for Hobbs’ team, the New York Knights, Redford thanked the crowd for the warm reception the cast and crew had received.”

(I interviewed Bisons owner Bob Rich for Spree back in July 2011, and he discussed the filming a bit, and Forgotten Buffalo has a nice tour of the shooting locations.)

Locals still talk about that magical time, but as Matthew’s article explains, it was one if many brushes with Hollywood. Consider:

  • “[In 1896] Mitchell H. Mark opened in Buffalo what’s purported to be one of the nation’s first purpose-built movie theaters.”
  • “Several Edison videographers created at least 20 films at the Pan-American Exposition [of 1901].”
  • Buffalo was home to “film exchanges” for major studios like MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. As Matthew writes. In 1941, the Courier-Express noted that “[f]ew people realize how important a movie center Buffalo is.”
  • “In late 1917, the first Buffalo-based production company, the appropriately names Buffalo Motion Picture Company, announced its premier film, a ‘drama of motherly love’ called ‘The Brink of Eternity.’”
  • The Roger Moore-era James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun” “featured a stunt digitally designed by Cornell Aeronautical Labs in Buffalo,” and the car still sits in a building in Hamburg.

Interesting, no? There is plenty more in the article, including Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Buffalo years, the city’s role as a testing lab for Todd-AO, and even the recent filming of “The Best Man’s Holiday” at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The latter, coupled with the news of a Matthew Broderick movie currently being shot in WNY, make clear that even on a small scale, Buffalo remains involved with filmdom. We need more ambassadors like Robert Redford, who, Matthew says, recalled “the ease with which the people and the place made this experience … I really like this city.”

Photo is a lobby card for the film; that is Parkside Candy in the background

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