Welcome to 2019, the Year of the Barrymores

There’s so much to look forward to in 2019, many special anniversaries to celebrate, and exciting endeavors to delve into. Some of these I’ll pay tribute to in individual posts. Things like the 25th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the 10th Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF), both happening in April, are exciting as are classics-related projects heading my way. In addition, numerous entertainers were born a century ago and there are a host of important movies celebrating noteworthy anniversaries. Expect remembrances and tributes in the weeks to come commemorating many who have impacted movies in the last century.

Perhaps what I am most excited about is a permanent homage to film and a legendary acting family that is to be erected later this year. This permanent structure will house programs to teach film making, including a “boot camp” for students and working with interns from programs such as the NYU Costume Studies Program and the Moving Image graduate program. It will also feature a 260-seat theater to screen classic, foreign, and art house movies. Most important for all who visit this blog will be the center’s focus on film history as it will stand proud in the heart of Fort Lee, NJ, where the American film industry was born. Just a few short blocks from where this film center will sit stood the first homes of 15 movie studios including Fox and Universal. The area also posed in many films directed by pioneers D. W. Griffith and Alice Guy-Blaché and others. Films were being made in Fort Lee as early as 1907 and many of the biggest early movie stars walked the streets of that vicinity.

Indeed, Fort Lee’s film history is exciting, one few historians mention. The term “cliffhanger” was coined in Fort Lee and John Barrymore made his acting debut near where the center, named to honor him, will sit. The Barrymore Film Center will house exhibits honoring the Barrymores and film history in general in a museum that will also be a part of the complex. The Fort Lee Film Commission‘s film archive will move to the new film center and other film archives and museums – such as the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City – will let it borrow collections to showcase many aspects of film history. Ground broke on this exciting project in October 2018 and you can stay up to date on its progress at the Barrymore Film Center page. The plan is for a soft opening late this year with the grand opening planned to coincide with John Barrymore’s birthday on Feb. 15th 2020.

You may ask why the new film center will be named for the Barrymores. Well, as Fort Lee Film Commission Chairman Nelson Page has said, “the Barrymores’ story is our story. They grew up in this area and are part of the rich cultural history here in Fort Lee.”

John, Ethel and Lionel all made their first films in Fort Lee, and their father, Maurice Barrymore, was a Fort Lee resident and founded the firehouse across the street from the film center site, Page said. As the story goes according to the Film Commission, Maurice lived in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee and was a member of the volunteer Fire Department there. John went to live with his father in Fort Lee at the age of 18 intent on being an artist, but Maurice had other plans. “My boy, the Barrymores are actors,” Maurice told his son. “You’ll be an actor. If we were plumbers, you’d be a plumber.”

Maurice rented a local beer garden where he staged a play called “Man of the World.” The production would be young John’s acting debut. The building still stands and was used as a fire house until the late 1950s, said Tom Meyers, Executive Director of the Fort Lee Film Commission. One of the fire uniforms is on display in the Fort Lee Museum, but will be moved to the Barrymore Film Center. The Commission honors John Barrymore every year on his birthday with a wreath ceremony at the site, which is now John Barrymore Way, which is one block from where the Barrymore Film Center will stand.

John Barrymore Way on Fort Lee stands at the site where the young actor made his acting debut at age 18.

Among the events planned at the Barrymore Film Center is a yearly film festival. I’m hoping to play a small role in helping spread the word on the project and future events in any way I can. The hope is to get the attention of TCM personnel and film writers and historians interested in cinema and a center dedicated to preserving its history. With no place like the Barrymore Film Center anywhere else in New Jersey, the connections to the state’s film history are endless. For instance, the involvement of the Film Noir Foundation would be fantastic for discussions on films noir made in the Garden State. Just saying – who wouldn’t want in on that? And you can bet I’ll get several local film bloggers on this side of the Hudson River for a closer look.

Although the Barrymores didn’t spend a long time in Fort Lee, their time there was critical to their careers. Conversely, Lionel, Ethel, and John are an integral part of Fort Lee’s rich film history, which is why the center is named for them. As for me – I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have this place being built in my own backyard and have designated 2019 the year of the Barrymores on this blog and beyond. After all, the famous name is integral to my family as well because my grandmother had a life-long crush on Lionel and, although the reason remained unknown to my jealous grandfather, she named one of her sons after the famous actor.

Much more on the Barrymores and the Film Center to come!

As the New Year dawns, I hope it is filled with the promises of a brighter tomorrow. From near Fort Lee, the birthplace of the movies, Happy New Year, friends!

8 thoughts

  1. What an exciting project, and as you say, right on your doorstep! I look forward to your posts in 2019. I’m in the middle of a post just now featuring Lionel Barrymore. Hope to post today. A guid New Year frae Scotland,Aurora🥂

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