Historic Silent Film Place: Norman Studios

norman-studios-production-processing-bldg-2008Founded in 1920 Jacksonville, Florida’s Norman Studios was among the nation’s first to produce films starring African American characters in positive, non-stereotypical roles, contrasting the derogatory roles offered by the era’s mainstream filmmakers. It was run by Richard E. Norman, a forward-thinking gentleman who sought to help break the racial barriers in his industry. Norman’s five-building studio complex survives in Jacksonville’s historic Old Arlington neighborhood and is the city’s last surviving vestige from the River City’s heyday as a wintertime film production hub.

And recently Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced that the Norman Studios silent film studio property still standing in Jacksonville, Florida’s historic Old Arlington neighborhood is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Originally home to a cigar factory, the complex was operated by Eagle Film Studios through the 1910s, when Jacksonville flourished as the nation’s top wintertime film production hub. In 1917, John W. Martin beat film-friendly incumbent Mayor Jet Bowden for the city’s top seat, running on an anti-film campaign driven by a perception that the industry was fraught with rowdiness and loose morals. Most of 30-plus production companies left town, drawn by the lure of Los Angeles.

At the time, Norman was newly married to a gorgeous redhead named Gloria and in 1921, returned to his hometown of Jacksonville and purchased the Arlington property from the bankrupt Eagle Film Studios. There, he spent the next decade making his groundbreaking movies that shattered the racial barrier for African American actors and directors. He also invented a system for synching moving images with sound in the race to create economically viable talkies.

Of the Norman films, only one is known to survive in full. Shot on the Arlington property and in Mayport, The Flying Ace is a ground-breaking aviation film set during World War I. Inspired by Bessie Coleman, America’s first black female stunt pilot, this 1926 in turn inspired the next generation of African American aviators, many of whom became Tuskegee Airmen.

Over the decades, the Norman property also was home to Gloria Norman’s dance school, operating through the early 1970s. After Richard Norman’s death, Gloria remained for several years, selling the property in 1976. In 2002, the City of Jacksonville purchased four of the five buildings and completed an exterior renovation in 2007. Today, the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum, a nonprofit organization, manages the property with the aim to complete interior renovations and reopen the property as a film learning and tourism center.

Shot in Jacksonville in 1919, The Love Bug is a slapstick comedy centering on two romantic rivals. Twice-widowed Mrs. Margerine Scrubb (played by Maud Johnson) and the never-married Miss Cuspidora Lee (Maud Frisbie) are charmed, armed and prepared to fight for the affections of bachelor Quintus Weefalls (Robert Stewart). The film was promoted as featuring a 425-pound woman (Johnson) and a set of triplets.

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