Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lights, camera.... Fort Lee!

Keep your eyes open when you drive around Fort Lee, and you'll see something curious. Instead of the usual nondescript signs, some street corners boast black and white markers bordered with sprocket holes. They're emblazoned with names like Theda Bara, Carl Laemmele and Universal Studios, and a closer look reveals the logo of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

Indeed, the town was Hollywood before Hollywood was Hollywood. Though it's fairly common knowledge that scores of TV shows and contemporary movies have been shot in New Jersey, few realize that a century ago, Fort Lee was the movie capital of the world. I got an eye-opening education in film history during a recent visit to the Fort Lee Museum, courtesy of Film Commission Executive Director Tom Meyers and Commission member Donna Brennan.

Before there were coming attractions, lantern
cards like these advertised upcoming movies.  
The roots of the film industry run deep through New Jersey, starting with Newark resident Hannibal Goodwin's patent of nitrocellulose film in 1887. Thomas Edison's West Orange team developed the kinetoscope between 1889 and 1892, building the Black Maria as the first true film studio. Once the American public got a look at moving pictures, it didn't take long before they clamored for productions that left fake studio backgrounds for more realistic open-air settings.

Considering how built-up Fort Lee is today, it's hard to believe that filmmakers once saw it as the perfect setting for Wild West movies. In the early 1900s, the town's dirt roads and rustic buildings were apt substitutes for the great frontier, just a subway and ferry ride away from downtown Manhattan. Plus, the nearby Palisades offered irresistable opportunities for suspenseful plot twists (cliffhanger, anyone?). Before long, emerging film moguls like Carl Laemmle (IMP and its successor Universal Studios), William Fox (Fox Entertainment) and Samuel Goldwyn (formerly Goldfish, in a predecessor to today's MGM) were building studios along the Hudson River.

Along with them, naturally, came actors, some of whom bought or built houses in the nearby Coytesville settlement. Most notably, Maurice Barrymore settled his family in town; his son John made his acting debut in a benefit for the local fire department. Silent screen legends like Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand were regular sights in and around Fort Lee.

Filmmaking got so big that virtually everyone in Fort Lee worked for one of the production companies, one way or another. The studios didn't just shoot scenes in town, they essentially built factories where movies were duplicated and stored, and promotional materials were created and printed. Carpenters built sets that transformed empty lots into medieval cities. Actors and crew had to be fed, creating jobs for cooks and service staff. Even the kids got involved: schools were sometimes closed to allow students to serve as extras in crowd scenes.

If things were working so well in Fort Lee, then why did the business move to California? Weather is often cited as a reason, but as with most situations, there were several contributing factors. Residents were increasingly frustrated by the noise and inconvenience caused by large-scale outdoor shoots, leading local officials to wonder whether the entire town might be blown up during a battle scene. After fires decimated their Fort Lee facilities, some film companies chose to relocate in warmer climes, encouraged by a very welcoming Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Fort Lee, on the other hand, did nothing to encourage rebuilding. One by one, the studios left for Hollywood, leaving only their film vaults behind.

Of the many buildings that supported Fort Lee's film industry, only two still stand. We'll be visiting one of them in the next installment of Hidden New Jersey.

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