In just the last handful of years, Jacksonville has permitted more than 400 film, television, and digital media productions. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) called the city “a great asset” due to the diverse locations after shooting Lonely Hearts and Basic here. Film and television is on the rise in Jacksonville and is a growing source of employment and meaningful economic impact. As exciting as this growth is, Jacksonville is not unfamiliar with being a coveted destination of the movie industry. In the early 20th century, Northeast Florida carried the moniker, “Winter Film Capital of the World,” a far cry from Cowford! Southbank housed some of the most significant studios of the time, specifically in Dixieland Park. Todd Roobin of the Jacksonville Film & Television office helped me dig into Jacksonville’s rich film history.
Dixieland Amusement Park, located on the riverfront across the river from downtown, opened in 1907. The thirty-acre park was dubbed the “Coney Island of the South” by the Times-Union and included 100,000 feet of riverfront property, a 1,600-seat theater, several rides, shops, a dance pavilion, and a swimming area. Dixieland is where several major film studios rented space. Westerns and animal pictures were made by Selig Polyscope Company and Essany Companies, and religious films were made by The Edison Company. (Thomas Edison visited the studio when wintering in Fort Myers.) A handful of other production companies made films at Dixieland studios on a more limited basis, including the prominent Gaumont Studios. From 1908 to 1918, the “Winter Film Capital of the World” was the locale for countless silent movies.
The Vim Comedy Company, based in Jacksonville and New York, was one of several film studios operating in the Jacksonville area in the first three decades of the 20th century. Before going out of business in 1917, it employed such stars as Oliver “Babe” Hardy, Ethel Burton, Walter Stull, and Kate Price, as well as Swedish-born director Arvid Gillstrom.
Oliver Hardy began his film career and rise to international fame in Jacksonville, first at the Lubin studio, then with Vim and his own production company, and finally with the King Bee Studio, which took over Vim after its repeated financial troubles. Hardy, Price, and many of the other Jacksonville actors made permanent moves to Hollywood soon after the political atmosphere in Jacksonville turned against the movie industry due to accusations of fraud, ties to political corruption, and fear of endangering the public welfare with elaborate stunt sequences staged without city approval. The film Bouncing Baby shows stunts shot in the streets of Jacksonville.
Luck was not on the side of early Jacksonville filmmakers. In 1916, a producer hired 1,380 local residents for a mob scene at Davis & Monroe streets in La Villa. He also employed forty policemen with rubber clubs. Unfortunately, some people in the crowd took their parts too seriously and a real mob formed during the filming and spiraled out of control. It nearly destroyed a nearby saloon and a two-story building. On another occasion, a filmmaker placed a misleading ad in a local paper so as to draw a genuine crowd and avoid paying salaries to actors. A thrilling scene in one movie required a car to race down Main Street. The vehicle splashed into the St. Johns River at the ferry dock, which was near today’s Jacksonville Landing. Townsfolk criticized the badly shaken actors for disregarding public safety. They also grew concerned when producers called in false alarms if they needed fire trucks to liven up their film shoot. And when movie makers shot bank robberies on Sundays, the churchgoers would shake their heads. Lady Luck headed west to California.
It’s a fascinating dive into Jacksonville’s history, especially when you consider how little it’s discussed and how quickly the area’s reputation as a production hub perished. The decline was largely a political one. A number of Jacksonville’s citizens grew weary with filmmakers for what they felt were obstructive movie shoots, as well as religious considerations that opposed the violence and behavior being portrayed. Significant productions were still based in Jacksonville throughout the years, including Revenge of the Creature, the first sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. River City Brewing Co., originally built as The Diamondhead Restaurant, was constructed adjacent to The Lobster House restaurant where Lori Nelson was kidnapped by the Creature. The Lobster House was destroyed by fire in 1962. Additionally, the St. Johns River stood in for the Amazon in the movie.
In 2008, Recount, an Emmy Award-winning HBO movie starring Kevin Spacey and Laura Dern, was filmed at Riverplace Tower and a San Marco restaurant. And maybe you rubbed elbows with Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) as he became a regular at Bistro Aix in San Marco when he was filming Basic. I like to imagine him striking down some seared foie gras and steak fries with great vengeance and furious anger, but that’s just me.
Between The Edison Company, VIM, and Gaumont Studios, Southbank plays a central role in Jacksonville’s short but storied film history. There are several other feathers in the city’s movie cap, including the first Technicolor motion picture The Gulf Between, filmed here in 1917. The Flying Ace was filmed by The Norman Studios based in the Arlington area and was called “the best airplane thriller ever filmed.” And of course, we can’t forget a string of 50 short films starring Oliver Hardy who arrived in Jacksonville from Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1913.
Renewed interest in the Southbank, with major development and the continued growth of film and television production, may help to spark interest and make Jacksonville an entertainment industry hub once again.