West Side Story - Prologue - Locations:
(1) West 68th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and West End Avenue (Street Scenes).
(2) East 110th Street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue (School Playground).
The movie West Side Story (1961) is an updated version of Romeo & Juliet as told through the lives of two Upper West Side street gangs in New York City: The Sharks (mostly recent Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (mostly second generation European immigrants) circa 1960.
This PopSpot concerns the opening prologue of the film. The prologue begins with a fly-over of the city, then zooms down to the streets, where the Sharks and Jets confront and taunt each other until the local police detective comes to break things up.
Other than the prologue, almost all the rest of the movie was filmed on soundstages in Hollywood, specifically the Samuel Goldwyn Studios at 7200 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
Ironically, the original concept for the musical was for it to be called East Side Story and it was going to set in the Lower East Side with a Jewish "Juliet" and an Italian-Catholic "Romeo." With the growing immigration of Puerto Ricans in Manhattan in the 1950's, the characters were changed when the musical was finally written 6 years after its conception.
Here's a modern poster for the DVD.
The scenes between the Jets and the Sharks supposedly take place around one block surrounding the playground of a school, the "turf" often fought over. But the prologue was actually filmed in two locations and edited together. The locations are on 110th Street on the east side of Manhattan (between 1st and 2nd Ave) and 68th street on the west side of Manhattan (between West End Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue).
(The dividing line between the east and west sides of Manhattan is Fifth Avenue. Building address numbers go higher in either direction starting from Fifth Ave.)
The picture below depicts the "Lincoln Center Urban Renewal Project" area circa 1960. It stretches from 60th Street to 70th Street.
Rather than try to force landlords to repair hundreds of dilapidated, neglected tenements, the city decided to replace them with modern residential towers, a world-class entertainment complex (Lincoln Center), and also provide land for the growth of educational centers Julliard School and Fordham University.
Contrary to popular belief, the prologue of West Side Story was not filmed where Lincoln Center is today, which is between 62nd and 66th streets in the foreground of the picture below.
Rather, it was filmed in what is now an area called Lincoln Towers (note: I had originally referred to these are Lincoln Center Towers when I first wrote this; thanks to Phyllis Newman and others for the correction) - a group of large residential towers - which is north and west of Lincoln Center, stretching between 66th and 69th Streets.
To be even more specific, the West Side Story scenes were primarily filmed on one street: 68th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and West End Avenue.
(photo: Museum of the City of New York)
Here's another view of the Lincoln Towers area in relation to the Lincoln Center area.
...and a side view: this is a model of that neighborhood-to-be from 1957. The Towers were built a little it differently than planned.
And a shot of Lincoln Center after the dust lifted.
This view shows the four blocks of tenements that were knocked down to build Lincoln Towers.
This is a shot of the Lincoln Center neighborhood from 1956. These were some of the buildings that were replaced.
(photo: New York City Parks Photo Archive)
And here's another view of the area from 1956. (I wonder what kind of dance that kid is doing?)
(photo: New York City Parks Photo Archive)
This excerpt from the liner notes to the soundtrack to the movie of West Side Story concurs about filming on 68th Street. The "school playground" he writes about will be 110th Street.
Jerome Robbins, the director, has been quoted as saying the production company paid the Lincoln Center contractor to knock down 68th Street last, so they could film. Regarding 110th Street he says: "So what you have in the opening is a combination of West Side and East Side. The dancers would jump up on the West Side and come down on the East Side." (Scenes from the City/Sanders) We will see this in detail later.
This is a photo of the block - 68th Street between Amsterdam Ave and West End Ave - on which much of the prologue of West Side Story was filmed. It was the "set" - as it were. It was half-way demolished, especially the southern side of the block; it would soon be completely demolished.
(photo: Museum of the City of New York)
This is a closer view. You will see that large abandoned school (P.S. 94) on the right in the opening scenes of the prologue.
(photo: Museum of the City of New York)
This is a map of the street. Notice where it says Public School No. 94 on the top right. That's the school we just saw.
This is Public School #94 in a street view from the NY Public Library digital files.
(photo: New York Public Library)
And here are the Jets dancing in front of it in an early scene in the prologue.
The photos from the movie West Side Story in this entry are mostly promotional photos for the movie from various online sources. Certain stills I have used to illustrate locations come from the 1961 film released by MGM Studios. You can buy the film on DVD or buy the soundtrack on CD at places that sell digital entertainment.
With a few liberties taken with Photoshop, it looks something like this.
In this photo the school is in the back left.
But for now, let's look at the sneaker of the dancer on the right.
His foot is above a bowed entrance to a garage door labeled "Spano."
This is that same building as seen in the prologue. Of all the buildings used in the film, this has been given a fake sign (for a travel agency) and a fake address, #180 (West 68th). They are filming on the block where the numbers go from #200 to #299 West 68th. #180 West 68th Street would be a block east, between Columbus and Amsterdam
This is a picture of that building that I got from the NYC Municipal Archives. You can see from the sign holder's sign that it's "block" #1159 and "lot" #40 in "M" Manhattan. That translates, as we can see in the map below, to 210 West 68th Street. So that's where they were.
(photo: NYC Municipal Archives)
Here's where it is on a map of 68th Street.
This sequence below will illustrate another of the way that I found where the scenes took place.
In this scene the actors are just down the street from a building with a vertical sign that says "Royal."
To locate it, first I go to the microfilm room at the New York Public Library where they have old phone books on microfilm. (Anyone with a NYPL library card can use it.)
I find the microfilm for the phone book for 1953-1954 - a few years before they filmed the movie in 1961. (Why 1953? Because by 1961 the stores had closed - because the building they were in were about to be demolished - and they wouldn't be in the phone book.)
Then I thread the microfilm through the machine....and look for "Royal-something" on 68th Street.
Bingo! I find the Royal Garage at 222 West 68th. The insurance-map of the street (from the Library) confirms that there was a garage there.
Here's where it is on the map. The black arrow points to where the gang confrontation was.
Here's the scene again. Now we recognize the letters "Ga" for "garage" horizontally under the word "Royal."
Another way to match up addresses is to do a Google search for the store names on buildings. Under "Google - advanced search" - you can search Google by time period. I put in 1/1/1950 to 1/1/1970 and searched for "West 68th Street.")
This result came up. Here we see there was an Endicott Express store at 241 West 68th in 1958.
And here is the Endicott Express store in the background during the prologue.
Followed by an illustration of where it was on the block.
This is a little out of context, but this told me that this scene was taken at the western end of the block. You can see the trees along the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River in the background, in gray, just below the skyline.
Here's another perspective. The white arrow points to where the gang is jumping.
(photo: Museum of the City of New York)
Another method to find where a scene was shot is by zooming into facts on photos. In this case, I found the number 249 (i.e. 249 West 68th Street) above a door.
Here's that one on the map.
Here's another photo, also from that day, of Jerome Robbins choreographing a dance number. Note that all the buildings in the background are empty or bordered up, ready to be demolished. There is also snow on the ground at left to the left of Robbins' knee. This sequence was filmed one-half year before the rest of the movie, as a test. They used some of the sequence in the final movie.
Note: why Jerome Robbins is in shorts sleeves, I don't know. It seems like summer, but several books say that's snow in the picture and they also say that Robbins and the dancers did some test shooting in the winter, six months before shooting.)
This building with a cross on it can also be found on the map on 68th Street.
It's called St. Matthew's Rectory." Notice all the boarded up windows. (Great shot of those dancers in the air!)
"St. Matthew's Rectory" is circled on the map (below) at # 216 West 68th Street.
Here the dancers do their warm-up in the morning (while crowds would watch from down the street behind a police barricade)....
And here's where that took place.
Here's a colorful scene from the prologue. Note the smile on the actor at right (Bert Michaels). The actors have written that they had a great time making this scene, but after each take they had to change completely to get the paint off- so it took many hours to film it - and the actors got giddy by late in the day.)
That was filmed on the western and southern end of the block, where some buildings had already been knocked down.
Somehow this scene seems out of context, since most of the buildings in the movie are 5-story walk-up tenements. But modern architecture shows up throughout the movie in the background, and as this arrow (below) shows, this was part of the urban renewal of the area, and soon this neighborhood would be covered with high-rise residential towers like this.
This scene was filmed at the west end of 68th Street, looking southwest at a residential building on the northwest corner of 66th Street and West End Avenue.
This map of 68th Street shows where many of the shots took place.
Now we're going to jump up to the other prologue filming location: 110th Street between 3rd Avenue and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem. You can see the school playground on the right where all the action takes place.
Here's the playground from above.
And where this is on a map.
Here, in a shot from the "Jet's Song," the Jets are coming west down 110th street. If you look way in the background, above the center Jet, you will see the building in the photo below this one.
Here's the building. It's directly east of 110th Street, but across the East River on Randall's Island
And, those places from above.
Back on 110th Street, do you see how the yellow tenement on the left (to the left of the third car up) matches up with the one behind the Lieutenant?
In this scene, the Jets face-off against the Sharks over a basketball in the playground. The school behind the gangs is new, having replaced an older one after the movie came out.
During The Jet's Song the Jets balance on seesaws that were here as they sing.
The playground was also the setting for the final, tragic death scene. For the final scene, however, the playground was recreated in a studio. (I stuck the words KEYS/LOCKS up on the wall on a modern day photo of the playground to make it easier for you to match up the location.)
Here are all those scenes combined where they were took place.
Let's look now at the opening of the movie.
It starts with the sound of a long whistle (like a gang call) and then opens a picture of the buildings at the base of Manhattan.
For the next two minutes we see random scenes of Manhattan from above, as if we're looking down from an airplane.
It somewhat seems like we are "flying" over the island from north to south, but as this diagram of the locations of the various shots shows, it's a rather random route. The sequence ends with a ZOOM into the playground where the dancing part of the prologue begins.
The first shot is looking down at the George Washington Bridge. It's in northern Manhattan and connects New York to New Jersey.
Here it is in on a map.
Note: When I first put this entry up, I figured the bridge in the film was the Verrazano Bridge because it only had one level. But two readers, Mike Einhorn and Eric Fettmann, wrote in to say that the Verrazano Bridge wasn't finished being built until 1964, after the movie was released.
Only after a little research (below) did I find that at the time of the filming of the movie, the George Washington Bridge had only one level. A second, lower deck for cars and trucks (which is why I had initially discounted the bridge) was built between late 1959 and August 1962. So when the filmmakers shot it in February 1960, there was only one level.
The next shot is of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly the Triborough Bridge) eight miles north of the Verrazano Bridge. The bridge connects Manhattan's Harlem to the Bronx. (note: this is why the Yankees are often called "The Bronx Bombers.")
Here's the RFK Bridge "PopSpotted."
Then comes a shot, along the river next to the West Side Highway, of the SS United States docked at Pier 76 (where they now hold towed cars) at West 38th Street and 12th Avenue. .
Here's where that dock is located on the Hudson River. The frame from the movie is upside down.
After this shot, we are back near Wall Street at the Battery Park. You can see Castle Clinton on the bottom right.
Here's that shot in its surroundings.
Now we fly north a few blocks to Broadway at Bowling Green (a park). The huge bronze "Wall Street Bull" sculpture would be at bottom left. (officially it's called Charging Bull and by Arturo Di Modica.)
Here's another view with street names
Then we fly a few blocks north to Wall Street. There's more detail in the photo below.
The shot includes Federal Hall and a bit of the New York Stock Exchange.
Then we come to another shot of Broadway and Wall Street, but further west....
In the bottom left you can see one of the graveyards of the church (Trinity Church) that's across Broadway from the western end of Wall Street.
Here, in the next shot, we're above Rockefeller Center. The skating rink is off to the left. The fountain at the Time Life Building along Sixth Avenue is at the right side. (The camera has actually turned around and we are looking south now.)
Moving all the way across town now, we are above the UN at 43rd Street and 1st Avenue.
And here, as seen in its Midtown East setting.
Now the scene moves back into the middle of town over the Empire State Building at 5th Avenue and 34th Street
In this next shot, if you look to the right, you can see the back half of St. Patrick's Cathedral (see next picture) . We are above Madison Avenue and 51st Street looking south.
Here is that shot in relation to some other streets.
These curvy ramps lead cars off 40th Street into the back of the Port Authority Building (a large bus terminal) at the top right. The ramps enter at 42nd Street and 9th Avenue just west of Times Square.
Here's that scene in a wider perspective.
Batter Up! Here's the old Yankee Stadium. We are now way in the Bronx at about 157th Street and Ruppert Place.
Here's where that shot was taken.
Now, about a mile west of the old Yankee Stadium, we're above Low Library at Columbia University (the domed building at left) at 116th Street and Broadway.
Here it is as seen with the rest of the Columbia campus.
Moving southeast about four miles, we're above the Avenue C Loop in Stuyvesant Town just west of Avenue C and East 16th Street.
Here it is among its neighbors.
We're coming into the final triangle, which will take up from Central Park up to 147th, then back down to 110th.
Here the camera shows the end of Central Park at right, so we are on 110th Street just east of 8th Ave (Central Park West).
Here's where that is.
Then we move up to an interesting triangle at West 121st and Frederick Douglass Blvd (8th Avenue) in Harlem.
Here it is from another angle.
And here it is from down on the ground.
Now we jump to northern Harlem - to 147th Street between Frederick Douglas Boulevard (8th Avenue) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (7th Avenue).
Zooming into this area, we see an "H"-shaped school.
That school is between 147th and 148th; midway between 8th Ave and 7th Ave.
Here's the school from the ground level. It's located at 217 West 147th Street. Formerly a public school (P.S. 90), it's now the National Dance Institute. This, theoretically then, is the school that would be attached to the playground in the film.
As the camera zooms lower, we fade into some kids playing the back of the schoolyard.
That schoolyard, by the magic of Hollywood, is actually about 3 miles southeast, on 110th Street; to be specific, it's 110th Street between 3rd Avenue and 2nd Avenue.
Here's that shot superimposed over a shot of the actual schoolyard.
The camera then lands on the ground and shows the Jets snapping their fingers in the 110th Street schoolyard.
Riff, the leader, gets a basketball and isn't sure he's going to give it back to -- yes, McCauley Culkin's father - in a bit part as a youth.
The gang leaves the schoolyard and walks down the street. Now they are on West 68th Street in front of #243, which is mid-block.
Here is where that would have been on the map.
They dance across the street and jump up....
...then come down at the other end of the block, in front of the school at 68th and Amsterdam.
They then come upon Bernardo (a Shark) in the exterior alcove of the building next to the school on 68th.
The camera shows the Jets from Bernardo's point-of-view. They are in front of St. Matthew's Rectory which is mid-block on 68th street.
Bernardo is incensed with the ways the Jets seem to be getting the upper hand and he walks along the red wall on 68th Street trying to figure out his next move.
Then he and two of the Sharks move to the other end of the block and dance a sequence that was filmed during testing - 1/2 a year before the movie was shot. You can see snow on the ground. They are in front of #249 West 68th Street as we saw in the earlier photo with Jerome Robbins.
Bernardo and his gang acquaintances run into the Jets again on 68th Street. It says #180 but it's really #210.
They are jeered at by the Jets.
...who now dance down 68th Street past the Endicott Shipping company at #241.
The next scene cuts to the area of 68th Street near the school. The Jets run toward the camera....
...then jump up...
...grab the basketball....
...and come down in the schoolyard at 110th Street...
...where they cavort....
...until confronted by the Sharks, who make an interception of their basketball.
Roughhousing ensues...and the Jets leave the playground, jumping up...
...only to come down on 68th Street in front of good ol' St. Matthew's Rectory.
...except for Riff, the lead Jet, who's somehow left behind on 110th Street. (Beam me up, fellas!)
He and some of the other Jets dance east toward the river. (The large gas tanks in the background are not there anymore).
We CUT TO: One of the Sharks, back on 68th Street, is taunting the Jets....
...who come running to get him past some political posters (a fictitious person, I believe, but whose name, according to IMDB, is based on the West Side Story production designer Allen K. Wood)...
...only to look up to see...
...two Sharks about to toss paint on them.
Which they do right on target.
CUT TO: the far western end of 68th Street. The Jets climb a pile of rubble...
...only to have the Sharks throw vegetables at them. (Yes, that's right, vegetables! And yes, certain vegetables WERE harmed during the making of this movie.)
Now, still on the western end of 68th Street, a Jet is about to be caught spray-painting a modest insult about the Sharks on the wall of an already knocked-down building.
The Sharks discover him, then run after him -- directly under where the Sharks were a minute ago dropping paint on some other Jets. (The platform has mysteriously vanished.) The wall of doors was a concept taken from the theater design, I have read, and were not randomly found there.
The Jet being chased now runs down 110th Street, which means (if the last scene were real life) that he has just run about 2 miles northeast from 68th Street on the west side of Manhattan to East Harlem on the east side.)
He enters into the 110th Street playground (which is now, in real life, closed to the public, by the way - though you can look in) followed by the gang members of both sides -- and then, the local detective in charge of juvenile delinquents.
And that's it. 110th Street and 68th Street workin' together to create a mythical stage for the epic love story, West Side Story, the musical based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet about star crossed lovers whose lives are tragically compromised by their relationships with the local, rival gangs - the Sharks and the Jets.
AN ADDENDUM FOLLOWS
This (below) is a panoramic photo I took right after Hurricane Sandy (2012) when I had to walk to work from the Upper West Side and passed 68th Street and Amsterdam every day - the exact intersection where the 68th Street WSS prologue sequence takes place.
That's 68th Street to the right of the phone booth. So, if you pan your view left, when you arrive at the open pit, that's the exact spot where the school was on 68th Street in the film where the Jets danced in the prologue.
A new building now stands in this spot.
Here's another view, from a different angle, of where the school would have been at the intersection of 68th and Amsterdam.
You can see on this map of Lincoln Towers where the street would have been.
And in this, you can see a before-and-after of the whole Lincoln Center Tower area, including 68th Street, as we saw earlier. (you can CLICK TO ENLARGE IT.)
(photo: Museum of the City of New York)
In 2012 some members of the cast got together and wrote a book of reminisces of the filming. Here's the front cover:
The back cover...
The Sharks and "their girls"...
The Jets and "their girls"...
Some of the authors spoke about the book at a gathering at the Drama Book Shop, 250 West 40th St., in New York (which I attended).
From left to right they are: Bert Michaels, Eddie Verso, Harvey Hohnocker, and David Bean. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
ADDENDUM #2 - THE FACE OF AL WOOD
Peter Longo, a PopSpots reader and fan of West Side Story sent me some interesting information about Barry Kelly, whose likeness was used for Al Wood, the politician whose posters are seen in the introduction. Thanks, Peter. (note: If you like golf, like I do, Peter is a trick shot artist and has some very interesting videos up on Youtube. Search for "Peter Longo Golf Show.")
IMDB, which confirms that Kelly's picture was Wood, adds: "The "Al Wood" posters are in reference to Allen K. Wood, who was one of the production designers."
The posters for "Al Wood" from the film.
Another photo of Barry Kelly.