OLD ARLINGTON: Norman Film Studios

In 1920, Flagler’s East Coast Railway trains rolled down the tracks from the cold North to paradise down South. With bags packed carefully with top hats, watches on gold chains, silk dresses and pearls in velvet bags, onwards the snowbirds came to enjoy the Florida sunshine and bask in warm weather with the sweet smell of orange blossoms in the air. Yes, the rich and famous left the snow and sleet…and stopped in Jacksonville, part of what some called America’s Riviera, which had become the winter film capital of the world. The Rockefellers, Astors, Tiffanys and their friends brought big money down South, and they built grand houses and hotels along the way in Jekyll Island, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Palm Beach and Miami.

A scout was sent to Jacksonville in 1908 from The Kalem Company in New York to find a new location for film production. More and more filmmakers came to the modern city of Jacksonville, since after a rebirth from a devastating downtown fire, it was touted as having the highest skyscrapers and a plethora of fine locations for movies, such as a beautiful river that ran north and emptied into the sea, beautiful white beaches and deep, dark swamp land.

Some of the motion pictures made here were no ordinary silent films. They were full-length “race” films that depicted blacks in leading roles. Scripts were written for black actors and actresses showing their courage, beauty and intrigue, instead of focusing on stereotypical roles of servants and the backbreaking field workers. These avant-garde films were made by filmmaker and inventor Richard E. Norman, who set up a studio in the Arlington neighborhood, now known as Old Arlington, Jacksonville. It became the site for filmmaking in the United States–before Hollywood.

Norman Studios Production Processing Building, 2008
Norman Studios Production Processing Building, 2008 

An old cigar factory and some out buildings became the sites for Norman’s Production & Film Processing, Generator Shed, Wardrobe Cottage, Prop Storage Garage, and Set Building. They took the place of the former Eagle Studios, which fell into bankruptcy and became ripe for Norman to purchase. When Norman’s movies were shown in the theatres, tickets were only 22¢ for an adult and 11¢ for a child, a fair price back in the day, but still hefty for some.

Norman Film Manufacturing Company was taking the lead nationally, producing what are now known as iconic films. Norman’s work became visual evidence of the early civil rights films that showcased the great talent of the black generation of the time. Norman’s mentor and friend was Chicago-based Oscar Micheaux, known as the father of black films. Correspondence still exists between the two.

Norman was among the first to sync sound and video, which created talkies, only to be the industry lead for a short time because Thomas Edison soon usurped him with more sophisticated filmmaking a few years later.

Norman would go to towns and cities, especially on the Western frontier, to film unique activities for his inventory, including bull dogging, a daring sport invented by one of rodeo’s first African American stars, Bill Pickett, whom Norman would later cast in two films, “The Bull Dogger” and “The Crimson Skull.” His films were among the first all black-cast adventure films and often featured disasters, such as a train wreck included in his “The Wrecker” series and “The Green Eyed Monster.”

Norman Studios, Jacksonville, FL

While filming in Wisconsin, Norman cast a beautiful redhead in a bit part as a bridesmaid in a wedding scene. Such a career was not what this beauty’s parents thought a nice young woman should be doing. However, she fell in love and ended up marrying the filmmaker. Gloria Norman soon moved to Jacksonville where her husband had purchased the Arlington property in 1922 and opened an acclaimed dancing studio, the Gloria Norman Dance Studio on the premises of his studio.

Gloria and her husband owned twin Hudson Terraplane cars. She was a quite a sight driving down Jacksonville streets. Gloria installed benches inside so that she could pick up some of her students and give them a limo-like ride to her studio when they didn’t have transportation. Her dancing studio reigned in the 1940s and 1950s.

In the mid-1990s, Ann Burt immersed herself with the history of Mr. Norman and his studios, noticing the buildings were still standing. She led a group of interested people who worked together collaboratively in order to bring back much of the Norman Studios’ history. The group also founded Old Arlington, Inc., and set out to preserve the early history of the neighborhood community and give it a voice.

The group persuaded the City of Jacksonville to purchase four of the five Norman Studios buildings in 2002. With funding from several national, state and local grants, the city shored up the time-worn buildings, completing structural and exterior restorations in 2007 and forming a property management agreement with the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on preserving the works of Norman Studios.

Norman’s son, Captain Richard E. Norman, and wife, Kathy, continue on the board today. Their advisors include many community-minded individuals dedicated to further advancing the mission of the organization, including Todd Roobin, manager of the Jacksonville Film and Television Office, a division of Jacksonville Sports and Entertainment Office of Economic Development of the City of Jacksonville.

“Without question, the Norman Studios is not only a Jacksonville historical jewel, but is deeply a part of American cinematic history,” says Roobin. “Jacksonville is fortunate to have the Norman Studios. Today, it is one of the only existing, freestanding silent movie studios in the country. Norman, who was white, left lasting contributions to cinema because he starred African-American actors in positive and non-stereotypical roles during a challenging period in our history.”

The organization’s website offers great insight into Norman’s personal and professional history. It also lists the films in their archive, such as “The Flying Ace”, shot on the Arlington property and in Mayport.

The organization will rev up their “Silent Sundays” event again beginning in January. It costs only a nominal fee, but offers the opportunity to see extraordinary films of the past. The leadership also plans a major gala event later in the year to raise significant funds to further their mission and ensure the community has an opportunity to experience silent films and learn more about the Norman Studios. Accompanying the showing of each film is a musical group from Jacksonville University, Tony Steve and the Silver Synchro Sounds, that has worked collaboratively to develop and present music during the film, adding to the experience of attendance.

The Norman Studios’ mission is “to collect, preserve and display artifacts and histories associated with Florida’s role in the development of the film industry with particular emphasis on Northeast Florida; to promote interest in and enjoyment of silent and early films and their histories; and to facilitate the growth of the motion picture industry via educational programs and materials.”

If you want to know more, please visit www.normanstudios.org. The organization welcomes volunteers, members and donors – and you can even sponsor a community film event, just call for the specifics. So, visit the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum located at 6337 Arlington Road (32211), and get involved with the movement to preserve our local film history for yet another generation. See you at the movies!

About Joanelle Mulrain