A History in the Making
It was the early 1900s and Northeast Florida was experiencing its “Gilded Age” as a winter playground for the nation’s wealthiest. Fueled in part by stories of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fabled Fountain of Youth and railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s affinity for luxury, America’s privileged flocked to holiday hotspots like St. Augustine’s opulent Hotel Ponce de Leon and the elegant Millionaire’s Club on nearby Jekyll Island in Southeast Georgia. The likes of John D. Rockefeller, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and businessman, inventor and writer (and storied Titanic victim) John Jacob Astor of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel fame indulged their most sumptuous sides in Northeast Florida’s lush and luxe locales.
Celebrity loves company. So it wasn’t long before the stars of America’s then-fledgling moving pictures business followed suit. The frigid temperatures of New York and Chicago, where the nation’s film business originated, damaged film stock and dismayed starlets. As fate would have it, the New York-to-Florida track that later would become part of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway provided an easy load and a straight shot from the Big Apple to the Sunshine State. And so was born Northeast Florida’s status as the “Winter Film Capital of the World.”
By 1916, Jacksonville telephone directories listed more than 30 motion picture companies. Among them was the Eagle Studios, a five-building complex built in 1916 in the heart of Jacksonville’s Arlington district. By 1920, the property changed hands and became Norman Laboratories, specializing in motion pictures and “talking picture equipment.” The complex became the home and creative center of Richard Norman, who made history as one of a handful of filmmakers brave enough to break the racial barrier in the motion picture industry.
“My father was disheartened about the state of race relations at the time, both in real life and in the movies,” says retired Air Force Captain, Richard Norman, the filmmaker’s son. “And he saw an untapped market. So, he set out to help give the black community a stronger place on film, behind the cameras and in the theatres.”
Norman, who was white, is remembered for making a string of silent movies starring black actors between 1920 and 1928, including several filmed entirely at the Norman Studios property and the surrounding areas. Norman Film Manufacturing Co. was probably the most sophisticated production facility of any of the 109 ”colored” film companies formed between 1916 and 1930.
Before buying the property in 1920 at age 29, Norman already was a veteran filmmaker. He began his career as a maker of magic lanterns, an image projector developed in the 17th century that served as a predecessor to motion pictures. Later, he traveled throughout the Midwest, stopping for a spell in numerous towns, where he’d produce films starring local talent, then screen them to a packed theatre. Everyone in town turned out to see themselves and their friends on the silver screen – making Norman’s “townies” a highly profitable turnkey operation.
In 1916, Norman achieved wide release for a full-length film, “The Green-Eyed Monster,” an expanded adaption of his most popular townie. Perhaps inspired by emerging African-American contemporaries like Oscar Micheaux, Norman later would remake the film, a drama of romance and deception set in the highly competitive railroad industry, with an all-black cast. Thus began Norman’s most enduring contributions to both cinema and civil rights – some of the nation’s earliest films starring African-American actors in positive, non-stereotypical roles that starkly contrasted with the negative portrayals black communities endured in mainstream films.
Norman’s time at the Arlington property helped Northeast Florida keep a temporary hold of the motion picture industry, as its purveyors largely headed to the West Coast. An ultra-conservative new Jacksonville mayor; a film scene that went terribly awry in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood, destroying a saloon; and inventor Thomas Edison’s sometimes violent defense of his patents on filmmaking equipment had filmmakers up and down the East Coast looking for more a more hospitable working environment. Meanwhile, Los Angeles had put out a passionate plea to lure filmmakers westward. It worked. By the early 1920s, LA had become the global epicenter of the motion picture industry, while Norman continued his work for nearly another decade in Jacksonville.
Eventually, the cameras would stop rolling on the Norman Studios site, too. Norman, also an inventor, poured a small fortune into developing a system to sync sound and video, effectively creating talkies. He had sold about a dozen units before someone else figured out how to put sound on tape, rendering Norman’s system and other like it obsolete. Norman stopped producing feature films and instead focused on distribution of other filmmakers’ works, and on producing corporate training and promotional films. Over the next decades, the property would become known and loved as the Gloria Norman Dance Studio, operated by Norman’s beautiful and fiery-spirited wife.
Fast-forward some 70 years to the mid-1990s when Arlington resident Ann Burt discovered the hidden past of the old wooden buildings in heartbreaking disrepair, but still standing at 6337 Arlington Road. In an effort to preserve and share her neighborhood’s amazing film history, she and others founded Old Arlington, Inc., a nonprofit organization, and began a passionate campaign to save and restore the Norman Studios property. It took upwards of a decade, but city, state and national officials took heed. In 2002, the City of Jacksonville purchased four of the five Norman property buildings and in 2007, wrapped work on structural repairs and exterior renovations that returned the buildings’ outward appearance to that of its earlier glory days. In the meantime, the Norman Studios project became ambitious enough to demand its own organization. So, in 2007, a new nonprofit organization formed to focus solely on the Norman property and story, while Old Arlington Inc.’s focus expanded to include other intriguing aspects of the area’s history.
Today, the Norman Studios, a 501c3, is working to further preserve the property, including restoring its interiors and potentially purchasing the fifth Norman building, currently owned by Jacksonville’s Circle of Faith Ministries. Outreach efforts like film screenings, historical presentations and tours of the Norman property, as well as capital campaigns will help ensure that Richard Norman’s efforts and Northeast Florida’s unique contributions to cinema history will be remembered and shared for generations. Play your part by donating, joining or volunteering.