Credit: Courtesy of Richard Koszarski
Influential film industry figures,
including Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett,
visit the newly constructed Willat
states on Main Street, Fort Lee, 1914.
Many New Jersey residents may not realize that the film industry was just as vibrant here in the early 20th century as it was in Hollywood. When Richard Koszarski, an associate professor of English and cinema studies in New Brunswick/Piscataway, began research on the local film industry in 2000, he had no idea he would collect enough information to publish a 362-page book about Fort Lee’s past as a bustling film center.
In “Fort Lee: The Film Town” (John Libbey Publishing 2004) Koszarski, through his extensive research, documents how this small New Jersey town, now at the entranceway to the George Washington Bridge, had a predominant role in the early days of film. The book takes the form of an annotated album of primary documents, ranging from local real estate tax and census records to an excerpt from the actress Pearl White’s autobiography.
“I felt that these texts were more than just collections of data, but artifacts that deserved to be presented and understood on their own terms,” says Koszarski who spent 20 years as a curator for the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. “A film warehouse fire would be little more than a footnote in most histories, but reading the coverage in the local newspaper gives us a much better understanding of the impact all this had on the community.
Filmmakers discovered just how ideal Fort Lee was when they began searching for shoot locations beyond indoor studios. Fort Lee was already a getaway from Manhattan for many New Yorkers; it also had a downtown that could pass as an urban center and numerous hotels, which served as a useful backdrop for filmmakers.
Film crews and actors soon found travel from the city to Fort Lee burdensome, so studios, such as Paramount and Fox, opened up shop in the town. Over the course of a decade, this sleepy town – known for the Fort’s place in the Revolutionary War – transformed itself into a hub for movie-making and provided hundreds of jobs through studios, production labs and storage facilities.
In another decade, however, Fort Lee would become a ghost town. Koszarski, who has taught at Rutgers since 1998, explained that the demise of film making in Fort Lee was mainly political. In 1908, the residents of the town had enjoyed the convenience of being close to New York with the tranquility of a quiet community. A mere decade later, battle scenes, horses running through the neighborhood and other movie-making mayhem had taken over.
Debates waged about whether to continue to support the film industry and, as the years went on, the borough made it difficult for movie producers to continue their work. That, coupled with World War I and the Great Depression, made the “bubble burst” in Fort Lee, Koszarki says. The town was one of the few in New Jersey to claim bankruptcy during the 1930s, a direct result of losing its major source of revenue and employment: the film industry, which had packed up and moved to California. “During the decades, abandoned studios – large, derelict greenhouse structures, not worth anyone’s while to tear down – were still standing, serving only as eyesores for the surrounding community,” Koszarski says. Eventually the buildings were knocked down and replaced with new structures.
The old Champion studio on a side street in the Coytesville section of town is one of the few buildings from the film era that remains standing in Fort Lee today. Koszarski’s book, with its many rare posters, pictures, municipal records and previously unpublished memos and correspondences, brings to life the decade that left an immense impact on the small town and the early days of the motion picture industry. Although the town’s physical structures from that period have long since been paved over, Koszarski says, “It is still a place encrusted with legend.”