Although most people think Hollywood is the motion picture capital of the world, Fort Lee, New Jersey was actually the real birthplace and once the epicenter of all things film.
A Dream Becomes Reality
It all started in 1893, Thomas Edison built the world’s first movie studio, the Black Maria in West Orange, NJ. For a short time, this was New Jersey’s only notable connection to movies. With the turn of the century, a handful of production companies were operating in Manhattan, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In the early 1900’s, when Hollywood had more cattle than cameras, Fort Lee and the sheer cliffs of the Palisades offered fertile staging grounds for westerns and historical epics.
It may come as a surprise to some, but many do not know that Fort Lee was home to the major motion picture studios including Universal, Paramount, Goldwyn Pictures, and Fox. Not only that, many famous actors have lived within our county such as John Travolta, Chris Rock and even Oprah Winfrey.
Not only were film companies flocking to New Jersey, so were the big names of the burgeoning industry. The pioneer production companies built sets in huge back lots and icons from the silent era like D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, John Barrymore, Raoul Walsh, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Marx Brothers all crossed the Hudson River by ferry to make Fort Lee their playground of filmmaker’s dreams.
Premiering On The Big Screen
The cliffs of the Palisades, and its proximity to Broadway made it a perfect location for the growing industry. In 1907 the Palisades near Fort Lee and Coytesville was used for “Wild West” scenes and other outdoor scenes.
Some say that the term “cliffhanger”, used to describe a movie filled with suspense, danger, and “seat-off-your pants” thrills was to have originated from the silent films of the famed actress Pearl White, who would dangle precariously over a cliff (the Palisades), making audiences wonder what other perils would befall her character, Pauline, in future episodes. Rambo’s Hotel on First Street was used as a place to dress as well as for the exterior of a Western saloon.
The ever so popular Main Street, which is much more bustling today than it was back then, looked very much like any rural main street in the country. Then there were the northern sections of town, which weren’t heavily populated. These had consisted of small cabins that were used to play out western locations.
Believe it or not, New Jersey’s filmmaking era outlasted New York’s and Chicago’s, but the odds were stacked against it.
Filmmakers wanted to be able to shoot outdoors year-round. The slow film stocks of the era also needed steady streams of sunlight in order to record a decent image. Fort Lee’s fortunes as the epicenter for film began to turn after World War I. Bayonne-based Nestor Studios moved west and built the first movie studio in Hollywood. Word of cheap land filtered back. Movie companies were lured out to the West for its ideal climate and cheaper production costs.
Finally in 1912 several independents, three of them Jersey companies, formed Universal Pictures. By 1916, Universal had moved all production to California. Once-proud New Jersey studio buildings yielded to neglect, harsh weather, and vandalism. Major studios started to disappear from Fort Lee around 1925. Unfortunately, many were demolished during the push for redevelopment in the 1960s and ’70s, taking any rich history it had along with it.
The Grand Finale
At the turn of the century, these historical remnants remain preserved and showcased at the Fort Lee Film Museum. The museum is home to many wondrous moments in time and unearths the movie magic through every display and exhibition. Like traveling in time, it only takes a moment to rediscover the history of film through Fort Lee.
Today the Fort Lee Film Commission continues to promote the future of the industry and the town of Fort Lee continues to be featured sites of shooting for films and television dramas.
Ella Catherine/Edward Leary