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 in 1900 at the age of 18. That debut performance was to raise funds for the Fort Lee Company #2 Fire House where Barrymore’s father, Maurice 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 has been on a quest to ensure that its important role in the motion picture industry is recognized and remembered. Now, however, Fort Lee is planning much more than mere remembrances as a structure rises and the culmination of many dreams come to life on a corner one black away from John Barrymore Way.
After the wreath was laid under the sign honoring Barrymore’s 138th birthday, we headed toward a standing-room-only membership reception for the Barrymore Film Center (BFC) set to open in October of this year. Already nearly completed on a prominent corner of Fort Lee’s Main Street, the Barrymore Film Center which will consist of a 250-seat movie theater and film museum where film pioneers like Alice Guy-Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Theda Bara, D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle will be honored for paving the way for Hollywood. We should also expect studios like Universal and Fox to play prominent roles at the BFC since they stood not far from where the new building will open.
I should mention that writing luminaries Anita Loos and Frances Marion also worked in Fort Lee productions early on in their careers. The possibility of honor these pioneering writers is exciting. In addition, there are numerous early film productions that boast Fort Lee as their home base. These include the first gangster film and the first American slapstick comedy, both directed by D. W. Griffith. Any knowledge of the latter’s history is new-to-me. The Curtain Pole, which stars Mack Sennett was one of the films shot exactly where the entrance to the Barrymore Film Center is. In addition to the planned museum, which will honor film history in its entirety, the BFC will host film festivals, educational programs, retrospectives, and showcases for emerging filmmakers. All in my own backyard.
All of that is beyond exciting, but it’s The Barrymores that hold a special place in the hearts of Fort Lee residents and the reason behind the Film Center’s name. John Barrymore has been referred to by important BFC players as “Our patron Saint!” which makes me smile to think of Mr. Barrymore contemplating that title. On hand to celebrate Barrymore and the BFC on Saturday were Chair Nelson Page, Executive Director Tom Meyers, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, several Councilpersons, local news personalities, excited Fort Lee residents, and filmmaker Marc J. Perez who presented clips of his upcoming documentary on the Barrymores to be released in conjunction with the opening of the BFC in October. Perez also directed The Champion: A Story of America’s First Film Town, a 2014 must-see documentary about Fort Lee’s glory days as a film town. The new Barrymore documentary promises to be as compelling.
Adding gravitas to the reception on Saturday was Peter Kingsley of The Lambs. Mr. Kingsley resembles John Barrymore and will play him in a production of “Barrymore” next year also presented by the folks at the BFC. The entire evening was magic. I was both surprised and delighted by the energy in that reception hall and hope I can play a part in helping promote the Barrymore Film Center through its opening and beyond. Perhaps the tables will turn a bit for some of my West Coast friends who have taken the time to show me Hollywood and its surroundings each year. Soon I can play tour guide as I think the BFC will return Fort Lee and the surrounding area to its film history prominence.
A John Barrymore quote played a role on Saturday and throughout the BFC project since its inception, “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” Barrymore himself may have had a few regrets, as we all do, but there are no regrets in Fort Lee which takes pride in the famous profile of the man who is making dreams come true.
You can honor the Barrymore legacy and film history by supporting the Barrymore Film Center by becoming a member.