The Greatest Showman | 2017
The smash-hit singalong museum uses a slew of imaginative locations around New York – a decommissioned navy yard, an old savings bank, an armory, a boathouse, an Upper East Side mansion, a 'living history' museum on Staten Island and the Woolworth family estate on Long Island. Add to the mix sets, painted backdrops and incredibly detailed (and 3D printed) miniatures and location spotting becomes a real challenge.
First off, let’s get that bit of Los Angeles out of the way. The street scenes of 19th century ‘New York’ were filmed on the Hennesy Street standing set on the Warner Bros backlot in Burbank.
Initially built in the 1930s, the street was totally remodelled in 1981 for John Huston’s 1982 film of the musical Annie. The new design was by Dale Hennesy, who died during the movie’s production, and it's after him the street is named. It’s since been featured in countless films, including Tim Burton’s debut feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and his subsequent Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, Joe Dante’s Gremlins (as the ‘Chinatown’ street where Hoyt Axton buys the Mogwai) but its most famous appearance is as the setting for the upside-down kiss on the fire escape in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. You can see the street on the Warner Bros VIP Studio Tour, filming schedules permitting.
The rest is the real New York, state and city.
The main studio filming was at Steiner Studios, 15 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, which was once the old Brooklyn Navy Yard (remember it as the three sailors arrive in New York in Gene Kelly's On The Town?), which closed down in 1966.
Across the East River from the Lower East Side, the city’s largest filming facility opened in 2004 and has been used for Spider-Man 3, Ridley Scott's American Gangster, The Adjustment Bureau, Spike Lee's Inside Man, Enchanted and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
The interior of the 'American Museum of Curiosities', which is transformed into Barnum's "oddities" show, was filmed in Building 2 of the navy yard complex, which was once the old Capsys modular home factory. The building was stripped back to the bare brick walls and the ‘Victorian’ steel balconies added by the film’s Production Designer Nathan Crowley.
Director Michael Gracey takes advantage of its huge window to silhouette Barnum and Carlyle dramatically. You can see the exterior of that window on the north side of Flushing Avenue alongside 14th Avenue.
On to the real locations. The ‘Connecticut’ home of childhood friend Charity’s upper-crust family, where Barnum is constantly getting the brush off from her snobby father, is Woodlea, 777 Albany Post Road, Briarcliff Manor in Westchester County about 30 miles north of New York City.
Built in 1895 for Maggie Vanderbilt, this 140-room mansion on the Hudson River was the 15th largest private house in America. Perfectly apt for a family determined to impress, Woodlea was supposedly inspired by Kimberley Hall in Norfolk, England, built in 1712 for an ancestor of author PG Wodehouse, the creator of silly ass Bertie Wooster and his indispensable butler, Jeeves.
Since 1911, Woodlea has been used as the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Yes, Sleepy Hollow existed before Washington Irving's tale of the Headless Horseman. It’s a village in the town of Mount Pleasant, on the east bank of the Hudson River in Westchester County.
This seems to be the house’s first cinema appearance but it’s familiar from TV shows such as Daredevil, Gotham, The Good Wife, Pan Am, 666 Park Avenue and others.
The overgrown mansion, explored by the young PT and Charity, which Barnum eventually buys and restores, is the Woolworth Estate – Winfield Hall, 77 Crescent Beach Road in Glen Cove on Long Island. You didn’t recognise it? That’s because what we see is not the main entrance but the East Front, where the disused flight of steps had to be cleared of vegetation for its later ‘restored’ appearance. It's a private home, so don't expect to visit.
As Barnum takes the advice of his daughter to have more “live” exhibits, he sets out to find Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), whom he recruits as “General Tom Thumb”, the first of his “oddities” troupe.
The exterior is a studio set, but the interior of Charles’s mother’s humble cottage is the Guyon-Lake-Tyson House, part of Historic Richmond Town, 441 Clarke Avenue on Staten Island. The 'living history’ village, at the junction of Richmond Road and Arthur Kill Road in Richmondtown, near the center of the island, has also appeared in TV’s Boardwalk Empire.
Success allows Barnum eventually to buy the grand but overgrown ‘Connecticut’ mansion that enchanted him and Charity as children.
The exterior remains the smartened-up Winfield House but the luxurious interior into which he moves with his now-wife (Michelle Williams) is not one of those Long Island mansions, but a property on Manhattan's East Side. It's that of the James B Duke House, 1 E 78th Street at Fifth Avenue. Built in 1912 on what was then known as Millionaires Row, it now houses NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts and the only photo I could find to reproduce is of a Marta Chilindron art exhibition in the mansion. You'll recognise that curving staircase.
Barnum is made acutely aware of social snobbery when his daughter is snubbed at her ballet performance. The amazing theatre lobby, with elaborate terracotta arches, is the Corte Grande (Grand Court) of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, 613 West 155th Street at Broadway, in Washington Heights, New York, extended with a little set-dressing and a CGI ceiling.
Originally the Hispanic Society of America, established in 1904 to record the art and culture of Spain and Portugal and their former colonies, the museum is used for another scene.
In a search for respectability, Barnum courts Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a (fictitious) well-heeled character from the world of ‘straight’ theatre. The imposing frontage of the ‘Castle Garden Theater’, where Barnum introduces himself to Carlyle, is the courtyard of the Hispanic Society Museum, housing the dramatic equestrian statue of ‘El Cid’. The building seen in the film is the museum’s newer north building which was added in 1930.
Barnum goes on to promote Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) with her first American tour, where she makes her New York debut at the 2,100-seat Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, built in 1908 as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Moving up in the world, Barnum now cruelly excludes his troupe from the posh afterparty. Incensed they march boldly through the guests in the theatre’s circular lobby with the big assertive anthem This Is Me.
This isn’t a theatre lobby at all but the Reading Room of the Gould Memorial Library of Bronx Community College, University Avenue at West 181 Street, University Heights in the Bronx. Built in 1900, it was designed by famed architect Stanford White, whose life and murder were dramatised on-screen in both 1955’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and 1981’s Ragtime.
As Barnum accompanies Lind on her US tour, the ‘Cincinnati’ hotel exterior is another miniature, but the gorgeously opulent hotel suite in which she comes on to him, only to realise she’s just another of his attractions, is the Ballroom of Winfield House, the Woolworth Estate again on Glen Cove.
It’s back to another location we’ve already seen for the ‘Cincinnati’ theatre, where Lind embarrasses Barnum with a very public on-stage kiss. This is the Gilman Opera House again, now enhanced with a miniature proscenium to disguise its appearance.
The New York ‘railway station’, at which Barnum arrives back in time to find his circus building going up in flames, is the Williamsburg Savings Bank, 175 Broadway at Driggs Avenue in Brooklyn. Built in 1875, the imposing building has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The train is a digital addition.
Back at Steiner Studios, a wee bit too much accelerant saw the planned fire get out of control. Not only was the circus exterior set burned, part of the lighting rig and studio roof were damaged too.
The eminently stylish ‘hospital ward’ where trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) tends Carlyle as he recovers from burns received in the fire, looks so immaculately white you might reasonably assume this is another studio set.
Believe it or not, this the Prospect Park Boathouse, a Beaux Arts-style building on the northeast shore of the Lullwater, a waterway north of Prospect Park Lake in the eastern part of Brooklyn's famous green space.
Built in 1905, the Boathouse was one of the first buildings in New York City to be declared an historic landmark. If you’re a committed Showman fan, you can now hire it as a very special wedding venue. If you're tempted, you can find photos of the interior on several NY wedding venue sites.
On screen, though, the disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise when it prompts Barnum to think of utilising a huge tent, thus inventing the travelling “Big Top’.
The ‘Big Top’ finale, with CGI elephants and horses, was filmed in the vast space of the Marcy Avenue Armory, 355 Marcy Avenue, also known as the 47th Regiment Armory, in Brooklyn. Part of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had previously been filmed here.
Handing over the Ringmaster’s top hat to Carlyle, Barnum makes a discreet exit and takes an elephant to greet his family, as they arrive in New York on the steps of the New York County Courthouse on Centre Street, with the pillared frontage of Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in the background.
By way of explanation, a scene since deleted showed that Barnum’s transport had become trapped in snow, hence the last-minute borrowing of the elephant, making a suitably Barnumesque ride down Fifth Avenue.