There's a resurrection of sorts going on in Jacksonville's Arlington district. If all goes as planned, it's going to be an epic comeback. A century ago, Jacksonville reigned as the nation's "Winter Film Capital of the World," producing scores of silent films and hosting all the major studios and famous names of the day. Frigid temperatures of New York and Chicago, where the nation's film business originated, damaged film stock and dismayed starlets. And Northeast Florida's mild climate and diverse topography beckoned.
Today, a rare remnant of the River City's-and the nation's- cinematic history remains. Richard Norman's five-building silent film studio complex still stands despite decades of disrepair. Not for long. Within the next few months, a $685,000, first-phase restoration project will wrap. When the dust settles, locals will get the first real glimpse of both the past and the future of the historic site, thanks to a group of ardent preservationists who recognized a treasure that would become the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum.
The complex began as a one-building cigar factory that went out of business and was bought in 1916 by the Eagle Film City, a silent film production company that quickly added four new buildings. The wood-frame structures took just four weeks to complete and housed a full developing and processing facility, an outdoor stage and a pool for filming water scenes.
At the time, the film industry was booming in Jacksonville. Then came World War I, which nearly decimated the local industry, leaving just three studios producing films following the war. Eagle Film City declared bankruptcy and, in 1922, Richard Norman bought the property. Between 1920 and 1928 Norman, who was born in nearby Middleburg and had traveled throughout the Midwest making films for several years, produced six feature-length silent films and scores of shorts. His films, along with those of race film pioneers like Oscar Micheaux and the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., bucked the mainstream system by featuring black actors in positive, non-stereotypical roles that stood in stark contrast to the derogatory depictions of African Americans of the day.
"My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies," says Capt. Richard Norman, Jr., who makes the monthly trek from his Tallahassee home to Jacksonville to assist in the preservation efforts. "And he saw an untapped market. So, he set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres."
The Curtain Falls
Norman took a financial blow by investing thousands into developing "talking movie equipment." He invented a system that synched audio with the moving pictures. He even sold a number of units to theatres across the nation. Unfortunately for Norman, a sound-on-film system soon would debut, making his own invention obsolete.
Local filmmakers had taken another major hit with the 1917 election of Mayor John W. Martin, whose campaign platform took aim at the hooliganism of the industry. Car chases through the streets and bar and brothel scenes shot on Sundays did not set well with the mostly conservative townsfolk. One mob scene that featured actors wielding rubber bats spiraled out of control when random passersby mistook the action for a real-life riot and joined in. No one was sure who was acting and who was just acting out. Chaos ensued.
Meanwhile, southern California had been working hard to lure the industry westward and soon emerged as the the major movie production center, due in large part to the move of film pioneers like William Selig and D.W. Griffith to the area. Jacksonville's day as a top filmmaking hub was done.
Staging a Comeback
Fast-forward nearly a century, when an impassioned plea by local preservationists would finally be heard. In 2002, members of civil organization Old Arlington, Inc. and others, including then-City Councilman Lake Ray, convinced Jacksonville officials to buy property holding four of Norman's five buildings for $260,000. A related group soon would form the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, Inc., a nonprofit organization working to restore and reopen the complex. Grant funding for the first phase was raised and workers broke ground mid-2007 to repair structural damage and restore the exteriors of the four city-owned buildings.
Next up is a major fundraising effort to purchase the fifth building, which featured an outdoor stage and currently is owned by Circle of Faith Ministries, and to restore the interiors of the five city-owned structures. These structures include the main production/processing building where Norman developed and screened his films, a small cottage where actors changed costumes, a storage shed, and a tiny building that still houses the original generators used to power Norman's cameras and lights.
Organizers aim to reopen the complex as a silent film museum and community center offering a venue for screenings of independent projects by up-and-coming filmmakers and industry-related workshops. A goal close to the hearts of Norman's descendants is the development of a summer camp designed to teach economically disadvantaged children about film career choices. It's a goal that mirrors the late filmmaker's efforts to open the filmmaking experience to all peoples.
"A whole new generation of young filmmakers stands to benefit from the efforts of the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum," says Capt. Norman. "My father would be proud."