Ho, ho, ho! ‘Tis the season to do a two-part post about what is arguably the first classic Christmas movie of the 21st century. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Will Ferrell, 2003’s Elf tells the story of a baby named Buddy who is adopted and raised by Santa and his elves in the North Pole. Once Buddy becomes a full-sized adult, he realizes that he’s not an elf, but just a human, and journeys to New York City to find his biological father. From there, the movie becomes a comical “fish out of water” story as Buddy tries to fit in with his new family and the fast-paced life of a big city.
Along with Ferrell, the film co-stars James Caan, a blonde Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Peter Dinklage, Ed Asner (as a spot-on Santa), and Faizon Love (in all his deadpan glory). Even though the North Pole scenes and most of the interiors were shot in Vancouver, Canada, the production began its shooting schedule in December of 2002 filming on the streets of NYC.
I generally don’t focus this “NYC in Film” project on anything made past the 1990s, but I do think this is a title worth exploring. Even though there isn’t anything necessarily special about these filming locations, there have been a few notable changes to the city since this movie was made, and it cannot be denied that Elf holds an appreciable place in the annals of Christmas classics. But the main reason I decided to do a post on Elf’s filming locations is because there were a couple interesting puzzles that needed to be solved, along with a couple glaring errors being circulated in the web-o-sphere that needed to be corrected.
Buddy Arrives in NYC
When it comes to movies taking place in NYC, it’s incontrovertible that Elf is one of the more popular titles that people want to know its filming locations. In fact, I would guess that along with the Ghostbusters firehouse and the Friends apartment building, Elf’s “Snowball Fight” bridge (which I cover a little later in this post) is a top location tourists want to visit. So, needless to say, there were a lot of websites, news articles and videos that focused on the making of this 2003 film. But surprisingly, there were still some errors being circulated, as well as some missing locations.
As to this first scene of Buddy arriving in New York, even though several websites listed it as taking place at the Lincoln Tunnel, most of them didn’t bother to specify which exit was used, as it could have taken place at a couple different spots.
Once I figured out they used the exit near 39th Street, I knew getting an “after” picture would be near impossible without getting some special permission by the DOT, so I relied instead on images from Google Street View. Granted, the quality wasn’t as great and the angles were a little off, but they sufficed in showing how the tunnel and surrounding skyline has changed over the years.
Here we have the first of several minor errors being circulated on the web. In the scene where Buddy waves to a man hailing a cab, it was listed as taking place on Park Avenue and 38th Street looking north towards Grand Central, when it’s actually taking place on Park Avenue and 48th Street looking south toward the MetLife Building. The most obvious clue was the lack of the Park Avenue Viaduct ascending towards Grand Central Terminal. The fact that multiple sites have repeated this same error makes me think one person originally made the mistake and others just followed suit without doing any research to confirm.
The waving scene was immediately followed by the shoe-shining scene, and I was surprised that none of the major movie websites decided to list its location. It was pretty easy to figure out that the stand was (and still is) located outside of Grand Central Terminal, and it always seemed like a worthwhile place to list so visiting Elf fans can “walk in Buddy’s shoes,” or rather, “get shined as if in Buddy’s shoes.”
Exploring NYC – Collecting Flyers
Of all the errors associated to Elf’s filming locations, this was the most blatant misrepresentation out there. I don’t know who made the original mistake (or whether they were just plain guessing), but for some reason, the location of this scene of Buddy grabbing flyers was being erroneously identified as the corner of 7th Avenue and W 46th Street.
Admittedly, even I was convinced that this location was correct at first. After all, there’s still a luggage/gift shop on the corner of 7th and 46th, and several different websites seemed to concur that this is where the scene took place. But as I looked more closely at this asserted location, a lot of things didn’t make sense. The biggest glaring inconsistency was the size of the store — the building on the corner of 7th Avenue and 46th Street (est. 1939) is much narrower than the one depicted in the film. And if the scene took place on the 46th Street side of the store (which has a more appropriate length), the traffic seen in the mirrors would be going the wrong way.
So, once I was convinced the address being circulated on the web was wrong, I then faced the daunting task of finding the correct location, in which I enlisted my research partner, Jeff Blakeslee, to lend a helpful hand.
As Blakeslee did research on his end, I scanned Google Maps for any luggage/gift shops that might be a possible candidate. Knowing that the facade could be very different from what it looked like in the early 2000’s, the one thing I thought would still be the same was the green standpipe seen in front of one of the mirrored posts.
Meanwhile, Blakeslee was able to find a still from a “full-frame” version of the film which showed more of the top and bottom, and revealed some lettering preceding the word, “LUGGAGE” which we concluded said, “CAMERAS.” We weren’t sure if this was going to necessarily help us find the location, but any additional details are always welcome.
At this point, Blakeslee started doing the same search I was doing — looking for a current gift shop in Midtown Manhattan that had a standpipe near its entrance. All of this searching went on in short spurts over the course of several months, when suddenly Blakeslee thought he found a likely candidate on the east side of 7th Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. Even though the storefront didn’t look like what appeared in the film, it did have the same style of standpipe near its entrance.
We were both feeling hopeful about this latest find, but we needed more evidence than a solitary pipe. Knowing that the store could have easily been remodeled since January of 2003 (when the scene was most likely filmed), Blakeslee and I tried to find any contemporaneous images of that address, hoping that the store would match the scene. But after scouring Flickr and Google Images, I came up with nothing useful. There were tons of photos of the Times Square area from the early 2000s, but finding one of the exact corner we needed turned out to be pretty tricky, especially since 49th Street was more or less on the outskirts of Times Square.
But in a last ditch effort, I went back to Flickr and did a search for “Houlihan’s Restaurant Times Square” after discovering that there used to be a franchise on the corner of 49th and 7th Avenue. With such a narrow search, I quickly found a 2004 photograph taken from 49th Street, looking south towards the square. On the left side, below the Houlihan’s sign, there appeared to be a matching ATM sign, as well as blue lettering that was the same color as the “LUGGAGE’ seen in the film.
This 2004 photograph added more credence to our theory that the shop was near 49th Street, but it still wasn’t definitive proof since the image didn’t offer too many comparable details other than a matching ATM sign.
That’s when we turned to videos. To our great joy, we discovered YouTube had several home movies of NYC from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and most of them featured the popular tourist attraction — Times Square. And unlike single-frame photos, these videos were much more fruitful, capturing parts of Times Square people normally wouldn’t bother to photograph. (Only problem was that these videos were also extremely boring, often with annoying soundtrack music, but I soon realized the best way to watch them were at 2x speed and with the volume on “mute.’)
As I was being put to sleep by tourists’ tedious home movies, Blakeslee stumbled upon a 2005 video that looked very promising. As he described it to me, he watched the video with bated breath as the camera pointed towards the Barclays Investment Bank, which is just to the north of where we thought this “Flyers” scene was filmed. He then started to mutter, “just turn to the right” at the screen, and as if the cameraman from 2005 somehow heard Blakeslee’s wish from the future, he panned to the right, revealing the exact same luggage/gift shop seen in the film.
Once I saw the video, with a clear shot of the “LUGGAGE” and “1/2 HR PHOTO” signage, there was no doubt we got the right place. I don’t know if any other movie websites will ever figure out they got the wrong the address for this scene, but at least now you, dear readers, are in the know!
Exploring NYC – World’s Best Cup of Coffee
So, this was a location that baffled me for the longest time. I couldn’t find any website that had identified the coffeeshop’s address, and there were so few clues in the scene that I thought figuring it out would be extremely difficult. I kept hoping I’d find an article or some production notes online that might indicate where this scene was filmed, but I kept coming up empty. I listened to the DVD’s two audio commentaries —one by Will Ferrell and the other by director Jon Favreau— but neither offered any information on the coffeeshop’s whereabouts. I even tweeted Favreau last Christmas asking him if he would reveal where the coffee scene was filmed, but as expected, I got no response. (Although I did get several “likes” from other Elf fans.)
I wasn’t alone in my struggles with trying to figure out the location of this coffee shop. The website, themoviedistrict.com, which has been able to identify some hard-to-find filming locations in the past, listed this scene as “missing.” At one point in 2017, a reader wrote in to the website and claimed the coffee shop was at 21 East 27th Street, but I instantly knew this information was wrong.
The reason I instantly knew it was wrong was because I had already investigated that address several months prior when I stumbled upon a news article for ABC’s Channel 7, titled, “How to spend a day in Manhattan as Buddy.” In the article, the author makes suggestions on how how to experience an Elf-themed day in NYC — some of which were based on real filming locations and others simply inspired by Buddy’s antics. And it was pretty evident that the suggestion to visit Birch Coffee on 27th Street for the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” was of the “inspiration” variety. First of all, the street in the film was clearly a two-way street, while 27th is one-way. But more importantly, there weren’t enough similarities between the architecture at 21 E 27th Street and the building seen in the film to indicate that they were the same place.
After nipping that bit of misinformation in the bud, I was back to desperately trying to find the actual location. Since the street in the scene was two-way, I searched every two-way street in Manhattan from 14th to 59th, hoping I’d find a building that looked similar to the one in the film, but came up empty. I also checked Google Images for any photos of NYC drugstores after noticing a reflection of a “drugs” sign in the coffeeshop’s window, but once again, came up empty.
Normally, when a location stumps me, I seek out the help of Blakeslee, but instead, I did the second thing I normally do when a location stumps me — I took a long break.
That technique has actually worked several times for me, and it worked this time, too. Months later, while casually watching a short video on the making of Elf, I was reminded of how they filmed all the interiors in Vancouver, Canada, when suddenly it occurred to me that maybe they shot a few exteriors in Vancouver as well. So, the first thing I did was search for “Vancouver drugstores” in Google Images and almost immediately found a picture of Knowltons Drugs, whose sign looked amazingly like the one reflected in the coffeeshop’s window.
Excited, but cautious, I went to the drugstore’s address on E Hastings Street in Google Street View and looked across the street…. and lo and behold, the buildings matched the ones seen in the film. One of them even had an address of “20 E Hastings,” indicating that the “20” that appears above the door in the scene was real.
So, in a matter of minutes, I went from utter ignorance to complete confidence. There was no doubt I finally solved this long-vexing mystery. The only sad part is that by the time I made my way to Vancouver in 2019 to take the “after” pictures, the drugstore was gone, and the former “coffeeshop” was completely boarded up. In fact, the entire area had sort of turned into a shantytown, where a large population of the city’s heroine users congregated. It made taking the pictures a little sketchy since I had to wriggle my way through droves of derelicts to get to the “coffeeshop” location, but they were Canadian derelicts, so they were mostly polite.
Turns out, there wasn’t really a coffeeshop at 20 East Hastings Street when they filmed this scene in 2003, but rather, there was a long-running seafood restaurant there, aptly named, The Only Sea Food.
The Only was a classic old-style café that, when it opened in the 1910’s, was the only place in Vancouver that served seafood — hence the name. With 17 swivel chair-stools arranged around horseshoe counters and two booths in the back, this no-frills restaurant known for its legendary clam chowder, had a maximum capacity of a modest 25. But the Only had a certain amount of charm, with its pressed tin ceilings and an open kitchen. Plus, to save space, fresh fish were stored on ice in the front window, much to the delight of finicky customers who could examine the catches of the day. Another charming detail was a vibrant neon sign that hung above the outside entrance, adorned with a giant pink seahorse. The one thing that was missing from the Only was a pubic restroom, which wasn’t a requirement for eating establishments when they first opened their doors over 100 years ago.
By the time Elf was filmed in 2003, the downtown area of Vancouver had hit rock bottom. Homelessness and criminal activity were rampant along East Hastings Street and most of the city residents chose to go out for dinner in the safer and more accommodating suburbs. In June of 2009, the Only Sea Foods was permanently shut down amid drug trafficking allegations, and the iconic neon sign was removed from the building and placed in a warehouse.
Like I said, when I visited the city in early 2019, the building at 20 E Hastings was still boarded up and the area looked far from being conducive to a casual dining crowd. But maybe someday, the home to the “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” will be able to open its doors again and allow people to come in and cheer about their brewing skills.
Exploring NYC – Flatiron District
I don’t want to sound like a broken record but once again, there was some slight misinformation being circulated on the internet about one of these shots taken near the Flatiron Building, but admittedly, it isn’t a huge discrepancy. Most of the websites have correctly listed the locations of Buddy mistaking a man for Santa, and Buddy eating gum off the subway entrance. However, when it came to the shot of Buddy hopping along the crosswalk, someone out there mistakenly thought it was on 5th Avenue between 22nd and 23rd, instead of Broadway between 22nd and 23rd, and others blindly followed suit. Again, not a huge discrepancy since the two avenues are only about 100 feet apart and each one runs along one side of the Flatiron Building. However, the presence of a narrow traffic island with vertical street reflectors made it clear to me that this scene took place on Broadway and not 5th Avenue.
Of course, it’s been over ten years since the island and reflectors were taken down and replaced with public seating, but my memory of those shiny yellow things remains strong. I also have a firm memory of an old-fashioned novelty/magic shop that used to be in that area, as well as the “Just Bulbs” light shop on the corner of Broadway and 22nd Street — made famous in the 1980’s when it was featured in one of David Letterman’s early remote pieces.
Exploring NYC – A Revolving Door
This is one of the filming locations that was already established by other websites, and after checking out the address in Google Street View, I could see the building at 10 West 33rd Street was a match.
This quick scene at the revolving door appeared at the end this 2-minute montage of Buddy cheerfully exploring NYC. According to director Favreau, this montage footage was captured on their last day in New York when he and a single cameraman traveled around the city, surreptitiously filming Ferrell as he ad-libbed a bunch of gags on the fly. To help keep their presence unnoticed, the cameraman used a long lens to allow them to keep a distance from the action and not let the random passersby know a movie was being made. (This created a few problems when I was taking some of these “after” pictures since a long lens will usually “compress” the image, and my DSLR camera with a relatively short lens couldn’t perfectly match the same perspective.)
Supposedly, this skeleton crew filming an adult-sized “elf” romping through the streets of New York led to some minor mayhem with passing drivers. Favreau claimed that whenever Ferrell was out there in his elf-suit, “we’d hear screeches and fender-benders and lights smashing. People would be looking at him walking on the side and that would cause a few minor traffic accidents.”
Empire State Building
Not much confusion as to where these scenes took place. The only thing I had a little trouble with was figuring out the location of where Buddy holds the snow-globe up against the Empire State Building. I knew it was somewhere south of the iconic skyscraper on 5th Avenue, but when I went there in person to take the “after” pictures, I got a little lost. Fortunately, Blakeslee was available at the time and quickly found the location on his computer at home and texted me the info.
The one problem with taking photos in and around the historic Empire State Building is the unrelenting presence of wandering tourists clogging up the space. My solution was to go to the location early in the morning before the building’s observation deck opened, which helped minimize the crowds. But one nice thing about the Empire State Building is that since it’s a tourist attraction, security has no problem with you taking pictures of the lobby, unlike almost every other commercial lobby in Manhattan where security acts like you’re trying take a picture of some top secret military base.
Gimbels Department Store
This location was already accurately identified on several websites before I started researching this film, with most of them pointing out that the building on the corner of 5th Ave and 30th Street had to be digitally altered to make it appear shorter, and more like a department store.
However, there was still a little misinformation associated with this scene and its fictionalized version of Gimbels Department Store. Some websites have claimed that the exterior was a digitally-altered version of Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street, opposed to the Textile Building on 30th Street. IMDB also erroneously claims that the interiors of “Gimbels” was shot inside Macy’s in New York, while it’s been well-established that the interiors were shot at a department store and a movie set in Vancouver. Actually, the “movie set” was built inside Riverview Hospital, an abandoned mental facility at 2601 Lougheed Highway, in the city of Coquitlam, which is just east of Vancouver.
The hospital has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including the X-Files, Final Destination 2, and Deadpool. In fact, according to Jon Favreau, a film crew was working on Freddy vs. Jason at the same time they were working on Elf (which I would imagine would make an interesting assembly at the commissary during lunchtime).
So, it was pretty much confirmed by multiple sources (including the director himself) that they created Gimbels’ toy department on a set at Riverview Hospital, but when it came to the other scenes that took place in the store —such as the escalator scene— the only info I could find was that it was shot at “a department store in Vancouver.” Figuring there weren’t probably a whole lot of viable department stores in the Canadian city, I looked through a bunch of pictures on Google and concluded that they shot these interior scenes at Hudson’s Bay.
Located at the corner of Granville and West Georgia streets in downtown Vancouver, the 1927-built, 650,000 sq. ft flagship store had a lot of the same qualities you’d find in New York’s Macy’s on 34th Street (which might account for some of the confusion as to its filming location). The two main elements that convinced me that they shot these scenes in Hudson’s Bay Department Store were the unique floor patterns and the poly-sided columns.
Unfortunately, I didn’t decide to research these interior scenes until after I returned from my Vancouver trip, so I wasn’t able to take any current pictures of these filming locations. And honestly, I don’t know how much longer Hudson’s Bay is going to last. According to a 2018 Reuters report, an unnamed Asian buyer has signed a conditional agreement to buy the store’s building for around $524 million, with plans to expand its height by several stories.
Even though it’s been stipulated that the developers must protect the heritage elements of the building and that Hudson’s Bay will remain on the property, when it comes to the world of real estate, you never know what the future may hold.
Elf’s adventures continues on the next page…