By Cole Thompson
Universal’s first outdoor studio, established in 1909 at Dyckman Street. (UPI stock photo)
Near the beginning of the last century, Mrs. Addison J. Rothermel faced both an agonizing loss and a difficult decision. Tuberculosis had taken her husband and doctors warned that her two teenage boys, Addison Jr. and Royale Valray, might also succumb to the “white plague” if they continued to live in the cramped and unventilated apartments of the day.
But where to find fresh air in an overpopulated metropolis?
In 1908, the widow Rothermel, and her two boys, took their doctor’s prescription for an outdoor existence quite literally and began living aboard the houseboat “Valray;” which they docked off Dyckman Street on the Harlem River—just a short walk from the newly constructed and elevated subway station.
It was there, among the squatters, construction workers and other house-boaters that the Rothermels found a home. Interestingly, the move likely had the most profound impact on young Addison Jr., who perhaps stumbled upon a film set somewhere not far from his floating abode.
A film set?
While hard to imagine, some of the earliest known commercial films were shot in the then mostly undeveloped countryside of the Dyckman Valley. Not only were there movie lots on Broadway, where some of the first silent films were shot, but Inwood Hill also served as a backdrop for many a western scene.
Read more: From Dyckman Street to Treasure Island: Life on a houseboat in 1909.