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Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville, Florida was once known as “The Harlem of the South” referring to the African-American renaissance going on in Harlem, New York mostly in the 1920s and 30s. A time of intellectual, social, and artistic explosion.

That creative expression was also experienced on a smaller level in the LaVilla area in what’s now part of downtown Jacksonville. There were clubs, restaurants, and movie theaters for blacks in the “separate but equal” era of racial segregation.  The Ritz Theatre and Museum in the above photo was built in 1999 on the original site of the Ritz movie theater. (The sign is part of the original building.)  A young Ray Charles performed there and author Nora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked around the corner at the Clara White Mission while living with an uncle in the area.

The Ritz Theatre was one of the stops on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where black entertainers traveled between places like the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and Royal Theatre in Chicago. Dates vary, but that period appears to have lasted from the early 1900s though the early 1960s.

There were a couple of movie theaters in the LaVilla area including The Strand Theatre which was built as a vaudeville theater in 1915 and became an African American theatre showing movies. (To read more of the movie history visit The Lost Theatres of LaVilla.)

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The Stand Theatre

According to the book Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking by Barbera Tepa Lupack in 1914 there were only 238 theaters in the United States that catered to exclusively black patrons (compared to “32,000 white houses”). Most of those theaters catering to blacks showed traditional Hollywood movies. But after D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (a movie said to give rise to an almost dead KKK movement) there was a push to make what was known as race films or race movies.

John Noble and Rex Webster made The Birth of a Race as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film premiered in 1918 at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater. It was nowhere as widely seen (or praised) as Birth of a Nation—nor as technically proficient. But it was a response to make films that did not show a stereotypical view of blacks. One that resonates today. And one that was addressed in Robert Townsend’s 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle. (A film I’ll write about later this month since it influenced a young Quentin Tarantino.)

Producer, writer, director Oscar Micheaux (The ExileHarlem After Midnight) is considered the first successful African-American feature filmmaker and I like to point out that his first film (The Homesteader) based on his novel was shot in Gregory, South Dakota and…wait for it—Sioux City, Iowa.

Few of the race films in their entirety survive to this day. But I was able to see one this weekend in Gainesville, Florida. The Cade Museum showed all six reels of The Flying Ace (1926) which was billed on the original poster as featuring an “ALL ALL-COLORED CAST.”

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The film was written and directed by Richard E. Norman. I wonder if he ever crossed paths with Micheaux. Before Norman moved to Florida he lived in Iowa (I swear I don’t make this stuff up) and had a company called Capital City Film Manufacturing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. One of his business cards stated, “Director and Photographer of Successful Photoplays Featuring Home Talent, Des Moines, Iowa.”

Apparently he did advertising, industrial films, and recorded special events throughout the Midwest. He did well enough that he had his own laboratory in Des Moines to develop his film. He also was resourceful enough to make short films with local talent in various cities and then show the films at a local theater and make a lion share of the 60/40 spilt with the movie theater.

But he moved to Jacksonville, Florida and opened Norman Studios and eventually began using his talent to make race films. He also happened to be white. At the screening Sunday his grandson was on hand to introduce the screening of The Flying Ace. 

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Live music accompanied the screening of The Flying Ace.

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The buildings of Norman Studios survive to this day and a non-profit organization has been set-up to preserve its history. If you look at the map below you’ll see that Norman Studios was located less than five miles from where the Ritz Theatre now stands.

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Google Earth screen capture

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And because all things are connected in Quentin Tarantino’s Tarantinoverse parts of The Flying Ace were shot in Mayport just outside of Jacksonville. The Navel Station Mayport is located there and if you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff you may remember that Wolfe starts out discussing Navy life in Mayport/Jacksonville and begins with a gruesome plane crash of Navy jet in the swamp area around Mayport. (See the top right area of the above map.) Here are the first few paragraphs of The Right Stuff:

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The wives of the young jet pilots were calling each other to see if they’d heard what had happened “out there” until an officer would arrive at one of the homes and begin with “I’m sorry….” I don’t recall that part being in the 1983 film version The Right Stuff. 

But perhaps it will be touched on in the Tv mini-series of The Right Stuff that is being set-up at Universal Studios Orlando. (Just a few miles down the road from where I’m writing this post.) One of the producers is Leonardo DiCaprio who plays Rick Dalton in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. 

Here are some other posters from the race film The Green Eyed Monster that Norman produced that perhaps can serve as inspiration to Tarantino’s 10th and final film before he retires from feature filmmaking.

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P.S. Yes, I am aware that other places considered themselves “The Harlem of the South” so no need to write me about that.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Once Upon a Time…between 1890-1927.

The history of movies did not begin in Hollywood, California. After decades of advances in photographic techniques in the nineteenth century an inventor born in Milan, Ohio and raised (and homeschooled) in Port Huron, Michigan developed the motion picture system as we know it today. Thomas Edison (and his assistant  William K.L. Dickson) worked together on the new invention that changed the way people viewed entertainment.

Work took Edison to Canada & Kentucky before he would eventually land in New Jersey and his inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” (Dickson is also known to film historians as the filmmaker Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894.)

Edison held patents on over 900 of his inventions including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and around 1890 the film camera as we know it. Dickson developed the kinetograph, a sprocket camera and George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) developed the 35mm film that would pass through the camera and capture multiple images quickly.  (A technique commonly used for the last 100+ years in the film industry.)

The main problem with the early camera was it was so large it had to be permanently housed in a studio built in West Orange, New Jersey specifically for it. The studio had a track in it that allowed them to rotate camera positions to capture light coming from an opening in a room.

It’s important to look back at the early developments in film history to how Hollywood became Hollywood as we know it and why recent inventions have shifted the direction for the future of the film industry.

In the years leading up to 1900 the popularity of film grew rapidly. First using machines that allowed people to individually watch short films and evolving to nickelodeons in 1905 that projected the film images in storefronts that allowed small groups of people to watch the same film together. Within two years there were close to 4,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S.

New films had to be made quickly as audiences grew. And film moved from showing vaudeville acts such as juggling to telling stories. These films were usually less than ten minutes in length and made in a couple days. In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made the 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery which was seen as groundbreaking for its use of indoor/outdoor shots and use of cross cutting.  The film toured the country for years.

This all set the stage for a stage actor and playwright named D.W. Griffith in 1908 to make the film The Adventures of Dollie. Films began to grow in length as well as artistic merdits—as well becoming more economically viable.

Griffith changed the direction of the film industry in 1915 with the release of the longest and most expensive film ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The $100,000 film made $50 million dollars at the box office.

Distribution rights and patent infringements all played a roll in this emerging and profitable new industry.  New Jersey, New York (as well as Chicago and Jacksonville) all played a roll in the early development of movies. The New York area and Chicago were a natural start because that’s where the stage talent was located and Jacksonville for its warmer weather and sunshine. But there would be a shift in the film industry. (A common theme we’ll see.)

The industry eventually landed in southern California because of its combination of sunshine, warm weather and the diversity of nearby locations such as mountains, deserts, oceans, cities, open ranch land—and cheap labor. Remember places like New York and Chicago had a long established theater and vaudeville companies that were very popular. Experienced talent does not come cheap. (But producers were just as interested in producing cost efficient films as producers today. So a new industry was born on the backs of those with little or no experience in the new industry. Sound familiar?)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica by 1915 there were 15,000 people working in the film industry and 60% was located in southern California. During this time films were all black and white and silent. The format worked well for the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the beauty and talent of Mary Pickford.

But that would all change as well in 1927 as talkies came on the scene as we’ll learn in Once Upon a Time… (part 3).


Scott W. Smith

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