When production began on a new remake of the iconic stage musical “West Side Story,” of course locations in Manhattan’s Upper West Wide were scouted for filming – that’s where the story gets its name!
Yet even though the story itself is set in Manhattan, there’s a location in Brooklyn that producers could not overlook when trying to re-create the feel of mid-1950s New York City. That spot was the renowned Msgr. King Hall gymnasium of St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands.
It all started with a phone call. A site recruiter from 20th Century Fox contacted the parish’s pastor, Father Dwayne Davis, to come by to look at the school’s gym. Father Davis at first did not know it would be for this movie but was happy to welcome the recruiter to the parish.
In these parts, Msgr. King Hall – and its notable green floor – is well-known as a center of action in the local sports scene. Pre-pandemic, the gym hosted the annual Msgr. King Memorial Basketball Tournament, where countless local hoops stars – including the great Chris Mullin – laced up their sneakers on the green court. As soon as you walk in, there’s a shrine of memorabilia and press clippings dedicated to Mullin.
After a few more follow-up visits, 20th Century Fox knew it had a dynamite location, since the gym itself dates back to around the timeframe of when “West Side Story” is supposed to be set.
“Like most Catholic school gyms, it’s still the same,” Father Davis said. “It hasn’t really changed much. It’s an honor for the parish and all of us to be recognized in that way to celebrate the history of who we are as a parish community.”
In mid-June 2019, shooting began, which involved a complete takeover from the production company. Luckily, students were just finishing up their classes, so the filming did not interfere with day-to-day life in school. Initially slated to take two weeks, filming wound up taking closer to a month to ensure everything looked good for final editing.
Father Davis was under strict orders from the studio to keep this all a secret until the film’s release. That must have been challenging, since the film’s director was the living legend Steven Spielberg – who was right there in the gym.
“I remember being in the gym the first time Steven Spielberg came in,” Father Davis said. “He was fascinated by seeing all the jerseys hanging up. It brought some nostalgia.
“I got to see him (Spielberg) firsthand and how he did things. Sometimes there were scenes that had to be done at least five or 10 times. That’s one of the things that impressed me the most. When he came into the gym, he just sat on the floor. He had an eye for what he wanted.”
20th Century Fox made a few changes inside, such as hanging new curtains and laying down a wood floor to cover the gym’s green floor. In total, the gym was featured for about 10 minutes in the film. Almost a month of shooting for just 10 minutes – that goes to show the amount of detail that goes into a film’s production.
After being delayed a year due to the pandemic, the film made its debut in late November 2021. Instead of their annual Christmas Party, parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas and Our Lady Help of Christians, Midwood, were treated to a private screening of the film at the Regal UA in Sheepshead Bay. Rather than having to be quiet throughout, parishioners cheered when the scenes of Msgr. King Hall came on screen.
With awards season soon upon us, “West Side Story” was named one of the top 10 films of 2021 by the National Board Review and American Film Institute. It also received four nominations to the 79th Golden Globe Awards and 11 nominations to the 27th Critics’ Choice Awards.
Just like the Mullin shrine, Father Davis hopes to soon have a shrine in the gym dedicated to “West Side Story.” The gym is the home to more than just sports, and hosting this production shows how the gymnasium is also a hub of culture and theatrical arts.
“One of the things about Catholic school gyms is that they’re not just traditionally gyms,” Father Davis said. “They are the center of the community, and lots of things happen there. Sure there are sports, but there are also plays, concerts, and dances, so it really comes full circle in that sense.”
In addition to all those things, the St. Thomas Aquinas gym was one of the largest food pantries in Brooklyn during the height of the pandemic, feeding 1,000 people a day. The parish received an award from then-Brooklyn Borough President and now Mayor Eric Adams as part of the Brooklyn COVID Heroes program.
In good times and in bad times, the gym is the center of the Flatlands community. When it’s not being taken over by the “Jets” and the “Sharks,” Msgr. King Hall will continue to serve as a sports and cultural haven for the youth of Brooklyn.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.