BY JOE MARVILLI
When people think of Queens’ film scene, Whitestone is not usually the first neighborhood on their minds. While Long Island City and Astoria may be one of the biggest centers for film production on the East Coast, the northeast Queens neighborhood had its own role to play in the early 20th century.
During the silent film era and the Golden Age of Hollywood, New York City was a hotbed for film productions. With intense schedules, many actors lived near where they worked. Several famous names chose Whitestone as their home for the duration of their New York filming experiences.
In the 1920s and early 30s, Whitestone was still relatively isolated from western Queens. The Whitestone Bridge, Whitestone Expressway and Cross Island Expressway did not exist, making the Long Island Rail Road the number one way in and out of the area. Relatively free from major developments, the neighborhood became ideal for actors and actresses to build houses that were just a short train ride away from their jobs.
According to Jason Antos’ book, “Images of America: Whitestone,” one of the most famous Whitestone residents during this era of cinema was Rudolph Valentino. The star of silent films like “The Sheik,” Valentino was very popular with audiences and viewed as a sex symbol of the 1920s. Valentino’s mansion remains in the same location to this day, by the Whitestone-Bayside border. It is now the home of Vivaldi’s Ristorante and Ballroom.
Mary Pickford, one of Hollywood’s first female stars, was also a resident of Whitestone for a couple of years, living in the Beechhurst area from 1909 to 1911. Her home still stands on 160th Street and Powells Cove Boulevard. The two years Pickford was in Whitestone were among the earliest of her professional career.
Pickford was responsible for getting another famous face to live in the neighborhood. Charlie Chaplin was quickly becoming the world’s most famous comedy actor, with many of his silent films produced at Astoria Studios. To stay nearby during his packed shooting schedule, he lived at the Beechhurst Towers, located at 160-15 Powells Cove Blvd.
Chaplin had another connection to Whitestone, besides residing there. One of Chaplin’s spouses, Paulette Goddard, was from Whitestone. Born as Pauline Marion Levy, Goddard was one of the biggest names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She starred alongside Chaplin in “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator.”
The world’s greatest escape artist, Harry Houdini, was also a Whitestone resident at one point in his life, having lived on Powells Cove Boulevard. Unfortunately, his house was demolished in 1995. Nevertheless, Houdini retains his connection to Queens. He is buried at Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale.
As time moved on, Whitestone no longer drew the big names that had lived there during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. The famed Rialto Theater, located at 149-50 15th Road, also could not keep up with the community’s changing culture. It closed in 1960 and is now home to the Dwarf Giraffe Athletic League.
Whitestone has still had success stories over the last couple of decades. Both Drea de Matteo, from “The Sopranos,” and Christina Vidal, from Nickelodeon’s “Taina,” were born in the neighborhood.
Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @JoeMarvilli.