Devotees of the silver screen unite!
Long before Hollywood became home to the glitz and glamour of today’s more than $40 billion film industry, it was a buried treasure in the borough of Fort Lee. That’s right, Hollywood had its first home right in this small town abutting the world’s busiest bridge at the turn of the the 20th Century.
While California has its Hollywood and Vine, there will be a special monument in Fort Lee to memorialize its ties to the American film industry at the corner of Main Street and Park Avenue.
The Barrymore Film Center is currently under construction here, a half-mile from the George Washington Bridge across from Hudson Lights – a Manhattan-style strip mall home to The Cyclebar, City Perch and the IPIC. Designed by H3 Architects, the Barrymore Film Center is christened after late actor John Barrymore, the grandfather of celebrated actress Drew Barrymore, who made his stage debut blocks from the site at the then-Buckheister Hotel. There, he starred in his first play, “The Man of the World” directed by his father, Maurice, at the age of 18 in 1900.
During that epoch, years before the film industry moved out west to Hollywood, Fort Lee was America’s first film town. In the early 1900s, the borough was home to over a dozen studios from Goldwyn Distributing to Universal Films and Fox Entertainments and served as the backdrop for the making of various genres spanning gangster pics to westerns and romance. Pioneering moviemakers from Alice Guy-Blaché to African-American director Oscar Micheaux were a crucial part of that history, as were trailblazing actresses Theda Bara, the so-called grandmother of goth and the star of 1917’s silent historical drama Cleopatra. Others included American silent film actress Mabel Normand and action/adventure star Pearl White, who starred in the 1914 American melodrama The Perils of Pauline, in addition to movie serials.
“Basically, that’s where the concept of the cliffhanger started, in Fort Lee,” explained Fort Lee Film Commission executive director Tom Meyers. “She would always be at the edge of the cliff and you’d have to — after every segment — wait till the next week to see if she survived. And then you’d pay another nickel to go to see the movie.”
To celebrate its rich cultural history that included these empowered women in film, The Barrymore Film Center will pay homage to diversity in film-making. At 21,000 square feet, this two-story futuristic structure a part of The Modern luxury apartments will be made of metallic and perforated aluminum panels from a point of the 1920s, Meyers said.
“It’s the first film center that’s being built in the state of New Jersey where the film industry started,” said Fort Lee Film Commission executive director Tom Meyers. “It’s a great thing, not just for Fort Lee, but the state.”
The new film center will house a 260-seat cinema furnished with plush red upholstered chairs and a museum that will display relics and original posters of Hollywood’s humble beginnings in Fort Lee (they’re currently being kept in the Fort Lee Museum.)
“There was a real movement where women were empowered to have their own production companies and they were portrayed onscreen in a very positive light, and most people are unaware of that,” said Meyers.
Films from classic foreign to classic American will be screened in addition to works of emerging filmmakers. Film enthusiasts can expect retrospectives, panel discussions and Q and As with the filmmakers. There will also be summer boot camps for aspiring student filmmakers, a silent film event, and various film festivals centering on diversity.
“It’s going to be a lot of things for a lot of people – young and old,” explained Meyers. “We’re using this sense of history to encourage the next generation of filmmakers. We’re trying to use the history to showcase a lot of film from around the world, and I think it’s going to be fun.”
Manhattan’s Museum of the Moving Image — which works to advance the appreciation for, and the understanding of, various art forms from television to digital media in addition to preserving moving-image related artifacts – will be a consulting partner.
“In the museum, there will be a small section devoted to Fort Lee film history that will switch out and will be static, but the larger exhibit area will be for traveling exhibits from as close to New York City all the way out to California and Hollywood and from around the world,” stated Meyers. “We’re talking to collectors and museums from across the country and overseas about borrowing items.”
The Barrymore Film Center is slated to hold its grand opening at the end of the year, though Meyers expressed an interest in marking the occasion on Feb. 15, 2020 – Barrymore’s birthday. Actress Drew Barrymore will be invited as one of the guests of honor.
The programming on opening night will include an exhibit about the Barrymore family in addition to a showing of a documentary by Sirk Productions, for which Meyers is currently producing, called “The Barrymore’s of Fort Lee: In Search of a Legend.” The documentary will center on Barrymore’s upbringing in Long Island and his stints in Philadelphia, Seton Hall University, and of course, his connection to Fort Lee. Members of the Fort Lee High School drama club will rework Barrymore’s first play “Man of the World,” which will be staged at that time.
The film center will be open every day with exhibits free to the public, with a nominal fee charged for film screenings. Meyers said he hopes the Barrymore Film Center will not only serve as an everlasting legacy of the borough’s revered film history, but an American tourist attraction that will revive the excitement in that part of town.
“What we hope this does is recreate a nightlife that was once very vibrant in Fort Lee, going back to the Riviera Night Club, when you had tons of restaurants,” explained Meyers of the hotspot, which was in operation from 1931 through 1954 on the Palisades north of the George Washington Bridge. “This was one of the biggest night clubs in America. It was as big, if not bigger, than the Copacabana in New York.”
Meyers says the Riviera had a retractable roof for dancing under the stars, their own showgirls, in addition to staging performances from big stars like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, who made his comeback there.
“We hope that the cinema recreates the great restaurants Fort Lee once had, and can have again,” said Meyers. “There’s a new restaurant [Ventanas] under construction between [The Modern]. I think it’s going to be a Cuban fusion with an outdoor area for cocktails and alfresco dining. It could be a great place for after-parties for us.”
To stay up to date on the opening of The Barrymore Film Center, or to inquire about online memberships, visit barrymorefilmcenter.com.
By Lianna Albrizio