Almost as soon as it was possible to set up a movie camera on Martha’s Vineyard, filmmakers were heading out to Aquinnah to shoot the swirling, mottled escarpment of clays and tills and Irish-green heathland that make up the Gay Head Cliffs.

With the relighting and rededication of the Gay Head Light set to take place Tuesday night and then reopen to the public Wednesday, the Gazette as part of its Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard presents a series of film clips of the Cliffs and lighthouse dating back nearly 100 years. The clips include some of the earliest color footage ever shot of both the Cliffs and the lighthouse, dating to 1939.

The footage comes from museums, archives and private collections, offering perspectives from land, sea and sky on how the famous headland has both fallen away and yet retained its majesty as geologic forces cause whole embankments to let go occasionally and slide down toward the Atlantic below. It also shows the Gay Head Light rising high above the Cliffs (both with the neighboring keeper’s house and without it) holding its ground as the decades roll by, until the hour came a few years back when it was no longer safe.

The clip, edited by John Wilson of Edgartown, includes two stories of life at the Cliffs and lighthouse, both recorded at the turn of this century by Linsey Lee of the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Gladys A. Widdiss, born in 1914, describes what it was like to roam free over the Gay Head wilderness as a girl, with scenes of lighthouse and Cliffs shot only three or four years after she ran through the scrub and grasslands in the world she knew best. For the first time too there are moving images of the lighthouse as the late Charles W. Vanderhoop Jr., born there in 1921, knew it as a boy. Footage also shows the lighthouse while his father Charles Sr. was serving as the first keeper ever appointed from Gay Head.

The Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project saves, archives and introduces old Island films to the public. For information about the initiative, contact To see the collection of 11 Vineyard films presented to date, go to


— Tom Dunlop