The size of a funeral is the measure of a man, and in 1932, Upper West Sider Sol Brill’s departure from this earth was larger than life. An, honest, dignified, gentle soul was cut down by cancer at age 54, at the height of his career as a movie-theater builder and operator. Brill’s funeral was conducted from Manhattan’s West End Synagogue, a/k/a Shaaray Tefila, (The Gates of Prayer) on the morning of January 28, 1932. Sixty, (as in 60) black limousines carrying family and dignitaries comprised the funeral cortege that crept up West End Avenue and then made its way to the ornate sanctuary on West 82nd Street before proceeding to the cemetery in Queens. Heads of state garner less attention at their passing. But there’s nary a soul alive who knew Sol personally, his name virtually erased from human memory, eclipsed by time. How can it be?
Sol Brill was a knoker, a makher, a dreyer in his time. (For the Yiddish-impaired, these italicized words all connote a powerful personage, one who makes things happen!) In the depths of The Great Depression, men and women deeply connected with the movie industry were above royalty. Producers, directors, movie-stars, theater chain owners: all were god-like dream spinners in the days when America needed an escape from despair. (Ironically, Shaaray Tefila moved to a shuttered movie theater across town at 79th Street and Second Avenue in a later decade during which Jews were abandoning the deteriorating Upper West Side in droves. The Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church has occupied the faux Moorish-Byzantine structure since then.
FROM THE STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE
Sol Brill held a prominent place in that well-tenanted pantheon of screen producers, directors, theater chain owners and performers. Sol was a good guy, a self-made man, and partners since adolescence in various enterprises with an elementary school classmate from Stanton Street on the Lower East Side named William Fox. As in Twentieth Century Fox.
Though a mere few miles from his Lower East Side upbringing, the storied gates of Beth El Cemetery in Queens as well as the massive and ornate Brill Family Mausoleum are light years apart distant from the poverty and struggles of densely packed Ridge Street, where Sol spent many of his formative years. Sol Brill’s journey from modest beginnings to wealth in one of the few industries that continued to burgeon after the Crash of ’29 paralleled the economic trajectory of many Eastern European Jews who started to emigrate to New York in the 1870s (Sol’s family came from “Russia” (which on an entry document from the late 19th century could mean anywhere in the vast Russian Empire). In a parallel trajectory, these urban “all-rightnik” Jews moved to newly built-up neighborhoods of New York, as their finances permitted, and moved out just as quickly, as over-building and racism-influenced flight took effect in places like Harlem and then the Upper West Side.
Sol’s father, Morris Brill, born in 1848, came to America in 1876 but did not live to see his son Sol marry Sadie Vergesslich on December 30, 1900. Sol’s mother, Minnie Stuck (or Stock), originally from what is listed on Sol’s marriage certificate as “Krakow, Austria,” i.e. Cracow, Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was still living, and likely attended the solemnization ceremonies performed by Rabbi Fabian Light of Congregation Ateres Zvie. Light’s residential address on East 108th Street in the contemporary NYC directory is not far where he served as rebbe of the shul at 327 West 121st Street. https://books.google.com/books?id=2aBKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA349&lpg=PA349&dq=Ateris+Zwie&source=bl&ots=8o_ei2Nc3Z&sig=Xo3W0DEIXlkDdCZuixFDn6cHLNA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjOs__85czKAhVMVT4KHZx0Ar4Q6AEISjAI#v=onepage&q=Ateris%20Zwie&f=false
The wedding reception was held at Arlington Hall on St. Mark’s Place in a building that still stands today, albeit in much and gauchely altered form. Here are images of the majestic structure from c. 1892, its condition today, and the Brill-Vergesslich wedding reception notice from 1899:
Sol, 25, then residing with his mother and various siblings at 25 Ridge Street on the Lower East Side, married a local girl: Sadie’s family lived at 190 Madison Street, and she was but two years his junior.
Sol and Sadie followed typical Ost-jüden upwardly mobile residential patterns; from their Lower East Side beginnings they moved to the southern edge of Harlem, residing at 1801 Seventh Avenue on the northeast corner of Central Park North in a modest six-story building.
Sol and Sadie’s marriage bore fruit: three daughters, Mindell, Lillian, and Hortense came into the world, all of whom Sol adored. The family prospered, and photos of the three daughters, elegantly clad in the fashions of the day fill family scrapbooks. Vacations at the shore and equestrian outings in NYC public parks were frequent.
As Sol’s business empire grew, so did the status of the family’s residence, ending up at 375 West End Avenue, where, at 6:45 a.m. on January 27, 1932 Sol succumbed to a many months-long medical struggle.
Hungarian William Fox came to New York as 9-month old Wilhelm Fuchs [and/or Fried] and attended elementary and middle-school with his neighbor Sol Brill. Fox was one of 13 brothers and sisters, and grew up in poverty as did Sol Brill. Sol’s first job after dropping out of the Stanton Street school was humping blocks of ice up tenement stairs for residential ice-boxes. As young adults, the two friends went into the cloth-sponging business together in a loft at 154/156 Grand Street along with Sol’s in-law Abraham Vergesslich.
Sponging is a process to pre-shrink fabric before it is devoted to industrial uses. As late as 1920, more than 50 cloth-sponging companies operated in Manhattan, according to the April issue that year of The Garment Manufacturerer’s Index. The three partners’ business later moved to 43 West 16th Street, where a palimpsest of its painted advertisement remains on the exterior side wall in the upper left corner of the photo herewith: http://www.14to42.net/16street3.html
A more attractive opportunity came along through the good offices of one of Sol’s uncles in 1905 (or a year or two later, according to varied accounts), who alerted Sol and William Fox to the availability of a penny arcade at 700 Broadway in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. With money provided by that uncle, the pair acquired the lease and re-fitted the space into a novel form of public entertainment, showing films in a public space on a screen, a radical departure from the the individual viewing machines mounted in groups in kinetoscope parlors. The partners charged a nickel and Sol’s young nephew, Harry Shiffman, served as the projectionist in what was the came part of a national nickelodeon craze. This venture was start of a three-decades long relationship, though it didn’t end well after Sol’s death and Shiffman’s assumption of control of Brill’s estate and business operations. Sadly, this historic site is no more: a giant McDonald’s with a deteriorating parking lot has occupied the site on the south side of Broadway for many years.
According to Fox’s memoirs, business was slow at first, and the partners hired a coin manipulator, a sword swallower and a fire-eater to stand outdoors at the entrance to attract crowds. In the midst of his performance, the sword swallower would inform the crowds that he would complete his act upstairs, and they followed him up two flights into a room with movable seats in which short movies and longer “one- or two-reelers” were projected. Things took off in short order…https://books.google.com/books?id=X8GqBndVPZYC&pg=PA65&dq=Sol+Brill&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjAp-Cuv9zKAhWmnYMKHUJ-CVc4ChDoAQgbMAA#v=onepage&q=Sol%20Brill&f=false
According to Maggie Valentine’s The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee (Yale University Press: New Haven: 1994), “The number of seats in a nickelodeon often depended on the locale and on the municipal regulations defining a theatre, for which an amusement license was required. To avoid paying the fee, ‘nicks’ would contain one seat less that the municipal definition of a theatre. In New York City… a theatre license cost five hundred dollars, whereas film exhibitors paid only twenty-five dollars. The weekly cost of operating a theatre that presented only one show a night was twenty-five hundred dollars, as compared to five hundred dollars to run a nickelodeon that ran several shows a day. Although food was not allowed inside a theatre, vendors sold popcorn, peanuts and candy in the aisles of the nickelodeon and ‘song pluggers’ provided musical accompaniment. Music publishing companies employed pluggers to sing new songs to the accompaniment of a piano in hopes of selling sheet music. Between films, illuminated slides informed patrons of the accepted norms in the theatre, including clichés that stereotype sex roles of the period: ‘Ladies remove your hats,’ or ‘Gentlemen — No Spitting.’ Although there were no carpets, no upholstered chairs, and no orchestra, the prototype of the movie theatre was nonetheless emerging.” [Valentine, p. 26]
Kinetoscopes (individual moving picture viewing stands that displayed loops of film for individual consumption) were installed in a storefront on Broadway and 27th Street in Manhattan as early as 1894. And the Vitascope films promoted by Thomas Edison were shown in Koster and Bial’s opera house as early as April, 1896. Nickelodeons provided a wholly different viewing technology and atmosphere, replacing the voyeuristic experience (regardless of content) with mass enjoyment. Brill’s and Fox’s room was probably the first movie theater in Brooklyn, and within a short period of time, hundreds of these little theaters had sprung up across New York City, several of them owned by Brill and Fox.
Nickelodeons were born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in June 1905, the brainchild of John P. Harris. Though silent movies had been shown in private venues and studios by Edison and others in prior years, the nickelodeon made movies available at minimal cost to the masses. The cultural impact cannot be overstated. A nationwide craze began and has yet to attenuate, despite the onslaught of television, internet and other moving image sources. Fortune upon fortune has grown from the business of moving images, technology taking second place in importance to the aesthetic and hedonistic popularity of this medium. The wider internet craze of the past few decades is in some ways only the latest tool of a phenomenon that nickelodeons created. But philosophical debates are for another day. Sol Brill’s name was suddenly huge.
The two partners opened two more halls at 895 and 1100 Broadway in Williamsburg and then branched out, opening a total of 25 parlors with B.S. Moss. The competition was fierce, and by 1908 over 500 movie theaters of one sort or another were in operation in New York City, many of them attracting rowdy crowds of young men who sought advantage in the dark rows and standing room, both for sexual escapades and for pick-pocketing and other petty crime. With the support of local ministers, the NYPD tried to close down Brill and Fox’s Williamsburg parlors, but the partners obtained an injunction in early 1907. http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/53151529/?terms=Sol%2BBrill It was flouted by the police, but justice prevailed and no shut-down occurred on an ad-hoc basis against Fox and Brill. http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/53852476/?terms=Sol%2BBrill
Things came to a head on Christmas Eve 1908, when Mayor George McClellan ordered the city-wide closing of all nickelodeons. The closure lasted briefly, but Sol Brill had become disgusted with the business: nickelodeons in general were notorious dens of iniquity where patrons could come and do in the dark what was not permitted in their homes. Drinking, carousing, fisticuffs and illicit sex were common, and the partners split up in 1912, with B.S. Moss taking control of the entire operation. Moss went on to found the Broadway Theater (1681 Broadway) where the first Walt Disney cartoon, Steamboat Willie, had its New York premiere, and formed further partnerships with Brill and Fox to build and co-operate theaters in the metropolitan area for years thereafter.
William Fox expanded into full-fledged movie production, forming the Fox Film Corporation in 1915, which filled part of the insatiable nationwide theater operators’ thirst for content. First producing in New York, where films were made both indoors and out in many neighborhood studios and outdoor sets, Fox moved his film studios to Los Angeles in 1925, and although he lost control of the business in 1930, (with control ultimately vesting in Joseph M. Schenk and Daryl F. Zanuck, when the Twentieth Century Company merged with the Fox Film Corporation) Fox’s name lives on, though, big as a barn door, at the beginning of presentation of current films in theaters across the world.
Sol Brill took a different path from that of his childhood friend. With previous experience with Fox in the ownership and re-development of the Jefferson Theater on East 14th Street (here are info and photos): http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/1357/photos Brill went about assembling real estate in most of the five boroughs of New York as well as in Lakewood, New Jersey, and constructing movie palaces sometimes in partnership with B.S. Moss. In March of 1916, Moss and Brill sold their common control of a group of larger theaters, the Jefferson, 86th Street, Prospect, Hamilton and Regent, to Marcus Loew, who had begun his New York career as an amusement park operator on Fort George Hill in Manhattan in http://myinwood.net/fort-george-amusement-park/
Sol Brill was on to the next and the next, building a 1400-seat palace in 1924 at 181-185 1/2 Forsyth Street, in an attempt to break the hold of his competitors Mayer, Schneider and Steiner, who controlled 14 theaters concentrated on what was then referred to as the “East Side.” In January, 1928 Brill acquired control of the Globe Theater in Bethlehem, PA…. Brill’s business acumen and reputation grew and grew, so fast and so smoothly that the October 24, 1925 issue of Motion Picture News featured the modest gentleman’s portrait in a laudatory article recounting his long career with Fox, Moss and other leading lights of the movie business to date. It is worth reading start to finish to take the measure of the man, albeit not written quite at the apex of a storied career:
The list of theaters built and or operated by Sol Brill is long, and the extant structures survive in various states of re-use and repair. Among them are:
The Meserole Theater (723-5 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, now repurposed as a Rite Aid drugstore but with many original details still visible among the rows of unguents and greeting cards: http://www.scoutingny.com/the-ghost-of-a-movie-theater-on-manhattan-ave/
The Strand on Beach 20th Street near Carnaga Avenue in Far Rockaway, Queens, which opened in 1919 “devoted to the presentation of high-class motion pictures in conjunction with a musical program,” according to coverage in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle http://www.farrockaway.com/carol/goodbyestrand.html
Apparently Sol Brill took a liking to the area a few years before when he rented a cottage on Waterview Place in Far Rockaway in June 1916 from T.G. Richmond, Jr. http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/55222337/?terms=Sol%2BBrill
Brill built the massive Globe Theater at 7 Sumpter Street (corner of Fulton Street) in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which was converted into a church in 1940 http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/23784 2500 people including many film business dignitaries attended the opening of this gigantic show-hall on Friday evening, November 6, 1914 http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/54332610/?terms=Sol%2BBrill
The Oasis Theater in Ridgewood, Queens http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/4624 is used as a second hand hardware store today, after CVS couldn’t make a go of it there a few years ago when Google Maps visited. https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-73.8994963,3a,75y,58h,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sFrEY4vKbSd0O0Wt-TJyS5g!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo2.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DFrEY4vKbSd0O0Wt-TJyS5g%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D58.239124%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1
The Inwood Theater at 130-4 Dyckman Street (renamed Loew’s Inwood after its acquisition by that chain): http://myinwood.net/movie-theaters-of-yesteryear/ and http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8950 closed in 1964 and now re-purposed into yet another drug store as well as a branch of a national children’s clothing outlet chain: https://www.google.com/maps/place/130+Dyckman+St,+New+York,+NYemail@example.com,-73.9254166,3a,75y,258h,90t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1sZuYEl4mH48zCeg_ah4jMzg!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo0.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DZuYEl4mH48zCeg_ah4jMzg%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dsearch.TACTILE.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D86%26h%3D86%26yaw%3D258.34894%26pitch%3D0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c2f406485e52cd:0xb7e432fd887c64db!8m2!3d40.8625995!4d-73.9256461!6m1!1e1
The magnificent Alhambra still stands at 146th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, though in sadly deteriorated shape. Designed by Charles Lamb, the terra-cotta faced palace was one of four of Lamb’s cream-puffs situated on Broadway. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/realestate/the-hamilton-theaters-changing-act.html
Sol Brill concentrated on Staten Island in particular, building at least seven theaters there during the 1920s.. The Ritz at 255 Richmond Avenue in Port Richmond, Liberty at 70 Beach Street in Stapleton, New Dorp on New Dorp Lane, Capitol at 298 Broadway in West New Brighton, Park at 139 Canal Street in Stapleton, Strand at 23 A Nelson Avenue in Great Kills all survive in one form or another, though none devoted to cinematic uses.
Two of Brill’s elaborate movie palaces still function as live-performance venues in Lakewood, New Jersey and St. George, Staten Island. The zenith of his career is embodied in the Alhambra-esque St. George, a mixed-use structure (as were many theaters and cinemas built in the first decades of the 20th century). Construction (the groundbreaking is shown below) began on August 14, 1928, and the theater opened with great fanfare on December 4, 1929, despite the recent stock market crash, while so many Americans were whistling in the dark, ostriches with necks deep in the quicksand that emerged steadily and dangerously. The movie business survived and even prospered during the Great Depression, though, and Brill’s St. George, designed by Eugene DeRosa and with interior decorations by Nestor Castro continues to dominate the St. George hillside, just steps from the ferry terminal.
Brill was a master at dealing gently and generously with his business associates and employees alike. Always smiling and modest, the bald-headed baby-faced Brill became and then stayed wealthy right into the pit of the Depression. Among his other charitable causes was the Grand Street Boys Club, where he became a member of “The Amen Boys,” a club of former Lower East Side street arabs who rose to power and fortune and supported their former clubhouse with fundraising efforts. Here are the programs from two testimonial benefit dinners given at a steakhouse in the West 20s and at the famed Times Square rock pile, The Astor Hotel, at the height of his fame.
Sol also played a major role in easing labor-management strife during the tumultuous years when the union of motion picture projectionists fought with theater operators to increase salaries and better working conditions in the stuffy, hellishly hot projectionists’ booths in which the workers toiled, casting spells on the screens for all to see. Here is a photo of one famous incident in which Sol Brill, from his hospital bed, settled one such strike, his lawyer at his side, as the settlement documents were inked. Also appended is an obituary published by Local 306 of the Motion Picture Operators’ Association, lauding Brill for fostering labor peace.
Harry Shiffman survived his uncle Sol by seven years, living in splendor in the Century apartment house at 25 Central Park West with his wife, Lucille Olive. According to an interview I conducted in the spring of 2016 with Sol’s blood relative, Shiffman was a well-known playboy and alcoholic, spending many nights at the notorious Central Park Casino, while his wife Lucille was known as a gracious West Side procuress, second only to the infamous Polly Adler in her business and other acumen. Shiffman died at age 47 in 1939, after Sol’s daughters sued to remove him as executor of Sol’s estate and for a return of monies dishonestly drained from the estate by Shiffman. Shiffman gave up control of the Brill empire to settle the lawsuit and day to day operations were turned over to Sol’s daughter, Hortense. The empire had been gradually liquidated already, with the last theaters on Staten Island sold to the Fabian Circuit in the year preceding Harry’s demise.
Shiffman’s perfidy is long forgotten, but sadly, so is the name of Sol Brill. A giant among men in a sometimes sordid industry, his name and memory deserve a better fate. Perhaps the world will once again know the measure of this man.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of members of Sol Brill’s family for providing information and many of the family photos and clippings included above. Photos of the Park and Liberty Theaters in Staten Island provided from Staten Island in Old Post Cards with the kind permission of its authors Brian Merlis and Bob Stonehill.