Once Upon a Time in Jacksonville

Words By Ambar Ramirez

 

Over a century ago, before films were made with sound and before Hollywood became analogous with cinema, Jacksonville was known as the “Winter Film Capital of the World.” From 1907 to 1917, our (you guessed it) winterless climate attracted 30 film studios and filmmakers from all over the world to settle down in the Bold City of the South and produce over 300 silent films.

 

But as with many valuable and delicate items, many of the films from that time were either lost or destroyed. Nevertheless, if there is one thing Jacksonville is renowned for, it is our unwavering commitment to safeguarding the history of our city.

 

On Old Arlington Road sits a large white wood-paneled building that at first seems like any other property — except it hasn’t been open to the public for 100 years, locking up Jacksonville’s film history along with it. The building in question? Norman Studios. 

 

Before we talk about Norman Studios, though, we have to talk about the man behind it all, Richard E. Norman. Born in 1892 in Middleburg, Norman was just four years old when the first public screening of a motion picture took place in Paris. He and cinematography grew up together, side by side. As a teenager, he worked at theaters in Jacksonville, and once 1910 rolled around and his parents split, he moved to the Midwest. It was in Kansas City where Norman’s filmmaking career would truly begin. 

 

“In about 1914-1915, he started making so-called ‘townie motion pictures,’ which were pictures made for a local audience with a set script,” said Barbara C. Wingo, vice president of the Norman Studios Board. “He would go into the town, make a deal with usually a theater owner, and they would make a film that would have as the stars of the film, people in the town. And the people in the town would certainly enjoy watching that in their local theater.”

 

It was through these “townies” that Norman began to make a name for himself. By the 1920s Norman would move back to Jacksonville and set up shop at the five-building Arlington property that originally belonged to Eagle Film City. 

 

“This complex was built by Eagle Film Manufacturing Company, which was a group that came down in 1916 from Chicago for the express purpose of building a complete motion picture complex that would have everything in it so they wouldn’t have to send any more movies back to be developed [or] film back to be developed in New York,” Wingo shared. “They could do it right here. Everything would be in this one complex.”

 

Despite Norman’s films being silent, they spoke volumes and what really set him apart from the other 30 silent filmmakers in Jacksonville was his contribution to “race films.” 

 

“Race films were films that started to be made in the early 1910s and were meant to counteract the very, very negative pictures of African-Americans that were in the motion pictures, if they were even in them,” Wingo explained. “This was greatly exacerbated by ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ which, as you know, portrayed Blacks in incredibly negative terms. So there were several companies that grew up out of this effort to provide for this large Black audience of moviegoers, something that would be relevant to them, at least aspirational, in the case of Richard Norman.”

 

Considering this was around the mid-1920s, segregation, racism and discrimination were very much prominent. Norman took risks making these films and faced many censors. Nonetheless, he looked past all the restrictions and made many memorable films because of it. Some popular “race films” of his being the “The Flying Ace” and the “The Green Eyed Monster,” both of which showed Blacks in a positive light, as regular people who deserved the same rights as everyone else. (Talk about being ahead of his time!) Not only did Norman cast Black actors, but he also hired Black crew members, including assistant director, and notably, Steve “Peg” Reynolds (so named because he had a peg leg) who acted and did stunts in many of the films and even worked as a self-employed advertiser, often accompanying Norman on trips to promote the films. 

 

Still, all good things must come to an end and when sound in films came along, so did the end Norman’s filmmaking career. 

 

“He had invented something that was like the Vitaphone. It was sound on disc, but, of course, that was rapidly overtaken by sound on the film itself,” Wingo explained. “So he really got out of the business of feature-length films. Although he stayed in the movie distribution business, he and his wife owned two African-American theaters in Florida, one in Apopka and one in Winter Park.”

 

Even though Norman is no longer with us, his legacy lives on. Even more so now with the re-opening of Norman’s Studios, Jacksonville’s only surviving silent film complex. While the five-story structure is still in the works of being refurbished, the first floor is open to the public and has original movie posters, film canisters and even one of Norman’s many inventions, the camera phone. 

 

When I visited the space for their sneak-peek preview, it was as if I had time-traveled to the 1920s. The magic that was made in that studio very much still exists within its walls. So if you are looking for something unique to do in Jacksonville, I suggest taking a trip down our city’s silent film memory lane. 

 

While I’m at it, I’d also like to suggest to our city’s leaders replacing the Andrew Jackson statue with one of Richard Norman. His contributions to the city — and the world, really — are far more deserving of recognition than Old Hickory’s.

 

For more information on Richard E. Norman and Norman Studios, visit normanstudios.org.

 

About Ambar Ramirez

Flipping through magazines for as long as she can remember, Ambar Ramirez has always known she wanted to be a journalist. Fast forward, Ambar is now a multimedia journalist and creative for Folio Weekly. As a recent graduate from the University of North Florida, she has written stories for the university’s newspaper as well as for personal blogs. Though mainly a writer, Ambar also designs and dabbles in photography. If not working on the latest story or design project, she is usually cozied up in bed with a good book or at a thrift store buying more clothes she doesn’t need.