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The Actors Studio – Marilyn Monroe’s Former Acting School

Aug 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Marilyn Monroe Locations

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There is pretty much nothing I love more than re-creating famous movie/television scenes and iconic photographs – as most of you well know!  Though I had long been obsessed with the notable series of images of Marilyn Monroe taken in front of The Actors Studio in New York in the ‘50s, due to the fact that the legendary school moved no less than five times during its early days, I could never figure out exactly where the shoot had occurred.  I poked around the facility’s longtime 44th Street location on Google Street View a few times over the years, but never saw anything that matched up.  Then, in preparation for our April trip to the Big Apple, I decided to do some more digging on the subject and discovered, thanks to this YouTube clip, that the photos had indeed been taken at the 44th Street site.  Floored, I added the address to my NYC To-Stalk List and headed right on over there our second day in the city, with the Grim Cheaper and our friend Owen, from the When Write Is Wrong blog, in tow.

The Actors Studio was originally established on October 5th, 1947 by theatre director Cheryl Crawford and actor Elia Kazan.  The two hatched the idea for the organization over lunch one day.  In a 1956 Sarasota Journal article, Crawford said, “Kazan and I both felt lucky.  We were both associated with hits.  So we started talking about actors and the fact that they had no place to practice.  If they were in a hit, they were stuck with the same part; if they were in a flop, they were soon out on the street.  But they never had a chance to try new things any more.”  The studio was not actually set up as a school, but as a private institution for working thespians.  Of the purpose of the group, writer Dick Kleiner stated in the same article, “It isn’t a school, as such.  It’s a place where professional actors can go to practice.  They get criticism, mostly from fellow members, but there are no classes, no lessons, no set exercises.  And there are no students.  The people who belong – there are about 125 of them – are members.  They pay no fees of any sort; all funds come from voluntary contributions.  To belong, an actor has to go through a series of auditions, before hypercritical judges.”  Lee Strasberg was brought in to help run the facility with Crawford and Kazan in 1948.  By 1951, he was serving as its artistic director, a position he held until his death in 1982.

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Elite artists flocked to The Actors Studio like moths to a flame.  Inaugural members included Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Ray Walston, Tom Ewell, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and John Forsythe.  Since that time, such luminaries as James Dean, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Anthony Hopkins have all gone on to become members.

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In 1955, after moving several times, the organization purchased the former West Forty-fourth Street United Presbyterian Church located at 432 West 44th Street in Hell’s Kitchen.  The Greek Revival-style structure was originally built in 1859 as the Seventh Associate Presbyterian Church.  The Actors Studio still calls the building home to this day.

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Though not initially set up as such, The Actors Studio began offering schooling in 1994.  That year, the facility was recruited by New School University to run its acting department which was dubbed the “Actors Studio Drama School”, aka ASDS.  Out of the program came the infamous Bravo television series Inside the Actors Studio, hosted by James Lipton.  The Actors Studio/New School University partnership was severed in 2005, after almost eleven years, and today ASDS is run though Pace University.

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Though never a member, Marilyn started visiting The Actors Studio in 1955.  Unhappy with the roles being offered to her by 20th Century Fox at that time, the starlet decided to go on a virtual strike against the studio, move to New York, and start her own production company with photographer Milton Greene.  Upon arriving in the Big Apple, she began taking private lessons from Strasberg, as well as attending sessions at The Actors Studio, where she observed the work of other students for months before setting foot on stage herself.  Her first exercise, according to Donald H. Wolfe in his book The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, was to sing “I’ll Get By.”  Of the exercise, Wolfe explained that the ballad was to be sung “without gestures, so that the emotion and context would be projected solely by voice.”  Apparently, Marilyn hit it out of the park, thoroughly impressing the skeptical Actors Studio members in attendance.  She later performed a scene from Anna Christie with Maureen Stapleton, which again was lauded.  Though Marilyn’s tenure in New York was not long (20th Century Fox relented within the year, giving Monroe a new contract which had her headed to Hollywood to shoot Bus Stop), Lee Strasberg and his wife, Paula, would remain powerful presences throughout the rest of the actress’ life.  MM even left the vast majority of her estate to the couple.

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While I originally thought that the photographs taken of Marilyn in front of The Actors Studio were lensed during a random day the movie star was attending a session on the premises, as I just discovered today the shoot was actually part of a benefit for the 1956 film Baby Doll.  As you can see, most of the images were tight shots showing the starlet standing on a downward-facing staircase.

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Via Google Street View, I could find no such staircase at The Actors Studio’s 44th Street location.

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Thankfully, a deeper search yielded the YouTube clip I mentioned earlier which featured several images of Marilyn arriving at the studio that day.  In one of the pictures, the buildings across the street were visible and I was able to match them up to the structures located across from 432 West 44th.

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Once I knew I had the right spot, I did some further scrutinizing of Street View and spotted a staircase on the east side of The Actors Studio (largely obscured by a street light, a fence, and a much larger staircase situated above it) that matched the one Monroe had posed on!  Eureka!

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Marilyn’s staircase is located to the east and underneath the building’s main staircase, next to the window marked “432,” in the area pictured below.

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Below is a comparison image of Marilyn walking out of that same spot on a different day (the picture was taken by James Haspiel and featured in his fabulous book Marilyn: The Ultimate Look at the Legend) next to a shot I took in April.  As you can see, aside from the addition of a second railing, some window alterations, and the removal of the paint covering the bricks, very little of the building has been changed since Monroe attended sessions there.  If only the bench, chair, and portable shed had not been blocking my frame!

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The spot where Marilyn posed for the photos is actually located behind a locked gate, but we were lucky enough to encounter someone associated with The Actors Studio while we were there who invited me to snap a few pictures on the staircase as long as I did not disturb the classes taking place on the premises.

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As such, I got to re-create a few of Marilyn’s poses.

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The photo I most wanted to re-create was the one in which the world’s most famous blonde was walking down the stairs to enter the school.

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For some reason, though, I thought she had her head facing downward in the image, not up.  #fail

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Though the “Actors Studio” sign and light fixture that was situated above it are no longer in place, I was floored to see that the drain visible behind Marilyn in the photographs had survived.  I cannot express how much I loved finding little remnants of the past still intact like that.

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You can watch a video clip about Marilyn’s time at The Actors Studio below and another one by clicking here.

The Actors Studio is also a filming location!  In the Season 7 episode of Seinfeld titled “The Wait Out,” Mickey (Danny Woodburn) auditioned for the school – accompanied by Kramer (Michael Richards) – and an establishing shot of the building was shown.  All actual filming took place at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, though, where the series was lensed.

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For more stalking fun, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Los Angeles magazine and Discover Los Angeles.

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Until next time, Happy Stalking!  Smile

Stalk It: The Actors Studio, Marilyn Monroe’s former acting school, is located at 432 West 44th Street in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.  Please keep in mind that the area where Marilyn posed for the pictures is gated and not open to the public and that The Actors Studio is a working school with sessions regularly held on the premises.  As such, members and classes should not be disturbed.

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2 comments

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  1. Her mom says:

    You would have made a perfect remake of the picture of her facing up with a HUGE smile on her face!! It looks just like your smile does!!

    Bradley Cooper went there too, didn’t he?

  2. Lavonna says:

    Excellent post! One of my favs!


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