A History in the Making
It was the early 1900s and Northeast Florida was experiencing its “Gilded Age” as a winter playground for the nation’s wealthiest. Fueled in part by stories of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fabled Fountain of Youth and railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s affinity for luxury, America’s privileged flocked to holiday hotspots like St. Augustine’s opulent Hotel Ponce de Leon and the elegant Millionaire’s Club on nearby Jekyll Island in Southeast Georgia. The likes of John D. Rockefeller, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and businessman, inventor and writer (and storied Titanic victim) John Jacob Astor of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel fame indulged their most sumptuous sides in Northeast Florida’s lush and luxe locales.
Celebrity loves company. So it wasn’t long before the stars of America’s then-fledgling moving pictures business followed suit. The frigid temperatures of New York and Chicago, where the nation’s film business originated, damaged film stock and dismayed starlets. As fate would have it, the New York-to-Florida track that later would become part of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway provided an easy load and a straight shot from the Big Apple to the Sunshine State. And so was born Northeast Florida’s status as the “Winter Film Capital of the World.”
By 1916, Jacksonville telephone directories listed more than 30 motion picture companies. Among them was the Eagle Studios, a five-building complex built in 1916 in the heart of Jacksonville’s Arlington district. By 1920, the property changed hands and became Norman Laboratories, specializing in motion pictures and “talking picture equipment.” The complex became the home and creative center of Richard Norman, who between 1920 and 1928 made six feature films and scores of shorts. He also made history as one of a handful of filmmakers brave enough to break the racial barrier in the motion picture industry.
In 1920, the 29-year-old Richard E. Norman bought the bankrupt Eagle Film Studios complex in the East Arlington area of Jacksonville. Just across the river from Jacksonville, Arlington is now a part of that city.
Norman, who was white, is remembered for making a string of silent movies starring black actors. Between 1920 and 1928 at least eight features were produced at Norman Studios in Arlington. Norman Film Manufacturing Co. was probably the most sophisticated production facility of any of the 109 ”colored” film companies formed between 1916 and 1930.
Richard Norman was a traveling filmmaker for a decade before returning home to Florida. For several years the Springfield, Florida native earned a living by producing small comedies for Midwestern audiences starring their own local talent. In 1916 he achieved wide release for a full-length movie, The Green-Eyed Monster. It was a popular drama of romance and deception set in the railroad industry. Perhaps taking his cue from several black filmmakers who were finding success, Norman remade the film with an all-black cast.
It is not clear why Norman began making films for African American audiences. Most notable is that he portrayed his subjects with respect. Black actors in films of theday generally were reduced to playing stock characters-comical, stereotypical, and unflattering. The “race” movies, as they were known, that Norman wrote and produced, like those of his African American contemporaries such as the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux, were different. Instead of degrading racist travesties, these were positive stories featuring black actors described in Norman’s publicity as “splendidly assuming different roles.”
The five-building studio complex still stands at 6337 Arlington Road. After Arlington resident Ann Burt discovered the hidden past of the old wooden buildings in her neighborhood, she resolved to share their history. As a focus of Old Arlington, Inc.’s (OAI) community revitalization effort, she and other members of the organization succeeded in saving the site. “It won’t be easy,” Burt acknowledges. The plan is to stabilize and restore the buildings first. Next, they want to create a film history and learning center as part of a broader, area eco-heritage program to attract tourists.
The city purchased four of the original Norman Studios buildings. The structures that once housed sets, props, a 1905-vintage generator, and other moviemaking facilities have seen other uses since Norman’s death. The original darkroom, screening and projection rooms, and walk-in safe for storing films can still be seen in the old production building. Water scenes were filmed in a swimming pool now buried on the site. OAI has efforts underway to obtain funding and support to begin needed restoration and preservation activities.