The Short But Fascinating Life of a Third Avenue Casino

An early movie screening
An early movie projector. Via Victorian Cinema

On July 4, 1901, Mrs. Gelston called the cops. The matriarch of the family after whom the South Ridge avenue was later named had had enough of the hundreds of picnickers—whom she called “squatters”—who had been taking over two shady groves behind her estate. These woods were also in front and on the side of the Golden Horn Brewery, on Third Avenue between 96th and 97th streets—likely the present-day site of that enormous apartment building across the street from McLoughlin & Sons funeral parlor—and were regularly overtaken in afternoons and evenings by its beer-drinking patrons. “It is the only place in that section where the people of South Brooklyn can go to enjoy themselves during the hot spell, without going to a great deal of inconvenience and expense,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported at the time:

Yesterday afternoon several hundred picknickers [sic] took possession of the two groves and were having a good time when the police swooped down on them and quickly cleared the grove…The ousted folks appealed to [the owner] Mr. [A. D.] Bushman, and then it became known that Mrs. Gelston claims the ownership of the property, and that the groves were being used without her consent.

Brewer Bushman declares that he obtained permission to use the property from a person who, he said, told him he was the owner.

The excitement yesterday afternoon was intense, and when the officers appeared[,] so frightened were some of the women that three fainted and were carried into the brewery, where they were attended to.

The brewery seems to have operated from at least 1897 to 1906, and likely longer, under various but similar names, according to records on

“Golden Horn” is the former name of the waterway that “geographically separates the historic center of Istanbul from the rest of the city, and forms a natural, sheltered harbor that has historically protected…maritime trade ships for thousands of years,” according to Wikipedia. So was it an early example of a Middle Eastern influence in Bay Ridge? Possibly, though it may have also been an exotic- and posh-sounding play on the neighborhood’s original name.

This was, mind you, just half a century after the residents of old Yellow Hook (Yellow/Golden, Hook/Horn, get it?) had renamed their community “Bay Ridge.” It was also still half a century before the construction of the Verrazano, and two decades before even the 95th Street subway station would open. The area was relatively remote, but also a sporting location, dotted with resorts, hotels and entertainments, attracting visitors to the armybase but also those just looking for bay views and fresh sea air.

Bottles from the Golden Horn Brewery in Brooklyn
Bottles from the Golden Horn Brewery. From Bruce Mobley’s Beer Bottle Library

A 1931 remembrance in the Eagle called this era “the salad days of Fort Hamilton”: “it is almost a quarter of a century ago that the southern end of Bay Ridge seized its opportunity to compete with Coney Island as a show place for visitors to Brooklyn. Its bathing beach, casinos and eating houses were as famous as those that lined the Bowery or Surf Ave.” (That’s the Bowery in Coney Island, not Manhattan.) “Its slides and chutes may not have been as numerous as those at the island resort, but its oysters and lobsters were in even greater demand.” The places catering to visitors included not just the Golden Horn but also Hartman’s, the Dewey House, the Bismark, the 101 Ranch and Pigfoot Martin’s.

The brewery, also often referred to as a casino, hosted banquets and social events, such as the meetings of local political clubs. It also featured band concerts by “musicians from both the Hamburg–American and North German Lloyd steamers in port and prominent vaudeville and concert artists,” according to a 1931 remembrance in the Brooklyn Eagle of this “favorite gathering place for South Brooklyn people, 35 years ago.”

But it’s best remembered as an early exhibitor of motion-picture technology, what we might call the first movie “theater” in Bay Ridge—and also for all the trouble that came with it. From a tweaked version of that same remembrance, published the following year:

It was at the Golden Horn Brewery that first experiments with a motion picture machine were made. An inventor, named Thomas Kelly, who has many patents on motion picture machines a[n]d who has an office on 14th St., Manhattan, set up his new discovery at that place in the Summer of 1897. The event was widely advertised and the curious filled the large ballroom. A large screen was spread across the stage and the experiment began. Of course, figures moved, but so rapidly and blurred that it was impossible to distinguish any object. And your eyes! Well, after looking for a few minutes, one was unable to see correctly for some time. However, Thomas Kelly kept on improving his invention and in a fe wweeks [sic] after the first experiment, again had a motion picture machine that was considered marvelous in those days, for the objects were distinguishable and didn’t effect [sic] the eyes.

The audience was first warned not to become alarmed when the lights were turned out, according to a different recollection, published in the Eagle in 1942.

After the show I told Mr. Kelly I was afraid that his invention was a failure. “Lou,” he said, “I saw the faults in my machine and will make necessary improvements. He did, and his next exhibition was a complete success.

He sold the patent to the Simplex Machine Company of New Brunswick, N. J., and that company put the first motion picture machine in the then new Bay Ridge Theater, 3d Ave. and 73d St. [actually 72nd St.] To Thomas Kelly should go the honor of inventing the motion picture machine.

The Bay Ridge Theater, Third Avenue, in Brooklyn
The Bay Ridge movie theater in the late 1960s. Via Bay Ridge Blog

I’m not sure we should go that far; I haven’t been able to find any other mentions of this Thomas Kelly so far. But he certainly entered the Golden Horn into local cinema history! The exhibitions continued. In fact, thanks to them, the Golden Horn attracted the police again, in 1907, six years after Mrs. Gelston had sicced them on it. According to a Brooklyn Eagle article from November 4, a Monday:

Detectives Cunningham and White of the Fort Hamilton precinct closed the free moving picture show in connection with the Golden Horn Casino at Ninety-sixth street and Third avenue yesterday afternoon. George W. Hoch, proprietor of the casino, and William Reed, alleged operator of the moving picture show, were arrested and taken to the Fifth avenue court this morning. Magistrate Geismar adjourned the case until November 12. Both men are charged with violating the Sunday law.

Sunday laws prohibited sales of alcohol on the seventh day, as well as many entertainments and pastimes. (In 1917, for example, the managers of the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds were both arrested when they tried to play a major-league game at the Polo Grounds on a Sunday.) A week later, the cops returned.

The police of the Fort Hamilton Station who closed the moving picture show in the Golden Horn Casino…a week ago Sunday repeated their action again yesterday. Detectives White, Cunningham and Dowling went to the Casino to see if the law was being complied with. They thought it was not and decided to make some arrests. William Reed, aged 35, of 411 Ninety-ninth street, the alleged operator of the show, and Max Sontag, one of the proprietors of the Cosino [sic], were arrested.

As they were being taken away and led out of the place, the police claim that George W. Hoch, the other proprietor, rushed out and tried to prevent the arrest. He got in the officer’s way and laid hands upon them, they claim. Hoch was arrested on the charge of interfering with an officer in the performance of his duty.

advertisement for Golden Horn
Advertisement from Brooklyn Eagle, 1906. They must have meant grand reopening.

An Eagle remembrance says the casino closed in 1907, but mentions continue in the paper as late as 1909. It probably closed around then; Cezar Joseph Del Valle’s The Brooklyn Theatre Index Volume II says that by 1915, the Tip Top Film Company had transformed the space into a movie studio. “This old building containing large dining rooms and a dance hall…has been deserted five years,” it reports, quoting a newspaper article from 1915. “The dance hall and dining room have been made into one room big enough for several camera stages and other rooms have been altered into dressing rooms, developing, printing, and drying rooms and property rooms.” (In the 1929 Hydes Atlas, the east side of Third Avenue between 96th and 97th Street is a big empty plot of land; the west side has already been cut up into small commercial lots.)

This makes sense of a “Do You Remeber When…?” column in the Eagle from 1941, which claimed “the Keystone comedian cops used to make movies at the Golden Horn Casino.” Film production didn’t really move out to California until the 1920s, so for several years in the early twentieth century, the East Coast was the movie capital of America—including Brooklyn, most famously at Vitagraph Studios in Midwood. Production continued at a nearby NBC studio well into the 20th century, and Steiner Studio in the Navy Yard is now a major center of film and television production.

Industrial movie-production was short-lived in Bay Ridge, but the neighborhood proved far more receptive to exhibition. I can think, just off the top of my head, of at least seven 20th-century movie theaters in Bay Ridge, though they’ve all long-since closed. We did hang on to one old movie palace—albeit now cut into a sevenplex (with a recent add-on in the back to make eight). Hey, maybe that’s why the Alpine survived while so many other neighborhoods lost their last theaters: the people of Bay Ridge love watching movies, have for the last 120 years—even used to risk jail time for them.

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