Fort Lee: A Mecca for The Arts
By Natalie Chapé
Executive Director, Business District Alliance of Fort Lee
March 6, 2023
“Lights, camera, action!” That’s a phrase many people typically associate with Hollywood, where the United States film industry has largely been based. But did you know New Jersey is the birthplace of cinematography? The Garden State helped shape the origins of the nation’s motion picture industry when Thomas Edison constructed the world’s first film production studio in West Orange. In the 1910’s Fort Lee was considered the first American film town, with several studios operating within blocks from one another, producing thousands of silent films. Major production companies like Paramount, Universal, and Fox called Fort Lee home. Les Miserables, a Fox Studio production, featured the largest outdoor set ever built in Fort Lee. This studio also produced the epic Tale of Two Cities in 1917. The boom of the film industry employed a large portion of the local population, creating opportunities for immigrants, artists, minorities, and entrepreneurs seeking the American dream.
One of the most famous flicks produced in Fort Lee was Within our Gates by African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, which portrays the racial situation in the United States during the early twentieth-century Jim Crow era. Fort Lee served as a quintessential location for filmmaking due to its proximity to New York City, its wealth of diversity, a charming Main Street, the Palisades cliffs – a perfect backdrop for an adventure film – and, of course, the Hudson River, which could be portrayed to look like a seaside harbor. The 1911 drama Her Awakening features Fort Lee’s First National Bank building. Monument Park in downtown Fort Lee served as the backdrop for D.W. Griffith’s The Cord of Life and Harley Knowles’ The Volunteer.
Present day Fort Lee has maintained its reputation as a mecca for the arts. When you stroll downtown Fort Lee, you will notice beautiful streetscapes spanning Main Street, Palisades Avenue, and Lemoine Avenue. In the summer of 2022, the Fort Lee Business District Alliance completed the first phase of its mural project, creating a unique experience for those visiting and living in Fort Lee. The mural artists, some of whom have worked worldwide, drew inspiration from childhood memories, animals, the environment, and nostalgia into their creations. The murals help bring creativity and cultural awareness to the area and enhance Fort Lee’s brand promise of providing a vibrant, cosmopolitan community. Plans are underway this year to continue the mural program.
One of the most monumental contributions to Fort Lee’s Art Scene is the recent opening of the historic Barrymore Film Center. The museum and 267-seat repertory film theater pay tribute to Fort Lee as a pioneering birthplace of the movie industry. The theater gets its name from the Barrymore family, which is considered America’s most prominent theatrical family. Coytesville resident, Maurice Barrymore, was the patriarch of the group and a matinee idol. He is also the great-grandfather of modern-day star Drew Barrymore. Other members of the family include Maurice’s children Ethel, Lionel, and John, who all appeared in the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress.
The groundbreaking for the Barrymore Film Center took place in 2019, however, it opened in October 2022 due to pandemic-related construction delays. The $16 million film center has a grand, state-of-the-art auditorium with Art Deco details. Equipped with three projectors, the Barrymore Film Center can screen in 4K digital, perfect for modern-day blockbusters, but also features 35mm and 70mm projectors to accommodate vintage films.
The film center regularly holds major film retrospectives, annual silent film events, film festivals, foreign film screenings, museum exhibits, industry insider events, and special gatherings. The Center’s free museum off the main entrance is dedicated to Fort Lee’s historic film studios, including the Champion Film Company, a forerunner of Universal, as well as Independent Moving Pictures Company, Peerless Studios, Goldwyn Picture Corporation, and several others.
Recently, the Barrymore Film Center presented showings of iconic motion pictures such as Moonstruck, Catch Me If You Can, and The Color Purple. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $12 for children under 10, and $9 for members. To view the Barrymore Film Center’s schedule of upcoming films, visit barrymorefilmcenter.com.
Whether you are a first-time visitor to Fort Lee or a long-time resident, you can’t help but appreciate the vibrant and cultural art scene the borough has to offer. You can gain inspiration by checking out the dynamic new murals downtown or experience a blast from the past by visiting the Barrymore Film Center to learn about the rich history that Fort Lee played in the early days of filmmaking.
The Business District Alliance of Fort Lee (BDA) is a non-profit organization that, in partnership with the Borough of Fort Lee, works to revitalize and promote the Main Street Shopping Corridor. Our objective is to create an environment where people will shop and live and retailers can grow and thrive, by creating a vital community experience for all, visitors and residents alike. For additional information about the BDA, please visit BeFortLee.com, call 201.585.6099, or email email@example.com. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.