Light, camera, action! Jacksonville was America’s first Hollywood


JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – Nowadays, Hollywood is the cinema capital of the world. But if LA hadn’t been luring filmmakers west, we might hear “Lights, Camera, Action!” in Jacksonville, and River City could have been the movie capital of the world.

We know what our modern Jacksonville skyline looks like. Let your mind wander a bit and travel back in time. In the early 1900s there were television production studios right here in the River City.

At the time, you could see silent film stars walking down Main Street. Suddenly, crowds were gathering to watch. They would meet stars like Babe Hardy. He began his film career in Jacksonville in 1914. Other silent film stars who made films in Jacksonville include Rudolph Valentino and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore.

You know him better as Oliver Hardy, a member of the Laurel and Hardy film duo.

It was mostly independent filmmakers who flocked to Jacksonville. They came here because of the climate, exotic locations, architecture, and rail access.

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“Well, Jacksonville really became what was called the winter movie capital of the world,” said Jim Kerkhoff, a movie historian. “And that happened around 1908. Most of the 1908 production was done in the New York/New Jersey area.

“What was happening, however, in the winter, they were unlucky. It was cold. This created problems with the cameras. The film would freeze, fog up. So there was a direct rail line that came from New York to Jacksonville because it carried vacationers, wealthy vacationers, to the area. And somebody thought, well, let’s do filming there, in terms of being able to shoot all year round,” Kerkhoff said.

In 1920, Richard Norman was producing films. Norman, who was white, disliked how black actors were always portrayed in subordinate roles. He wanted to change that. So when he moved to Jacksonville and established his studio in Jacksonville, he produced a film in 1926, “The Flying Ace”. It employed an all-African-American cast and was shown specifically to African-American audiences.

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Norman Studios of Arlington: White filmmaker Richard Norman created films for black audiences.

“He thought people should be treated right,” said Rita Reagan, executive director of Norman Studios. “And they need to be represented properly.

“Some of the movies that were made by the companies that were here in Jacksonville, I won’t name the names of you know, they were so awful. And he hated it. And he thought he could do something that would depict African Americans as they really were. And not as you know some racists saw them – the stereotypes,” Reagan said.

The film was made in Jacksonville on the site where Norman Studios is being renovated for the sake of the story. And the plane passed through an area beyond what was then the closet building of what is now a residential site near Arlington Avenue, a few blocks from the busy Arlington Freeway.

“The wardrobe cottage was where a lot of people who came to Richard’s films would stay,” Reagan said. “If they were married they would stay there if they were single because he always brought stars to towns like in his movies. And sometimes they stayed one or the other would stay with the family upstairs on the second floor.This building has had a lot of history.

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Norman Studios made movies here for about 10 years, but when the era of silence ended, it never made the transition to “talkies”.

So why did Jacksonville lose out on being Hollywood East? Well, it seems that the residents who lived here at the time were characterized as being rather conservative.

“What’s happened is that Jacksonville has really been a production hub for many, many years, a lot of activity here, the movie people have kind of exhausted their welcome,” Kerkhoff said. . “Because what they would do is do stunts where they would call a fake fire alarm, set up a camera in front of the fire station to get the race engine out of the garage. There was an infamous one where one of the production companies staged a mob scene downtown. And it got out of control and it became a crowd. And they break store windows and that kind of thing. It didn’t go well. Besides, they would shoot, they would go to the neighborhoods of the city on Sundays when everyone is at church.

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Consequently, Jacksonville’s film industry declined. You also had a mayor who took office who didn’t like the filmmakers. A flu epidemic in 1918 did not help, nor did the First World War.

Then there was Hollywood glamour. This all proved too much for Jacksonville.

Although there is still cinema in the area, Jacksonville never regained its former glory or became Hollywood East as hoped for in the early 1900s.

Oliver Hardy – An Expensive Visit

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