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31 Oct

The Gold Coast in The Movies

 

 
Ever since D.W. Griffith shot some of his early silent films here on Long Island back in the ’20s, Hollywood moguls have had a love affair with Gold Coast mansions. Who can forget Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart dancing in the glassed-in tennis court in the 1953 classic Sabrina? That scene was shot at the playhouse at Killenworth, off Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove. The 1994 remake starring Harrison Ford was filmed at many of the original locations in and around the Glen Cove area. Long before movies became the billion dollar mega-hits they are today, low budget films with unheard of actors were shot at some of our fabled estates. During the ’20s, Ferguson’s Castle in Huntington was used for the movies Napoleon and Romeo and Juliet. L.C. Tiffany’s 100-room fortress Laurelton Hall was featured in The Beggar Maid, but no footage of it has survived. In 1941, Oheka Castle in Huntington had its moment on the silver screen in Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. 
 
I first stumbled into location scouting by accident while living at the infamous Woodward Estate in Oyster Bay. I had been modeling during my college years and New York photographers often came out to the house to shoot at the Versailles-style gardens for which the property was known. There were long glades and allees of topiary trees, cherry orchards, marble reflecting pools and vast open meadows of wild flowers. The bridal magazines loved the place and would often stay for a week. It soon became apparent that the Gold Coast was a gold mine, with at least 100 or so estates still standing. While many were overgrown and no longer maintained as in the old days, the film and TV industries were taken by their derelict beauty. By the late ’60s, business was booming. 

The Godfather

 
As fate would have it, the very first movie I ever scouted for was The Godfather. The book had been a runaway best seller but no one expected another Hollywood film about gangsters to amount to much. Many of the scenes were being shot on Shelter Island and I got a call to scout with Dean Tavoularis and Francis Ford Coppola, an unknown director at the time, for some places on the North Shore. One of the places they picked was Falaise, part of the former Guggenheim Estate in Sands Point. An upstairs bedroom was used for what would turn out to be one of the most unforgettable scenes in the film. Long-time actor John Morley played the nasty Hollywood director who wakes up one morning to find his beloved horse’s head lying next to him in a pool, more like a river, of blood. On the first day of shooting, Coppola, who loves animals, decided to use a fake horse’s head made out of wax, plaster and silly putty, with some hair glued to it. At the end of the day when they played back the rushes (uncut film footage), they all agreed it looked fake. The next day they sent the award-winning set and prop decorator Bob Griffon and his wife Eve upstate to a slaughterhouse to pick up a real horse’s head. The head was packed in ice and put in a huge tub and placed in the back seat of their family station wagon. The gory sight attracted the wrong kind of attention from the police at both the Tappan Zee and Whitestone bridges as they journeyed back to Long Island. The next day the scene was re-shot over and over again while the crew made fake blood out of Karo syrup tinted with red food coloring in the nearby marble bathtub. The interior stable scene with Robert Duvall, John Morley and the poor horse, Kartume, were shot at Marshall Field’s English stable in Lloyd Neck. Another brutal scene, where Sonny Corleone gets shot to smithereens by rival gangsters at the toll booth, was shot at the Old Mitchell Field in Uniondale, which is now Roosevelt Field shopping mall. 
 
The movie came out in 1971 and broke all records. New York theaters had screenings 24 hours a day to keep up with the demand. It remains one of the greatest films ever made. 
 

Sabrina

 
In 1953, moviegoers were charmed by the black and white version of Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Most of the scenes were shot in and around Glen Cove, including the historic Glen Cove railroad station. In the film’s opening, young Sabrina describes the lavish lifestyle here on the Gold Coast she is so familiar with. The camera follows her charming voice as it pans the vast English manor house, Killenworth, perched high on a hill, then cuts to a pool and greenhouse, Peacock Point, then moves to a large indoor tennis court, the Pratt Playhouse on Dosoris Lane. The scene fades to black, then the camera moves in on a privileged goldfish named George. It’s one of the best openings for a film ever. 
 
When I got the call from Joe Iaberti, the location manager at Paramount Pictures to help duplicate the original places used in the ’50s, we ran into problems. Killenworth was now owned by the Russian Embassy and they wouldn’t talk to us. The original indoor tennis court where Audrey and Humphrey danced was now the Y.M.C.A. and the massive building had been turned into a giant, modern gymnasium. The greenhouse at Peacock Point had fallen into ruin and was demolished. But Salutations on Dosoris Island had it all. The property was leased by Paramount Pictures for a year for a record $1million but major work had to be done. The new owner, Margo Walker, had just bought the 32-acre island and hadn’t moved in yet, so she was thrilled that the crumbling seawall would be rebuilt by the film company. The movie, starring Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear and Julia Ormond as Sabrina, would be a modern version of the ’50s romance. The party scenes turned out to be some of the most lavish sets ever done for a film. As often happened, I was asked to be one of the dancers at the two formal galas that were set up on the west lawn. A giant dance floor and stage for the orchestra was built and thousands of string lights were hung from the trees and crisscrossed over the dance floor. Dozens of Arabian-style blue and white tents, each with lavish table settings, were designed for dinner guests to watch the spectacle. Three 200-foot yachts draped with party lights were moored on the water’s edge. Filming went on all night but had to shut down by 5 a.m. when the resident birds started chirping noisily and drowned out the conversations of the actors. By then we were all exhausted from dancing for 10 hours but we still had to trudge back to the dressing tents, get out of our gowns and jewels, then go back to our day jobs. None of us slept for three weeks. The movie came out in 1994, got fair reviews, but was no match for the original, which remains one of the most loved films of its era. 
 

Hair

 
Oakley Court, a beautiful English manor house stands high on a cliff, overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor. In 1979, Milos Forman directed the movie version of the Broadway hit Hair there in the dead of winter. This created major problems for the actors and crew, as the scenes were to appear to be taking place in June when elegant debutante parties would be a big part of the social scene here on the Gold Coast. Being December, the lawns on the property had turned brown, there were no leaves on the trees and everything was grey, dead and gloomy. An army of set designers and prop people spent days wiring fake leaves and cherry blossoms to the bare trees. The brown lawn was sprayed bright green and huge vases of silk flowers were placed everywhere. In the spacious garden a Victorian gazebo was built and covered with pink roses. 
 
On the day the garden party was to be shot, it began to snow. I was one of 100 extras who were dressed in strapless chiffon gowns. The temperature outside was 28 degrees. Our noses and fingers had turned red from the cold and most of us wanted to jump off the nearby cliff. Everyone had brought fur coats and gloves but we couldn’t wear them during filming. To keep our spirits up, the crew played disco music during breaks and encouraged us to jump around to keep from freezing to death. But for all their efforts, the public was not ready for another hippie movie and the film bombed. 
 

Age of Innocence

 
During the ’80s and ’90s, Malmaison was one of the most booked location sites on Long Island. Located just off Exit 40 on the Long Island Expressway, it was easy to get to but hidden away from the world. Mariah Carey’s first video was shot there along with dozens of others. Holly Hunter, Demi Moore, Isabella Rossellini, Uma Thurman and Sarah Jessica Parker were frequently photographed there to promote their latest films. In 1992 I got a call from Martin Scorsese who said he needed a grand French ballroom for a dinner party scene for his film The Age of Innocence. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the tragic melodrama. It was Scorsese’s first attempt with a historic romance and a complete break from his usual bloody mafia features. What drew the gifted director to the 36-room mansion was that Edith Wharton, who wrote the 1880’s novel on which the movie was based, had lived in the house during the early part of the last century. 
 
It took three weeks to convert the historic French château into a Victorian-style palace. Scorsese was fanatical about every little detail; exotic foods were flown in from all over the world and only the most expensive gold-trimmed crystal and china were used. Lavish floral arrangements and palm trees were everywhere and the authentic, tightly corseted costumes made you feel you truly had stepped back in time. 
 
One of the most bizarre shoots to take place there was for Saturday Night Live, starring Jon Lovitz and Jan Hooks. I was asked to find a bright colored Mediterranean-style mansion that could pass for a palace where Fidel Castro might live in Cuba. At the time Malmaison was painted bubble gum pink, which was totally out of character for the otherwise understated style of the Gold Coast. Huge fake palm trees lined the drive and courtyard. The scene they created was of Castro, played by Lovitz, taking a bath in the ballroom in a huge marble tub. He is singing happily while covered in soap foam. Bubble machines fill the room with bubbles when suddenly gunshots are heard and he is invaded by enemy soldiers. The camera cuts to the exterior of the mansion, which is then blown up. Plastic palm trees fly in all directions. As the smoke clears, you see Lovitz outside in the courtyard, still in the bathtub surrounded by bubbles. His beard is smoking but he’s okay. The neighbors called the Brookville police when they saw an army tank roll up the drive with menacing soldiers carrying fake machine guns. Four police cars were there in seconds but I told them it was all make-believe. They were use to such carryings on at that house and we invited them to help themselves to the craft service table where there were plenty of doughnuts to munch on. (Author’s note: They did not blow up the house, just a fake duplicate of the façade. They did, however, blow up the palm trees). 
 

Winfield

 
So many TV and feature films have been shot at Winfield over the years, its impossible to keep track of them all. The first one I ever worked on was called Lost Voyage, a ’20s parody based loosely on Fitzgerald’s book. Some of the characters were played by huge sheepdogs dressed in tuxedos, but they couldn’t act and soon ate their costumes. Halfway through filming, the director lost his backers, who claimed the idea was stupid, and the film never made it into theaters. 
 
Most recently, a remake of the ’50s black and white film Mildred Pierce was shot at Winfield. The original starred Joan Crawford, who won an Academy Award for her performance. Parts of the new HBO version were shot over many months at the Glen Cove Mansion and it was a huge success. In 1974, parts of a Mike Nichols’ film were shot at Winfield and the Hasset Estate in Sands Point. The Fortune starred Jack Nicolson, Warren Beatty and Stockard Channing as a wealthy heiress who cannot stand her stuffy family. Filmed late at night, Channing crawls out of a second floor window where Nicolson is waiting in a vintage car to whisk her off to a life on the road. Jack Nicolson is a very entertaining person to work with. When I saw him years later in his hit film The Shining it was apparent that the character he played in it was his true personality. He remains one of our most popular actors to this day. 
 
Over the years, hundreds of movies have been shot at the old estates all over Long Island. I’ve written just about the ones I worked on and while going over my endless journals and photos taken on sets to write this story, I’ve decided it might make an interesting book one day.
 
In the October feature of the Gold Coast Ghosts, on page 62, we accidentally wrote the word dummy instead of mummy. (Author’s note: There is a one-hour illustrated program called The Gold Coast in the Movies circulating at libraries and clubs. For further information call 516.921.7438)
 
 
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