Thursday, April 4, 2013

Saving Rambo's: a last vestige of Fort Lee's movie-making history

In our last post, we talked about Fort Lee's history as the world's first moviemaking capital, and the near absence of any visible relics of that past. A series of devastating fires reduced many of the studio facilities to ashes and rubble following the production companies' moves to California. Other historic buildings were repurposed and eventually torn down. And, of course, time and the inevitable development after the construction of the George Washington Bridge obliterated the rustic scenery that had made the town such a great substitute for any number of remote movie settings.

Fort Lee's Rambo's, as seen in one of the many silent movies
filmed outside its doors.
There is one structure left to represent both the business of moviemaking and the versatile Fort Lee scenery: Rambo's on First Street in the Coytesville section of town.

An unassuming old two-story building with a porch, Rambo's stood on a dusty road and could easily fit into just about any story a producer could conjure. Need a Western saloon or a stagecoach stop? How about a New England tavern? Rambo's was it. With no utility lines to mar the scene, viewers could be easily convinced that they were transported to 1867, the year Rambo's was built.

Scores of films were shot outside and around Rambo's, including Mack Sennett's A Grocery Clerk's Romance, and Friends, starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Many more silent movies shot there have been lost over time, through fires or deterioration.

Rambo's today: an uncertain future.
Perhaps even more important to cinema history, Rambo's was an industry gathering place where crews and actors could exchange ideas and expertise. Sitting at long tables in the grove outside of the saloon, they'd lunch on the daily ham-and-eggs meal (it was always ham and eggs) and work through innovative filming techniques. Every day offered the opportunity for new breakthroughs in moviemaking, and Rambo's was the incubator. You might say that it was to film what the garage was to Silicon Valley pioneers Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

What's more, the property had sufficient room to accommodate many of the off-screen necessities of moviemaking. Production companies capitalized on the second floor for dressing rooms, and auditions were regularly held there. One can only conjecture how many careers were launched there, whether they be as short as one film or decades-long success in entertainment. In fact, a child actor named Milton Berle got his first movie role after being chosen during a cattle call at Rambo's. The movie? The 1914 classic The Perils of Pauline.

New Jersey's filmmaking history is popularly known to have been launched in Edison's labs, but the Black Maria studio on his West Orange property is but a re-creation, built in 1954. That would make Rambo's even more notable to the history of film here and globally.
Unfortunately, Rambo's faces an uncertain future. Last serving as multi-unit housing, it's now in danger of being torn down and replaced by a new two-family home. The Fort Lee Film Commission and Historical Society would like to see it preserved, purchased by the local government and used as office space for the Commission and an educational resource to teach residents about local film history. The previous owner left the building in excellent condition, eliminating the need and expense of making it habitable.

Before the current owner/developer can move forward with demolition and construction, the Fort Lee Zoning Board must issue variances to allow the planned structure to be built. The issue will be discussed at a meeting on April 4 (the publication date of this article), and the Historical Society will be representing public opinion through their online petition. You have the opportunity to influence their decision, whether you live in Fort Lee or not.

Rambo's is a truly Hidden New Jersey gem, and we can't afford to have it fade from view, its site hosting only a commemorative sign. Drop by the petition at to support the effort. 

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