Distinguish Jacksonville: The Silent Film Industry

February 27, 2007 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

For nearly 20 years, Jacksonville was the perfect film location for the movie industry. Several production companies, including Kalem, Selig, Edison, Lubin, Vim, King Bee, Encore, and Eagle operated studios locally. Local politics forced the industry to relocate out west, turning a sleepy town called Hollywood into the new modern film capital of the United States. Today we pay homage to another unique and often forgotten part of Jacksonville’s history: The Silent Film Industry.



Fresh in the midst of a building boom, resulting from the destruction of the Great Fire of 1901, the city quickly became the home to a new modern industry. Beginning around 1907, and largely because of the city's climate, the region became the movie industry's winter filming capital, outside of New York, which is where the industry was then headquartered.

Kalem Studios, out of New York, became the first company to open a permanent studio in the Tallyrand area of Jacksonville in 1908. By doing so, it became the first studio to film year-round, due to the First Coast's mild climate. This studio made the first adaptation of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. After Kalem's success, many more followed due to the region's natural setting and it's bustling downtown area, which offered vibrant crowds, cooperative civic leaders, cheap real estate, inexpensive labor, and readily available talent.

Famed Comedian Oliver Hardy, who started as a ticket taker, became the city's most famous film star during this era.

By 1916, Jacksonville boasted more than 30 movie studios. One of those studios, The "Metro" in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) began in a small studio alongside the St. Johns River, where Metropolitan Park now stands. In 1917, "The Gulf Between", the motion picture industry's first Technicolor movie, was filmed in Jacksonville.

While Jacksonville and the movie industry seemed to be a great match for each other, the relationship would not last. Many residents didn't like the industry's reckless ways, such as using fire alarms to get people out of buildings for crowd scenes, and considered the films vulgar. In 1916, incumbent J.E.T. Bowden lost the election to an anti-movie candidate named John Martin. By 1920, most movie companies fled Jacksonville for a new place of business called Hollywood, and the rest is history.




Norman Studios, in Arlington, is said to be the only silent film facility still intact. The five-building complex was constructed as Eagle Studios in 1916. By 1920, the property had fallen under the ownership of Richard Norman. Between 1920 and 1928, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company produced eight unique "race" films. Although Norman was white, his films countered common racial stereotypes with all-black casts and crews in romance, action and adventure stories, such as "The Bull-Dogger, with rodeo star Bill Pickett.




Today, the complex stands in disrepair. However, help may be on the way. In 2002, the City of Jacksonville bought the property for $260,000. Future plans include restoring the block full complex to contain a silent film museum and community center. While this is a far cry from what could have been, if the city hadn't chased this multi-billion dollar industry off 90 years ago, it is a major departure from the demolition first attitude leaders and local visionaries have had for the downtown core over the last 50 years.

The main production building faces Arlington Road. During it's silent film making days, it was where Norman developed and screened his films and where wife Gloria Norman held dance classes following the filmmaker's death.


This restored building once housed the complex's stage. Today, it’s owned by the Circle of Faith Ministries. The city hopes to purchase this property at some point in the future.


Other structures still standing include a generator shed, a prop storage shed and a small cottage, where actors changed costumes.