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Although an onscreen credit lists Lionel Rogosin Productions as the copyright holder, the film is not included in the Copyright Catalog. According to a April 15, 1957 Time article, director Rogosin, a former textile magnate who was making his first film, began shooting On the Bowery in 1955 and shot 100,000 feet of film over eighteen months. The Time article reported the film's cost as $60,000. Although an article in Saturday Review (of Literature) in April 1957 reported that some shots had been obtained with hidden cameras, much of the film, including its central storyline about Ray Salyer's attempt to become sober, is clearly scripted. Reviews refer to Salyer and Gorman Hendricks as "actors," though they were actual denizens of the Bowery.
The opening credits end with the written statement: "To Gorman Hendricks." After production of On the Bowery was completed, Hendricks died of illness related to alcoholism. After the picture's release, according to the Time article, Salyer was offered an acting contract but turned it down with the statement "There's nothing else in life but the booze." The film opened in New York on March 18, 1957, and on June 14, 1957, Hollywood Reporter noted that Film Representations, Inc. had acquired distribution rights to the picture throughout America. On the Bowery won the 1956 British Film Academy award for Best Documentary, was nominated in 1957 for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and was named one of the best films of the 1950s by the film library of the Museum of Modern Art.