By Amy Wimmer Schwarb
Along Arlington Road in the heart of urban Jacksonville, four crisply painted white buildings with chocolate brown trim and large paned windows stand proud, their campus surrounded by a chain-link fence that protects them from the vandals and the curious.
A simple sign mounted above the eaves does little to reveal the mystery of what this place once was: “Norman Laboratories,” it says.
The site is a rare vestige of Jacksonville’s days as the “World’s Winter Film Capital.” Before the film industry had Hollywood, it had Jacksonville, home to more than 30 film production companies in the early 20th Century.
Among those was Norman Studios, this campus in Arlington where filmmaker Richard Norman made a series of silent films starring black casts and marketed to African-American audiences. Today, visitors can contact the facility’s caretakers to tour Norman Studios by appointment.
“It’s not like we’re open X hours a day, and you can’t just pop in for a tour,” said Devan Stuart, board co-chairwoman of the Friends of Norman Studios. “We can do tours for small groups, depending on what they need. We get students, people who are interested in film history, people saying, ‘Hey, I’m vacationing in Jacksonville and would love to stop in.’”
Right now, the buildings are safe, but not beautiful. The city of Jacksonville purchased four of the original five for $250,000 and spent another $685,000 in state and federal grants stabilizing the structures and fixing up the exterior. (The fifth building is owned by a church next door.)
“They had planned to kick off another major fundraiser to finish the interior and get it open,” Stuart said, “but the bottom fell out of the economy at about that time.”
The joy of touring Norman Studios is found in the thrill of discovery: an upstairs screening room in the main building, complete with screen and projector room, where Norman showed films to his actors. A piece of the fuselage from the plane in The Flying Ace, perhaps Norman’s best-known film, sits in the middle of an upstairs room, so out of context it is barely recognizable.
The buildings include a main production and film-processing building, where Norman’s family also lived on the top floor; a generator building that powered the whole campus and pumped water into an on-site pool; a wardrobe-changing cottage; and a large prop garage. The pool has been filled in, its exact location unknown.
The volunteer group that manages the property has big dreams for the next steps for Norman Studios: Perhaps community programming for the arts, or a museum devoted to the city’s film heyday. Already, the site has hosted large groups for special events, including visitors who attended the National Park Service’s 2012 National Underground Railroad Conference in St. Augustine.
Jacksonville and northeast Florida were the playgrounds of the rich and famous at the turn of the century. Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler laid his lines from the Northeast to St. Augustine, where an entire luxury tourism industry grew up around his Hotel Ponce de Leon.
The fledgling movie industry, then based in New York City, soon followed, wooed by the ease of rail travel and the warm climate—not to mention the tropical-looking set and easy access to water. New York-based Kalem Studios opened a studio in Jacksonville in 1908, and over the next decade, more than two dozen other companies would set up shop.
The city launched the careers of such actors as comedian Oliver Hardy, and the first color movie produced in the United States was filmed in Jacksonville in 1917.
But in that same year, the city and the studios started to part ways. The moviemakers weren’t the best corporate citizens. (One example: They pulled a fire alarm so they could get footage of racing firetrucks, even though there was no fire.) The city elected an anti-movie mayor in 1917, and over the next 10 years, Jacksonville’s movie industry died while Hollywood’s flourished.
One studio that went bankrupt was Arlington’s Eagle Film Studios. Filmmaker Richard Norman purchased the Eagle property, hoping to not only make movies in Jacksonville, but also to process film for the other studios.
At the time, studios had to send their film to New York for processing. (The exterior sign, “Norman Laboratories," takes its name from this processing function.)
Norman, a white man born in the South, saw a niche for himself in the marketing of films for black audiences. His movies did not deal with issues of race or cast African-Americans in degrading roles; they simply cast black actors in traditional stories.
“He was a businessman,” said Rita Reagan, co-chairwoman of Friends of Norman Studios. “He wasn’t interested in desegregation or anything like that. He was interested in what sells. And, what sells? Adventure and love, so those are the movies he made.”