Two days ago, I stood underneath a street marker in Fort Lee, New Jersey alongside members of the Fort Lee Film Commission (FLFC). The marker reads “John Barrymore Way” and it sits on the corner of Main Street and Central Road. We were there to honor the great Barrymore, who was born on February 15, 1882, and we stood on the very spot where he made his stage debut at the age of 18 in 1900. That debut performance was to raise funds for the Fort Lee Company #2 Fire House where his father, Maurice Barrymore, volunteered. Maurice, was a famed Broadway star and a resident of Fort Lee.
Fort Lee, NJ takes its history very seriously and as such, it is on a quest to ensure that its important role in the motion picture industry is recognized and remembered. The yearly John Barrymore birthday celebration is just one of the many ways the FLFC celebrates its movie heritage. There are also commemorative events to honor pioneer director, Alice Guy-Blaché, actors Pearl White, Theda Bara and others in addition to tours, free movie screenings and more. The Barrymores, however, hold a special place in the hearts of Fort Lee residents, which is why the biggest project planned to date, is dedicated to them.
The Barrymore Film Center, which will consist of a 250-seat movie theater and film museum, is scheduled to open in fall 2019. The site of the theater, one block from John Barrymore Way, is rich in film history with such luminaries as D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle having shot many scenes for their early films there. (FLFC)
After the wreath was laid under the sign on John Barrymore Way, I headed toward a special screening of The Champion: A Story of America’s First Film Town, a documentary about Fort Lee’s glory days as a film town. Milestone Films released the DVD of The Champion in October, but this screening was the official Fort Lee premiere of the film and many, including Fort Lee Mayor, Mark Sokolich and Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films attended. The evening was as much to honor those who’ve helped keep the legacy alive as it was to celebrate the film and the man whose image took its rightful place at the front of the house. More on that in a moment.
The Champion: A Story of America’s First Film Town is directed by Marc J. Perez and based on a book by Richard Koszarski. Too few are familiar with the story told in this documentary, which is why you should get the DVD. Champion Studio was the oldest movie studio in the U.S. (built in 1910), the first of more than a dozen studios – like Alice Guy-Blaché‘s Solax, William Fox, Metro and Goldwyn – that operated in Fort Lee. Champion was also the first home to Universal Studio as of 1912. Despite the efforts of the FLFC, the historic Champion building was torn down in December 20, 2013. Its fascinating story lives on in The Champion, however from its beginning in 1910 to its last days as a working studio when pioneering African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux helmed the last known movie to be shot on Champion grounds in 1920. Much of the documentary is shot inside the actual Champion building and spotlights many familiar film names people do not associate with Fort Lee, NJ. This is an important story told in about 35 minutes. If you are not familiar with this part of film history then you simply do not know the whole story.
The screening, which was held at the beautiful iPic Theaters, also included two silent short subjects filmed in Fort Lee and the 1935 documentary, Ghost Town: The Story of Fort Lee, which paints a grim picture of Fort Lee in the mid-1930s. These are all included in the two-disc DVD set in addition to three other shorts and the earliest surviving film version of Robin Hood (91912) from Fort Lee’s Éclair Studios.
When the lights came on in the theater two days ago I immediately looked over to where the John Barrymore image sat on an easel in the front of the house. He’d been contemplating the room as we watched images flow past on the screen. I remembered when Tom Meyers, a friend and the Executive Director of the FLFC, referred to Barrymore as “Our patron Saint!” The statement made me smile at the time, but I put no stock in it. After all, how many times do you think John Barrymore has been referred to as a saint of any kind? But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t in that theater on Tuesday night marveling at the impact he’s had on an entire town. Ever the ham John Barrymore was no doubt getting a kick out of knowing that he is central to the past and the future of Fort Lee, NJ, both of which are shrouded in movies.
John Barrymore (February 15, 1882 – May 29, 1942)