As I said in last week’s column the circus came to town but just as quick as it arrived, it left. Anyone who works or lives in Williston Park is by now aware that a major motion picture used our town as a backdrop last week. The film is called The Book of Henry, starring Naomi Watts and will be one of next summer’s blockbusters and probable Oscar contenders. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow chose Williston Park because he had heard about Hildebrandt’s Luncheonette. Hildebrandt’s is now known as one of those early twentieth century landmark ice cream parlors with as sense of enduring charm that is a perfect symbol of American nostalgia. So Hollywood came to town for a few days.
Soon thereafter I asked Hildebrandt’s owner Bryan Acosta to tell me what they did to the store. He showed me some pictures of how they actually improved its look by adding jars of colorful hard candy and baked goods and he told me he had learned plenty from the production designer who added magic touches to the place.
One could lament that all we have to show for this is a mere fifteen minutes of fame that will be forever immortalized in a movie. But as I chatted about the film set with John Robinson, owner of John’s Variety Store across from Hildebrandt’s he made an interesting remark. He said that to have a real town with a real Main Street you need a luncheonette but you also need things like a small super market, a shoe store, a clothing store, a sporting goods store and all kinds of small shops that bring people to the area.
This is of course true. I was reminded of my graduate school days when I lived in the idyllic town of Stony Brook and how cozy and charming the town center was. The village center is nestled on a hill overlooking a 2 acre village square with a dreamlike scenic view of Stony Brook harbor in the distance. And the shops we went to include a little luncheonette, a clothing store, a shoemaker, a small clothing store, an ice cream shop, a post office and even a little English tea house.
Stony Brook Village Center was the brainstorm of Ward Melville who lived in Stony Brook. His family was the owners of Tom McAn Shoes which was a mega chain for many years. Ward Melville’s mother Jennie had a dream to create a beautiful, planned business community and in 1939 her son Ward established the Stony Brook Community Fund which was a non-profit group formed to make Jeannie Melville’s dream come true.
They hired famed architect Robert Haviland Smythe who created a crescent shaped business center of connected business shops with a federalist post office right in the middle. The post office has this wonderful mechanical eagle which flaps its wings on the hour. The project was enormously expensive and required the rerouting of roads, buildings and lots or earth. The project was largely funded by the Melvilles.
Stony Brook Village Center is recognized as the first planed shopping centers in America and if you have never visited it you ought to. Having brunch on a Sunday morning at the Three Village Inn is one of Long Island’s greatest treats.
Yes we all know that Williston Park is not Stony Brook Village and we all know that Ward Melville does not live in town and we all know that in the year 2015 local shop keepers must contend with big box stores in such a way that it is often difficult to survive. This is bad news indeed. One of the dangers of chains and big box stores for any town is that they tend to pull money out of the town and are not invested in making the town look better.
We all have a right to dream our dreams. Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz dreamt up their movie with a vision of small town America. Jeannie Melville dreamt up a vision of a beautiful village square and that happened too.
Successful films are small miracles and successful towns like Stony Brook are small miracles too. These dreams are created with a fierce embrace of the aesthetic. By some luck of fate or by the will of the Strano family Hildebrandt’s has held on to its aesthetic and the value and beauty of this look from a bygone era is evident when Hollywood brings a crew of 75 professionals over 3,000 miles to film here.
This week we saw the world react in horror when the most beautiful city on earth, Paris, was invaded and damaged by ugliness. Every citizen of the world was enraged not only because of the loss of innocent people but because a group was insane enough to insinuate itself into a city of unparalleled beauty.
There are things of precious beauty right here in Williston Park and I suspect it is our job not only to recognize these local spots but also, just like John Robinson said we need to dream up new ones too. If Ward Melville could convert a sleepy little nothing town like Stony Brook into a jewel by creating a special town center then why can’t we.