Out of the Shadows

Thanks to Tom Meyers, founder of the Fort Lee Film Commission, proof that New Jersey pioneered the movie business is out of the dusty history books and in the can.

1928: Thomas A. Edison. The brilliant tinkering of the country’s foremost inventor yielded innovations such as the light bulb, phonograph and movie camera. Edison, above, in his West Orange lab, now a museum.
AP Photo

The term “cliffhanger” was invented in Fort Lee. It arose from the silent films of the famed actress Pearl White, who would dangle precariously over a cliff (the Palisades), making audiences wonder what other perils would befall her character, Pauline, in future episodes.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of controversial director D.W. Griffith’s first movie, Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest. This year brings the 100th anniversary of director Mack Sennett’s breakthrough comedy, The Curtain Pole. Both films were made in Fort Lee. This year also marks the centennial of the Champion Studios building in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. It’s the oldest, still-standing studio building in the nation and, perhaps, the world.

While California steals the glory for an industry that started when Hollywood was all orange groves, New Jersey has let its history as an early center of film production pass under the radar.

Tom Meyers has spent much of the last eight years trying to rectify that. At first glance, Meyers, 47, founder and executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, does not come off like a crusader from central casting. He gives off a flickering air of insecurity; an adjustment of eyeglasses, a nervous laugh. Yet you would be hard-pressed to recall this first impression once the topic of Fort Lee and film comes up. Meyers’s focus and conviction turn downright exuberant.

When Meyers’s grandmother was a girl, she worked for a dollar a day as an extra for the local studios, forever linking the family to Fort Lee’s film industry. Meyers grew up listening to industry anecdotes delivered with workaday attitudes that contrasted sharply with the rest of the nation’s gauzy notion of movie glamour.

As a boy, Meyers delighted in the foolish Sunday morning exploits of New Jersey’s own Abbott and Costello; Channel 13, which ran silent films, introduced him to Chaplin, Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle. Later he would spend afternoons under the spell of the silent-film retrospectives at the Fort Lee Public Library.

A screening of Tom Hanlon’s 1964 documentary, Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J., instilled a hunger to know more about the connection between the dilapidated, abandoned studios in his hometown and the films he had grown to love.

In 1971, when he was 9, Meyers met a bartender named Gus Becker. Becker, then almost 90, regaled Meyers and his friends with firsthand accounts of D.W. Griffith and silent film star Mary Pickford as the boys soaked it in over RC Colas and potato chips at a tavern called Rambo’s, which had been the most popular watering hole in town during Fort Lee’s film heyday. Stars and extras, directors and wardrobe assistants, all drank and gossiped around the 100-foot-long wooden table set beside the building.

Often, one crew would eat while another was out front, converting the tavern’s façade into a western saloon where sheriff and outlaw steeled themselves for the inevitable showdown to follow.
Meyers graduated Seton Hall in 1983 with a B.A. in political science. Six years later, he returned to Fort Lee. Around that time some locals were reactivating the dormant Fort Lee Historical Society. Intrigued, he joined.

The Society had its headquarters in the basement of Borough Hall—one room with hundreds of stacked boxes and a telephone. The group had a vision of opening a museum in Fort Lee to celebrate local history and house collections that covered Palisades Amusement Park, the Riviera nightclub, the construction of the George Washington Bridge, and artifacts culled from Fort Lee’s British neighborhood dating to 1776. A building was chosen, and renovation began in 1992. A 1994 change in local government brought the work to a standstill. “The Republican Party took over and shelved the museum project,” Meyers says. In 1996 the Democrats returned to power, and the museum finally opened in 1999.

Knowledge and confidence bolstered, Meyers began to imagine another organization, one closer to his heart. He wanted to reclaim Fort Lee’s lost cinema heritage.

Maurice Barrymore, great grandfather of actress Drew, was one of the biggest stars in a brood that came to be known as the first family of the American theater. Fond of the relaxing atmosphere of rural Fort Lee, he purchased an 1860 Victorian home in the early 1900s. Barrymore partied on his porch with other theater luminaries and was instrumental in creating Fort Lee’s first volunteer fire brigade. At one of his brigade fundraisers, Maurice’s son, John Barrymore, made his acting debut at age 18.

Fast-forward to 2000. Developers announced plans to raze the mansion and build a pair of two-family homes on the site. Meyers and his acolytes had just launched the Fort Lee Film Commission. Its office consisted of a telephone and fax machine on a desk in a corridor of Borough Hall. Where developers saw duplexes, the FLFC envisioned a film museum bringing New Jersey’s largely forgotten cinematic history to life.

The FLFC persuaded the mayor and council to halt the demolition of the Barrymore home. Or it thought it had—until the issue came to a vote. The council voted with the developers. In June 2001, Meyers watched the fabled Barrymore dwelling fall.

“That just forced us to work even harder,” he says. The group started running jitney tours through Fort Lee. Lou Azzollini, a graphic designer who served as FLFC chairman from 2000 to 2003, began to oversee the placing of historical markers around town, reclaiming the past one chunk of earth at a time.

How did the film industry arise in New Jersey? In 1893, Thomas Edison built the Black Maria in West Orange; it was the world’s first movie studio. For a while, this was Jersey’s only noteworthy connection to movies. By the turn of the century, a handful of production companies were operating in Manhattan, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Fort Lee and the sheer cliffs of the Palisades offered fertile staging grounds for westerns and historical epics. Film companies began flocking to New Jersey. So did the big names of the burgeoning industry. D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, John Barrymore, Raoul Walsh, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Marx Brothers all crossed the Hudson to film in Fort Lee.

New Jersey’s filmmaking era outlasted New York’s and Chicago’s, but the cards were stacked against it. Filmmakers wanted to be able to shoot outdoors year-round; slow film stocks of that era needed gobs of steady sunlight to record a decent image.

By 1911, Bayonne-based Nestor Studios moved west and built the first movie studio in Hollywood. Word of cheap land filtered back. In 1912 several independents, three of them Jersey companies, formed Universal Pictures. By 1916, Universal had moved all production to California. Once-proud New Jersey studio buildings yielded to neglect, harsh weather, and vandalism. Many were demolished during the push for redevelopment in the 1960s and ’70s.

Adding insult to injury, the volatile mixture of compounds used for film negatives eventually degraded, causing lethal explosions in local labs and storage facilities. In his introduction to Richard Koszarski’s 2004 book, Fort Lee: The Film Town, historian Paul Spehr estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the movies made in Fort Lee were lost forever.

Does anyone care? Should anyone? Meyers and his crew answer with an emphatic yes. Since 2000, the FLFC has begun organizing film festivals. One, focused on contemporary women filmmakers, looked back by screening the silent films of Alice Guy Blache, a director, producer, and owner of her own Fort Lee studio, Solax Company. Meyers says Blache is an overlooked pioneer, “the first woman director in cinema history.” Another pathfinder was prolific African-American director Oscar Micheaux, who shot Within Our Gates, his 1919 response to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, in Fort Lee.

Last year, Koszarski—author, film historian, and professor at Rutgers—came across a collector in California who had a copy of The Grocery Clerk’s Romance, an early Mack Sennett film. Koszarski knew that Keystone Studios, which made the film, started in Fort Lee in 1912, but there has been no indication that Keystone ever released a film made there; its first films are generally considered to be ones made in Hollywood. Koszarski’s discovery could prove that assumption wrong.

“He travels the world looking for Fort Lee movies out of his own pocket,” Meyers says of Koszarski. “He’s the Indiana Jones of film.”

The FLFC has had several triumphs. It found the oldest surviving American film version of Robin Hood (1912) and completed a two-year restoration in 2004. It secured Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) for a 2003 screening at the Loews in Jersey City. Azzollini spent more than a year negotiating on the telephone with the cranky Wisconsin collector who owned the print. Finally, he prevailed where internationally reputable organizations with deeper pockets had failed.

“I was the only one he trusted,” says Azzollini, 46. “None of the representatives of the other organizations would listen to him ramble.”

It was the first time the classic had been screened for a large audience since 1910. (Edison’s film is considered by some to be the first American horror film.)

Last summer, Koszarski returned from a trip to Bologna, Italy, where he tracked down the fifth and final reel of an ultra-rare, Fort Lee version of Camille (1915) starring Clara Kimball Young.

“We complain about being defined by the Turnpike, what exit, pollution, swamps, what have you,” Meyers says. “But you know what? That’s our own fault, because we let other people define us that way.”
He says he and others went to see Jim McGreevey when McGreevey was governor. “We met with one of his representatives and told him what we were trying to do. We didn’t really expect to go down to Trenton and meet with the governor, but we thought we made a great argument to get some involvement from that office. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.” The FLFC did recently meet with one of Corzine’s advisors and emerged hopeful. “The meeting went well,” Meyers says.

Perhaps New Jersey should take a cue from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s involvement with Robert DeNiro and the Tribeca Film Festival across the river. Lifting the neighborhood’s morale and economic vitality after 9/11, the TFF has become one of the nation’s key film festivals, boosting the local economy by more than $300 million since 2002.

To that end, last October the Bergen County Freeholders created the Bergen County Film Commission to attract more film production to the area—a direct result of the FLFC’s success in bringing television, commercial, and feature production to New Jersey. Meyers was named executive director of the new commission; Nelson Page was named FLFC chairman.

Aside from forming a “boot camp” for student filmmakers and assisting indie filmmakers to secure Bergen County film locations, the new organization will roll out a twelve-week classic cinema series at the Rivoli Theatre of the Williams Center in Rutherford this fall.

Meyers says he wants Bergen to “be the finest film center in the state where the film industry was born.” He appreciates the work the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission does to bring productions to the state. “We are working with the county to turn the IZOD Center into a film and production facility,” Meyers says. “We all work together.”

The loss of the Barrymore mansion still haunts Meyers. “That house had a lot of heart,” he says. “They said it was going to come down by itself. But that house was solid. It took them literally two days to knock it down. I think if we were going to lose that house today, with all the work we’ve done to educate people since then, we wouldn’t.” He pauses.

“You know what? You go back to a movie because you try and define things. That movie for me is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There’s a thing in there where Stewart says, ‘Sometimes, the only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes.’”

Manuel Moreno, a New York-based journalist, writes frequently about film and music.

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