Postcard of Highland Beach Resort, Boardwalk, c. Early 1900s. The spectators' viewing stand during the making of early silent films while watching future stars begin their film careers on the beach.
A Biograph film released in 1910
“The Troublesome Baby”
Newspaper reports describing the Highlands scene during the movie era in 1910. The Martin House, Navesink Avenue near the Thompson House, and Highland Beach were featured locations. Courtesy of the Red Bank Register, Red Bank, NJ, 1939, “A Look Back.”
By 1906, a new form of entertainment was sweeping the nation: the movies! Attracted by the popularity and excitement of the area, movie companies soon discovered this scenic location. This undeveloped rural area had much to offer in re-creating the feel of a desolate tropical island on the sands of Highland Beach. After filming the Spanish battleship Viscaya off the coast of Sandy Hook in February 1898, the American Mutoscope Company and Biograph Company of D. W. Griffith returned. The famous motion picture director brought the Biograph Company and actors to Highlands and nearby ocean beaches to shoot four films between 1908 and 1910. The films featured stars of great renown, including Mack Sennet, Linda Arvidson (later to become Mrs. Griffith) and Mary Pickford. A brief notice appeared in the Red Bank Register of July 20, 1910:
“The American Biograph Company consisting of 40 persons were at the Martin House last week. The company is using the scenery at Highland Beach and surroundings for the production
of moving pictures of seashore life.”
The Biograph Company, also known as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, was a motion picture company founded in 1895 and active until 1916. During the height of silent film as a medium, Biograph was America's most prominent film studio and one of the most respected and influential studios worldwide. Its most prominent director was D. W. Griffith who made the “first film” in Hollywood. Griffith left Biograph because of company resistance to his goals and his cost overruns on the film. He took his company of actors with him and joined the Mutual Film Corporation. He and wife Linda Arvidson captured scenes in his four films at Highland Beach.
D.W. Griffith and his wife, Linda Arvidson
Historian John King pointed out in his article “Making Movies in Highlands” that people were already enthralled when they witnessed the silent films on screens across the town. The film crew suffered at their hands:
Griffith and his cameraman Bitzer were in town to shoot “A Salutary Life” and while doing it were tempted to shoot (with a gun) the unruly crowds gawking at the exciting happenings. Linda Arvidson in her autobiography, “When the Movies were Young”, tells about the incident. Before the summer was over we went to…Highlands. It wasn’t very pleasant for here we encountered the summer boarder. As they had nothing better to do, they would see what we were going to do. We were generally being lovers, of course, and strolling in pairs beneath a sunshade until we reached the foreground, where we were to make a graceful flop onto the sandy beach and play our parts beneath the flirtatious parasol. Before we were ready to take the scene, we had to put up ropes to keep back the uninvited audience which giggled and tee-heed and commented loudly throughout. We felt like monkeys in a zoo, as if we’d gone back to the day when the populace jeered the old strolling players of Stratford town. Mr. Griffith got badly annoyed when we had such experiences.…One saving grace the Highlands had for us, we could get a swim sometimes.
A film couple at Highland Beach playing a movie part beneath the flirtatious parasol, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Highlands archive.
Initially, the first Highlands moving picture venues were not theaters at all. Stores and open lots were quickly set up to project the movies for the folks in town reacting to the fad. Johnson’s Miller Street drugstore had an adjoining store outfitted for the movie fans, attracting a full house. A park and indoor sites showing movies in Highlands were well patronized. Often, the show comprised a vaudeville performance, motion pictures and hit songs. Watching movies under the stars in the open air had its advantages on warm nights.
Will Sandlass searched for different types of entertainment to meet the expectations of his visitors. Having a seat on Highland Beach to watch the filmmaking business inspired Sandlass. He was ready to incorporate movie viewing into the resort experience. One such idea took Will and Catherine to the Caribbean islands in search of bamboo to build an outdoor theater at Highland Beach. Adapting to the new lifestyle came easy to his family, as they enjoyed the winter trips south to investigate greater and more exciting amusements to bring back to the resort at Highland Beach. The racehorse circuit from Saratoga Springs to Cuba was a fascination for Will and his brother Louis through the years. In 1908, Will, Catherine and Louis took a trip to Cuba in search of a tropical spirit to enhance the resort. His idea to reproduce the island flavors in the northern climates took hold of his imagination. When the ship left port in Cuba and headed to its destination in Jamaica before returning to the States, Will had all he needed to match the dream. The ship’s hold was filled to the brim with bamboo, palm trees and furniture to emulate all he had seen on the voyage.
The trip home was a difficult one for Catherine. She suffered terrible bouts of seasickness all the way home. When Will, Catherine and Louis reached New York Harbor in June, she was immediately transported to a local hospital for treatment. No one realized the severity of her illness. Within two weeks, Will had lost his wife to the sickness, and his son, Bill, had lost his mother. His brother, Louis, was still grieving from the loss of his wife, Jennie, years before in Baltimore. The success of the business was a distraction rather than a consolation for the family. In spite of his loss, Will continued with his plans to convert the resort into new venues for summer visitors in the early twentieth century.
A train pulled up to the New Jersey mill in Long Branch with its cargo of bamboo. Carload after carload was emptied as the greatly anticipated bamboo for the new rustic garden was delivered to the mill of the Edwards Lumber & Coal Company in Long Branch. The green bamboo from Cuba was twelve feet long and three to five inches in diameter. The workmen unloaded fifty thousand lineal feet of bamboo. The intended space at Highland Beach was eighty square feet, with the expectation that the attraction would be without parallel on the Jersey coast. The plans moved forward to open the palm gardens in June 1908.
The first Merry-Go-Round was moved, and the interior space became the Bamboo Garden. An airdrome was built in the shape of a fort with the ubiquitous pennants flying. The palm tree was so large that part of the roof had to be removed to accommodate its height in the new Bamboo Garden. Will Sandlass opened the “Airdrome Theater”—an open-air movie venue converted from an outdoor deck on the river side. In the early 1900s, the public’s love for movies could be enjoyed under the stars in the Airdrome, featuring the Triangle Players from the Triangle Motion Picture Company and filmmaker, D. W. Griffith. Visitors could also listen to ragtime in the cabaret. The Bamboo Bar was brother Johnson’s domain, located on the ground floor of the Billiards and Bowling building and opened to the public within the year. The Highland Beach entertainment hot spot made the news far into the ragtime era. The resort grew through the first decade of the twentieth century, when steamboats, trains and automobiles brought more people to the shore and to the new Bamboo Garden cabaret, an outdoor dance hall on the river side of the resort.
The Bamboo Garden Airdrome, with pictures and dancing, combined in one admission
with movies shown by starlight, circa 1917. Sandlass Family Collection
Documentarian Chris Brenner explained the experience in retrospect:
During the winters in this period, Sandlass liked to travel to Florida and Cuba, and took a liking to the look of bamboo and palm trees. He arranged for the shipments of the material to be sent to Highland Beach, and that décor graced the new theater and even more of the resort later on. But screening wasn’t the only connection to the movie industry—famous director D. W. Griffith filmed four movies between 1908 and 1910 on the beach at the site. Visitors could watch the filming from the boardwalk, adding yet another draw, and making Highland Beach famous in movie houses across the country.
People gather at the Highland Beach Airdrome and Bamboo Garden to watch the latest
films under the stars featuring the Triangle Studio Players movie company, c. 1930s. Sandlass Family Collection
Jerry O’Reilly and Norton Smith leased the Bamboo Room at Sandlass Baths, Highland Beach, circa 1950s. Courtesy of the Chris Brenner collection.
Will Sandlass’ bamboo theme continued into the 40s, 50s and 60s at Sandlass Beach. The Bamboo Room tropical cocktail lounge, Jamaican Dining Porch, and Luncheonette entertained a new generation in the later years. Each summer the beach club members looked forward to the Bamboo Room dances for teens and adults. The yearly fashion show featured the latest styles. The Bamboo Room cocktail lounge remained open to the public as the “popular” night spot. As his father had done in the past, Henry leased the Bamboo Room to well-liked local men, including Norton Smith and Jerry O’Reilly and, later, William Hoag (a singer) in partnership with Dr. Louis Mellaci. Beginning on Decoration Day and throughout the summer months, Louis Michaelson’s orchestra played nightly in the 1950s. The bar stools from the Bamboo Room can be seen today in Gallery 1 at the Twin Lights Museum.
The Bamboo Room tropical cocktail lounge, Sandlass Beach, Sea Bright, N.J., c. 1950s. Courtesy of
The Twin Lights Museum, Gallery 1 Exhibit, features “Happenings in Highlands”. The Bamboo Room bar stools are key artifacts in this exhibition. Courtesy of Susan Gardiner
Learn more about Highlands and Highland Beach. Stories and relics of a bygone era await you in Gallery 1 at the Twin Lights Museum. Read the recent book, Sandy Hook’s LOST Highland Beach Resort, found in the museum store recounting a fanciful era in a town glittering with stars from Broadway and the early years of silent film.
SANDY HOOK’S LOST HIGHLAND BEACH RESORT
THE PERFECT GIFT FOR THE HISTORY HOUND ON YOUR LIST!
TLM Museum Store Online, Order Here! https://www.twinlightslighthouse.org/product-page/sandy-hook-s-lost-highland-beach-resort
ARCADIA PUBLISHING AND THE HISTORY PRESS