The Jacksonville City Council recently voted unanimously to honor longtime preservationist and Norman Studios Silent Film Museum co-founder Rita Reagan by naming Norman’s set stage building the “Rita F. Reagan Building”. The building is the last of the five original structures in the Norman Studios complex, built during its days as Eagle Film City prior to late silent filmmaker Richard Norman’s purchase, to be secured by the City of Jacksonville. The city’s purchase of the building brings the full complex under the management of the NSSFM’s management – the culmination of a two-decade campaign led by Reagan to reunify the property.
Bill No. 2023-0793 was introduced by Councilmembers Ron Salem (President) and Ken Amaro with Matt Carlucci and Michael Boylan co-sponsoring. Just after the vote, Councilmember Rahman Johnson requested an amendment to add all councilmembers in attendance as co-sponsors, signaling full support of the council. That, too, passed unanimously.
NSSFM co-founders Ann Burt and Devan Stuart Lesley spoke in support of the legislation. Here are their addresses:
This letter is in support of naming the Set (?) Building at the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum Property in honor of Rita Reagan.
In 1999 Old Arlington, Inc. recognized the historical significance of the Norman Silent Film Studios. It took four years of promoting and championing the project by educating the public and convincing the skeptics, but OAI’s efforts came to fruition when the City of Jacksonville purchased one half of the Studio property in 2002. The property purchased by the City contains the Production Building, the Generator Building, the Actors’ Cottage and the Prop Storage Garage. But the Studios were not complete. Missing were the Set Building and the buried pool on the adjacent property.
Rita Reagan, long a champion for historic preservation in Springfield, including advocating for saving the Klutho Building where silent film actors residing during Jacksonville’s heyday as the “Winter Film Capital of the World,” knew of Jacksonville’s silent film history. She stepped forward to join the efforts of Old Arlington, Inc. In short order, she took the lead. In the ensuing years, Rita was the quintessential tireless advocate for Norman Studios.
It was unusual to go by the Studios and not find Rita there. Week days, weekends and evenings, she gathered display items, set up displays, opened the Studios and led tours. She accepted every invitation to speak before community groups about the Norman Studios project – the importance of saving this piece of history.
The efforts of Old Arlington, Inc. and Rita Reagan were validated at the highest level when the Studios were designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2016.
The City of Jacksonville is to be commended for recognizing the importance of this unique piece of Jacksonville’s history and purchasing the remaining property, making Norman Studios whole once again. It is fitting that the tireless effort of Rita Reagan be recognized by naming the Set Stage building the Rita Reagan Building.
It has been my honor to write this endorsement of Bill #? for Old Arlington, Inc. in support of my friend, Rita Reagan.
Ann Burt, Board Member Emeritus
Old Arlington, Inc.
Devan Stuart Lesley
I, along with Rita and Ann Burt, co-founded the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum. Rita was a force of nature. Even into her last years, she put any teenager to shame with the sheer amount of energy and determination she had, and everything that happened in life was either a “hoot” or a “kick in the pants.”
I’m sure she butt heads with at least a few of you on at least a few occasions. But every bit of that came from her fiery passion and love for this city, its history, its arts, its culture, its people and its future. Jacksonville is a better, more beautiful, more vibrant place because of Rita and Harry Reagan.
On behalf of the Norman Studios board, its supporters and the Richard and Gloria Norman family, I deeply appreciate your consideration of giving Rita this honor, this last “Ain’t that a hoot!” Thank you.