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Thursday November 15th 2018

West Side Story | 1961

West Side Story filming location: East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York
West Side Story location: Jets and Sharks clash on the playground: East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York

Robert Wise’s filming of unarguably the greatest Broadway musical of all time fizzes with the energy of Jerome Robbins’ choreography but suffers from dreadful miscasting and a clumping staginess in the studio scenes.

The opening twenty minutes or so, filmed by the (subsequently replaced perfectionist) Robbins, show what might have been.

These scenes were filmed around the about-to-be-demolished tenements of West 68th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and West End Avenue on New York's West Side, an area about to be redeveloped as the Lincoln Center Urban Renewal Project, just northwest of what is now the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The fact that the buildings were scheduled for demolition of course gave the filmmakers carte blanche to alter, paint and cover with graffiti.

West Side Story filming location: East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York
West Side Story location: the remaining tenements overlooking the playground: East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York

A surviving location is the playground of the opening scenes, which was found over on the East Side in East Harlem, though it was recreated in the studio for later scenes. It still stands on the south side of East 110th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.

Some of the surrounding area – including the buildings directly backing the playground – has inevitably been redeveloped but you can still recognise the block of four tenements opposite occupying 209-215 East 110th Street which can be seen as the Jets and Sharks start to lay into each other (subway: 110 Street, Line 6).

West Side Story filming location: East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York
West Side Story location: "On the whole buggin' ever-lovin' street...": East 110th Street, East Harlem, New York

But after the exhilarating introduction it’s off to the studio in Hollywood with great music, claustrophobic sets and naff filters.

The majority of West Side Story was shot on sound stages at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, now known as The Lot, 1041 North Formosa Avenue at Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood.

The complex, originally owned by one Jesse Durham Hampton, was bought by Hollywood power couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to become the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio.

In 1919, Pickford and Fairbanks joined forces with Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith to form their own distribution company called United Artists (“The inmates are taking over the asylum” as one wag put it), and the 18-acre property became the closest thing the company had to its own studio.

Eventually it passed into joint ownership of Mary Pickford and Samuel Goldwyn, not really a great arrangement since both parties were notoriously head-strong individuals but neither had overall control.

In 1955, after years of wrangling, Goldwyn bought up the whole property as the Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

West Side Story filming location: The Lot, Formosa Avenue, West Hollywood
West Side Story location: The Lot, Formosa Avenue, West Hollywood

Among the famous productions made here are William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) and Joseph L Mankiewicz's Guys And Dolls (1955). After completing principal photography on Star Wars at Elstree Studios in the UK, George Lucas re-shot part of the Cantina scene here.

Today, The Lot is still used for independent film productions but new owners are redeveloping the complex, and have already demolished some historic parts of the studio including the 1927 Pickford Building and the 1932 Goldwyn Building. Also scheduled for demolition are Writers Building, Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building and the block-long row of production offices that line Santa Monica Boulevard.

Incidentally, across from The Lot on Formosa Avenue stands the Formosa Cafe, which became something of an unofficial staff canteen for the studio and went on to become a location itself for LA Confidential.

For a meticulously researched and forensically detailed account of the New York production details, see popspotsnyc.com.