Out of all of the films directed by Penny Marshall, 1988’s “Big” is arguably her most successful one, both critically and financially. This was a noteworthy achievement, not only because Marshall was still fairly new to directing, but because it was the fourth “boy in an adult body” film to be released by a major studio in a 12-month period. I believe the two major factors that made “Big” stand out from the others was Tom Hanks’ memorable performance and a well-crafted screenplay that wisely cut out the “switching bodies” gimmick and simply focused on a single character — a 12-year boy who grows up overnight.
Filmed in Manhattan and nearby Cliffside Park, NJ, “Big” offers some nice views of NYC and the surrounding area in the late eighties, showcasing both affluent and grimy locations.
After Penny Marshall’s passing in December of 2018, I jumped into action to compile the filming locations of “Big” in order to publish this page before the end of the year — commemorating both the 30th Anniversary of this film and the memory of a fine comedic actress and director.
Most of these locations were already established before I began this project, so it was just a matter of going to my usual sources for movie information, such as IMDB, The Movie District, and otsoNY and checking out the listings.
These movie websites sometimes gave very specific addresses, but other times they were a bit more general and I would have to figure out the exact location and orientation of the scene. In this instance of Josh’s home street, IMDB gave the exact address of his house in Cliffside Park in New Jersey, but I had to figure out from which direction the two kids came from when they walked down the road. (By the way, even though the road they walked on looks very serene and rural, it’s actually a major neighborhood thoroughfare with a heavy traffic load —especially during rush hour— which made taking photos a bit of a challenge.)
This location was listed on most movie websites, and not much has changed in this neighborhood over the years, so there wasn’t really a challenge in figuring out where they shot this scene. The building on Anderson Avenue is still home to a convenience store, and even though the doors and windows have been updated, the brickwork has remained the same.
Going to School
This school location was easy to find since it was only a few blocks away from Josh and Billy’s homes. The one thing that briefly confused me was the location of the schoolyard where the two boys play ball. I couldn’t find anything that resembled the size and layout seen in the film. Then I realized the school had added a new wing to the building which subsequently encroached into the yard.
It appears the school added a middle school wing in the year 2000, and dedicated it to former superintendent, James P. Colagreco, in 2015. After figuring out where the old school used to end, I was then able to identify where the scene took place, spotting several neighboring houses that appeared the film.
Josh Turns Big
Again, all these locations were listed on IMDB, but I did have to go to the Ross Dock Picnic Area in New Jersey in person to find the exact locations.
It might be noted that if Josh did actually have to bike from his house to the picnic area and back, it would have been a hefty 10-mile roundtrip, with some rather steep hills to tackle. It’s a good thing when Josh wished to be big, he also got big calf and thigh muscles.
Times Square Hotel
This is one of those lovely moments where a movie shows the name of a hotel and it turns out to be the name of the real place. And finding the location of the St, James Hotel was rather easy since it’s actually still in operation —a rare thing for an “old-school” Times Square hotel— although its name has seen a couple different iterations.
Dating back to 1901, the St. James is one of the oldest hotels in continuous operation in New York City, and originally served as an “apartment hotel,” offering permanent residences for well-to-do New Yorkers.
One of their 2-room suites went for about $100 per month in 1902, which roughly equals $3,049 in today’s dollars. By 1919, the St. James began offering some of its rooms at daily rates, slowly becoming a more traditional hotel.
Naturally, any centrally-located hotel in NYC with over a 100 years of operation has seen it’s fair share of visiting dignitaries, as well as gruesome tragedies. Generally speaking, if you’re going to open a hotel in any large metropolis, you know a few strange things are going to happen within its walls. Thankfully, Tori Mask has written an impressively exhaustive account of the hotel’s history on her blog, and posted several newspaper clippings of the crimes, events, and weird happenings that have occurred over the last century or so.
Some of the most interesting incidents were the murder of a New York Times reporter in 1905, a lady resident who would dress her “royal” cat with a small crown and a ermine robe, a former boxing champ who got beat-up by a 26-year-old room clerk, and an elevator that fell from the top floor to the basement, which amazingly resulted in only a few minor bruises for the two occupants.
By the 1970’s, the once-prestigious hotel had become a grimy flophouse, home to hookers, drug-addicts and a variety of other disreputable characters. When filming began for Big in the summer of 1987, things hadn’t gotten any better, so the St. James seemed like the perfect candidate for a “scary New York hotel.”
In addition to 1988’s Big, unflattering depictions of Hotel St. James were also used in two 1980 films — the controversial Cruising with Al Pacino, and the gory slasher flick, Maniac. Apparently, West 45th Street was the go-to area for sleaze and grime.
By the mid-1990’s, under the helm of mayor Rudy Giuliani and the financial backing of the Disney corporation, the once-seedy Times Square had begun its transformation to the sanitized and corporatized tourist attraction that it is today, which meant all of the traditional (i.e., sleazy) Times Square hotels either got shut down or received a complete makeover. The St. James took the latter route, and is now once-again, a clean and safe place to visit (with rooms going for a reasonable $151 per night on several booking websites).
Even though the lobby is more or less unrecognizable from the film, I did notice that the check-in desk is at the approximate same spot as it was in the 1980s (minus the bulletproof plexiglass) and there’s still a radiator to the right of the main entrance.
I’m pretty certain the upstairs room and hallway from Big were shot on a set, and for a while, I actually thought the lobby was a set as well. (I thought it looked way too “Hollywood” grimy.) But I eventually realized the lobby was a real location after watching the “Extended Version” of the film, which included an additional scene of Josh and Billy walking out of the hotel and onto the actual West 45th Street — all in one continuous shot.
The location of the first video game shop was already identified on The Movie District website, but the location of the second shop was not. Fortunately, the scene featured a clear, authentic-looking sign that read “Novel Pinball” above the entrance.
Even though the world of wholesale pinball dealerships is a rather obscure, I was able to find a couple references to the shop in Google Books, including 1989’s edition of American Photography Showcase, which listed Novel Pinball at 593 Tenth Avenue.
Aside from the sign, the scene didn’t show very much of the shop’s exterior, so it was a little hard to compare the building today to what appeared in the film. Nonetheless, I was still pretty confident I found the right address, especially since it placed Novel Pinball almost directly across the street from the first shop. That meant the two characters literally ran across the street from one video game supplier to the other.
But hoping to find a little more substantial proof, I looked up the address in the NYC Municipal Archives to see if i could find a 1980’s tax photos of it, Unfortunately no. 593 was missing from the collection, but the building next door was available, and the picture revealed a few interesting details.
First off, you can actually see a bit of no. 593 on the left of the photograph, and it looked a lot like what appeared in the film. And secondly, the photo showed that the retail space at no. 599 was another video game supplier, called “Manhattan Coin Machine,” indicating that this part of 10th avenue was sort of the “arcade district” back in the 1980’s.
After finding that tax photo, I was more than confident I got the right place, but I still made one last ditch effort to see if I could find a photo of the shop’s exterior featuring that big sign that appeared in the film. Unfortunately, the only thing I ended up finding was one weird photo taken inside of the shop from 1980, where Kenny Rogers and Liza Minelli lookalikes pose in front of a pinball machine.
This location had already been identified on several movie websites as taking place at the Vietnam Veterans Plaza in Lower Manhattan, but I did have a little trouble lining up the before/after photos since the plaza underwent a $7 million restoration back in 2001 which vastly altered its appearance.
Before it was dedicated as a Vietnam veterans memorial in 1983, the triangular space near Water Street was a small city park called Jeannette Park. Designed in 1886, it was named after the lead ship of the Jeannette expedition of 1879–1881 (officially called the U.S. Arctic Expedition). More than 60 years later, the park was rebuilt by Commissioner Robert Moses, who added horseshoe pitches, along with tennis, paddleball, and shuffleboard courts. Then in 1971, the property was redesigned in brick (much the way it appears in this scene), with an amphitheater fountain in the center.
Soon after that, Mayor Ed Koch helped designate the space as a tribute to the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War.
Looking Through the Want-Ads
None of the movie location websites seemed to know where this scene took place, and no one seemed to care… but I did!
Even though interior scenes are often hard to figure out, this location had lots of big windows looking onto the street, so I had several clues to help me find the address. The two big things I had to go on was a subway entrance just outside the diner and the fact that the street was two-way. Since there are a limited number of two-way streets in Manhattan, I just checked out every one in Google Street View, focusing on any corner that had a subway station.
It didn’t take long before I found myself at the intersection of W 14th Street and 8th Avenue and was able to identify the building seen across the street which is now home to an HSBC. The building where the scene took place became a nice-sized delicatessen by the 1990s with a small seating area.
When I used to live in the West Village in the early 2000’s, I’d visit this corner deli from time to time. In fact, I vividly remember getting a corned beef sandwich there in the winter of 2003 after failing to find any other delis in the area that could make one for me. I think the fact that the West Village no longer had any good corned beef options was an omen of what the neighborhood was to become — a high-end, yuppie playground that it is today. Case in point, the deli just recently got demolished.
At the time of this writing, there’s just an empty lot there, but I’m sure it will soon be occupied with some ultra-luxurious condominium building with some sort of chic boutique on the ground floor.
MacMillan Toy Company
I knew about this location back in the early 1990’s —years before the internet exploded onto the world— mainly because I worked at a copy shop almost directly across the street from it. At the time, the Hasbro toy company was headquartered there, conveniently located around the corner from the International Toy Center on 5th Avenue where the American International Toy Fair is annually held. Hasbro remained in the building for several years, but decided in 2001 to vacate its Manhattan showroom and office space, eventually giving way to Home Depot, which still occupies the ground floor today.
And just like the Josh character, I too landed my first important job in the very same building. Even though it was just a one-week freelance gig, from that I was recommended for a full-time job in the Macy’s corporate offices, located above the flagship store in Herald Square.
Cashing a Paycheck
I didn’t figure out this filming location until after I watched the “Extended Version” of the film. In this longer cut, we get to see the exterior of the bank, which featured an awning with the bank’s name on it, as well as another awning for the neighboring department store, Bergdorf Goodman.
From that I was able to pinpoint the bank’s location on W 57th Street. And after consulting a phone directory from 1987, I confirmed that there was a Crossland Savings Bank next door to Bergdorf Goodman at 3 W 57th.
As far as I can tell, Crossland Savings Bank was a short-lived institution that lasted about ten years starting in 1984 when it took over Greenwich SB. Crossland was later acquired by Republic National Bank of New York, which in turn was taken over by HSBC Bank USA in 1999.
I’ve always found this rapid cannibalism in the banking industry to be both a fascinating and disheartening phenomenon of the late 20th Century, and something of which I have no understanding of how or why it happened.
The space at 3 W 57th Street is now home to a high-end art gallery, which was thankfully empty when I stepped inside to take the “after” picture. (I remember it happened to be a stiflingly hot day and the air conditioned gallery offered a brief moment of respite.)
Naturally, it was pretty obvious that they filmed this sequence in the giant FAO Schwarz toy store in the General Motors Building at 767 Fifth Avenue. What I didn’t realize is that the famous flagship store had only moved to that location a year prior to the filming. In 1986, FAO Schwarz was sold to investors and the retail space was moved across the street from its 745 Fifth Avenue location, where it had operated for 55 years. However this wasn’t the first move the store made. It spent some time on Broadway, on 14th Street, and on W 23rd (pretty much across the street from where the fictional MacMillan Toys office building was filmed).
After Big became such a huge hit in theaters, FAO Schwarz —which was struggling as a business— found a resurgence in popularity. Of course, one of the biggest draws to the NYC toy store was the oversized “Walking Piano” featured in the film, which co-screenwriter Anne Spielberg (sister of director Steven Spielberg) spotted a few years earlier and recommended that it be included in the story.
Even though FAO Schwarz has had a “Walking Piano” in its New York store since 1983, the one featured in the film was purchased by art collectors Joseph and Janet Shein shortly after the film’s release. They bought it, not so much because they were fans of the film, but because, as Joseph put it, “We felt it was a new direction for electronic sculpture.” After housing the 16-foot keyboard in their music room for years (where they allowed neighborhood trick-or-treaters to dance on it at Halloween), the couple decided in 2009 to donate the musical instrument to the Please Touch Me Museum in Philadelphia.
Despite the fact the piano in the NYC store was not the actual one from the film, people still flocked to FAO Schwarz after Big hit theaters in 1988. However, the road for the toy company soon became a rocky one, being bought and sold several times over. By December 2003, FAO Schwarz filed for bankruptcy and closed all of its stores, including the one in NYC, but with the intention of reopening it later that year. After a few delays, the New York store on Fifth Avenue opened again on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, and remained open for a little over 10 years. But by July of 2015, rising rent costs forced FAO Schwarz to permanently close its Fifth Avenue store. Fortunately, I was able to spend a few nights in the iconic store before it vacated the GM Building while working on the 2011 Smurfs movie.
In 2018, a new flagship toy store opened in Rockefeller Center, replete with its wooden toy soldiers and a large “Walking Piano.” I was sad to see it leave the GM Building, but happy to see it has still managed to survive in NYC.
How long it’ll last there is anyone’s guess.
Josh’s SoHo Apartment
This location’s address of 83 Grand Street was already listed on IMDB and other movie websites, although it took me a little time to figure out that the elevator taken by Hanks and Perkins in a later scene (see below) was shot at the entrance around the corner on Greene.
Fortunately, since most of SoHo is landmarked, most of the buildings featured in this scene have remained relatively unchanged. The most noticeable difference is the inclusion of a green bike lane in the street and the clump of CitiBike docks.
I thought finding this location was going to be difficult since the one exterior shot from the film didn’t show much more than a few windows from the side of the building. I tried searching the web for any images of 1980’s restaurants or clubs, using keywords like “neon,” “Art Deco,” or “murals,” but nothing came up.
Finally, Blakeslee, my research partner, noticed that the awnings outside seemed to have lettering on it, and he, being deft at deciphering blurry words, thought it said “Cafe Society.” From there, we were able to dig up a Broadway address from a 1991 issue of New York Magazine which had it listed in its “Night Life” directory.
After checking out the building at 915 Broadway in Google Street View and comparing it to the film, I was pretty certain we found the right place. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos taken inside the space when it was “Cafe Society,” but was able to find a few after it was taken over by Metronome Hospitality Group in 1993. Most of the interior design had changed by that point, but the basic layout was pretty much the same, most notably, the balcony and platform areas.
Later on, after researching the history of Metronome, I noticed that on their website, they mentioned Big was filmed in their space, which helped confirm we found the correct location. I then looked through their “credits” page, and I saw that the 1992 Eddie Murphy film, Boomerang, was also filmed there, and after reviewing the movie, I was delighted to discover it was shot before the interior design had changed. As an added bonus, Boomerang showed multiple angles of the space, which helped me figure out where the specific action took place in the scene from Big.
I had no idea clubs and restaurants were retaining that 80’s neon pink look all the way into the early 90’s. I always thought the NYC nightlife scene had the pulse of the zeitgeist, but I guess it takes a couple years for a new decade to find its cultural footing.
Back at the Apartment
As I mentioned earlier, it took me a little time to figure out that while earlier scenes at his apartment took place on Grand Street, the elevator entrance was around the corner on Greene. And as you can see, the elevator there today has gotten a slick upgrade since 1988, when SoHo had that great mix of industrial and artsy.
The Paddleball Game
This was another location listed on several movie websites, so it was only a matter of figuring out the specifics, like what entrance and which court Tom Hanks and John Heard used.
As a side note, I once shared a van with Mr. Heard back in the winter of 2014. I was working on the set of the TV show, “Person of Interest,” which was filming in Upstate New York, and which Heard was guest-starring. After production wrapped around midnight, I ended up riding in the transpo van that was taking him back to his hotel in the city. Sadly, it seemed like his health was already failing him (he ended up passing away in 2017), and we didn’t talk much, aside from a brief “hello” and “goodnight.” However, it was still a small treat to be able to ride with the co-star of a couple of my favorite NYC films — Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and of course, Big.
Josh’s Birthday Party
I’ve known about this filming location for a long time, first discovering it shortly after moving to NYC in 1992. I think anyone who spent any time south of 14th Street knew they shot the birthday scene from Big here because the Asti Restaurant had a big publicity photo in the window advertising it.
Asti was a Greenwich Village institution for over 75 years, finally closing its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1999. The beloved Italian restaurant was unique in that, just as it’s depicted in the film, the waiters would routinely break into operatic tunes, often getting the customers involved in the show as well. Like other early 20th century restaurants (both big and small), the walls in Asti were plastered with autographed photos of legendary customers who once ate there, such as Babe Ruth and Noel Coward, along with a great number of talented opera singers.
When Augusto (Augie) Mariani, the son of the man who founded the restaurant, decided to close Asti on New Year’s Eve in 1999, it wasn’t because he was being pushed out of his E 12th street property by some greedy landlord (the family actually owned the townhouse building, which was once home to our 21st president, Chester A. Arthur), he simply was growing tired of running the business.
He now rents out the space to the current occupant —the upscale steak joint called Strip House— which accounts for a lot of the same photos and decorations still adorning the walls today. According to one of the Strip House managers, Augie still lives in one of the apartments above the restaurant. The manager also told me that the one condition Augie had for letting the film crew use his restaurant was that he had to appear in the scene. (He’s one of the singing waiters who bring the birthday cake to Tom Hanks’ table, wearing the white shirt and red tie.)
Leaving MacMillan Toy Company
I first found out about this location from the ScoutingNY website, although I’m not sure if he was the first to post about it. It has since appeared on several other movie websites.
I took the “after” pictures while on a bike trip from the Bronx to my uncle’s condo in Bridgeport, CT in the spring of 2017. It was off-season, so Playland Amusement Park was closed and the boardwalk was nearly empty. I think that is actually the best way to view the lovely Art Deco design, which looks practically unchanged from nearly a century ago when it was first built.
I’m surprised there wasn’t a replica of the Zoltar machine there. I’ll bet you could charge ten bucks a pop and people would pay it… hoping something magical would happen to them. But if you are in dire need to have a mechanical man tell your fortune, there’s a company that sells Zoltar machines for retail and personal use. In fact, there used to be one of these machines in NYC outside of Gem Spa on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Marks Place, but it got removed a few years back and relocated to OMG Pizza in Bushwick, Brooklyn. There appears to be other Zoltar machines floating around the city, including one in Coney Island near the Wonder Wheel, and a few weeks before the 2016 elections, some anonymous artists created an animatronic fortune-telling Trump machine in the same style of Zoltar that was moved around the streets of NYC.
2020 UPDATE: Sadly, not only is the Zoltar machine outside of Gem Spa gone, but Gem Spa itself is now gone.
After months of struggling to stay afloat, the legendary East Village corner shop announced in the spring of 2020 that it will permanently shutter its doors. Clearly the city lockdown didn’t help matters, but rising rent costs and the loss of cigarette and Lottery licenses were the main culprits in bringing down the nearly 100-year-old business where NYC’s quintessential fountain drink, the egg cream, was reportedly born. (For the record, despite the name, this local beverage does not contain any eggs or cream, but is simply made up of milk, carbonated water, and chocolate syrup.)
The 24-hour Gem Spa, which was once a hangout for “Beat” artists, musicians and writers (like poet Allen Ginsberg) during the 1950s and 60s, became a haven for punks, druggies and runaways by the 1980s. It’s survival into the 2000s astounded many long-time New Yorkers and it sort of became a grand symbol of NYC’s yesteryear when it was filled with these types of idiosyncratic mom-and-pop stores.
It still confounds me that while New York buildings can be given landmark status, small businesses are not afforded the same opportunities. I’m all for saving and preserving buildings, but it’s often what’s inside that’s of real historical value.
Josh Turns Small Again
Even though Big is a wonderful film, I’m still amazed it became such a huge success after being the last in a series of “boy in an adult body” movies to be released in a 12-month period.
Even if you’re a superior piece, if you’re last, it’s very hard to garner much interest from the public. In fact, Hanks was supposedly convinced during production that the film was going to go “straight to video,” implying that it would disappear into oblivion.
What’s fascinating is that according to several sources, at one point, Robert De Niro was slated to play the lead. I can’t help but think that that would’ve been a disaster in casting, and most certainly would’ve fated Big to be a minor footnote in 1980s cinema.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and not only did Big become one of the most beloved films of the 1980s, it helped propel Hanks into a superstardom in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore today.