|Location||Arlington, Jacksonville, Florida, United States|
Norman Film Studios
Restored facility in Jacksonville
|NRHP reference #||14001084, 16000857|
|Added to NRHP||December 29, 2014|
|Designated NHL||October 31, 2016|
Norman Studios was an American film studio in Jacksonville, Florida. Founded by Richard Edward Norman, the studio produced silent films featuring all-African-American casts from 1920 to 1928. The only surviving studio from the period of early filmmaking in Jacksonville, its facilities are now the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum.
One of the most prominent studios creating films for black audiences in the silent era, Norman's films featured all-black casts with protagonists in positive roles. During its run it produced eight feature length films and numerous shorts; its only surviving film, The Flying Ace, has been restored by the Library of Congress. The studio transitioned to distribution and promotion after the rise of talking pictures made its technology obsolete, and eventually closed. In the 21st century, the studio's facilities were restored and re-purposed as a museum.
During the early 20th century, the emerging film industry that was traditionally located in New York built a new home in Northeast Florida so they could continue filming during the winter. Jacksonville, home to over thirty silent film studios from 1908 - 1922, became known as the "Winter Film Capital of the World". Eagle Film Studios, which would later become Norman Studios, was built in 1916. The five buildings composing the studio would go bankrupt in the following years.
Born in Middleburg, Florida in 1891, Richard Edward Norman started his career in the Midwest by making movies for white audiences in the 1910s. His early work was a series of "home talent" films, in which he would travel to various towns with stock footage and a basic script; after recruiting local celebrities for minor roles, they would film a small portion of footage (approximately 200 feet of new material) over the course 40 of a few days. These films included The Wrecker and Sleepy Sam the Sleuth, and after they were processed at Norman's laboratory in Chicago, they would be screened and any funds raised would be split between Norman and the town. This led to his filming other events and productions throughout the Midwest, including the play "Pro Patria" at the University of Illinois--Urbana Chamapign. His first silent film with an all black cast was The Green-Eyed Monster (1919), adapted from his earlier home talent film The Wrecker. Set in the railroad industry, this expanded film included a dramatic story of greed and jealousy, and it had a comedic subplot, which drew on many early racial stereotypes. This initial version of the film received widely mixed reviews. Norman decided to split the film into a drama and a comedy, Green-Eyed Monster and Love Bug, respectively, and the films did significantly better as Norman could market them more accurately. Norman moved to Jacksonville during the height of the film industry and bought the studio in 1920 at the age of 29. It may be that Norman occupied the studios before purchasing them. The success of the film brought attention to the studio from other African-American actors hoping to star in later films.
During the time, films with an African-American cast and shown specifically to African-American audiences were known as race films. Norman Studios produced several of these films during the 1920s. Richard Norman's reason to produce race films was not solely a business decision as some would believe. Although the studio was indeed filling a niche, Norman was also motivated by the state of race relations at the time. The untapped black filmgoer market and the plethora of talented performers unable to get work in mainstream films lead to the production of race films by Norman Studios.
Later films produced by Norman Studios include: Green-Eyed Monster (1919), a railroad drama; The Love Bug (1919), a comedy; The Bull-Dogger (1921), a western; The Crimson Skull (1922), another western; Regeneration (1923), an action adventure set on an island after a shipwreck; The Flying Ace (1926), Norman's most famous film; and Black Gold (1928), a drama set around the oil business.
The Bull-Dogger was Norman's first Western film. Like many of his contemporaries, including Oscar Micheaux, Norman saw the West as the next film frontier. This was especially important for films featuring black actors, as the West was seen as a land of opportunity free from segregation and oppression. Shot in Boley, Oklahoma (a town billed as an exclusively black town), The Bull Dogger features cowboy Bill Picket, Anita Bush, and Norman's favorite one-legged actor, Steve "Peg" Reynolds. Although there is a small plot, the story line is secondary to the action and adventure of the black cowboys.
Although Norman had planned to film three Westerns, he only produced two. The Crimson Skull was filmed at the same time as The Bull Dogger, and again features Pickett, Bush, and Peg. Edited, produced, and released in 1922, The Crimson Skull tells the thrilling story of a town beset by bandits, led by the infamous 'Skull' (an actor in a skeleton costume). Bob, the ranch hand, must rescue the ranch owner's daughter, Anita (played by Bush), and Peg from the clutches of the outlaws. After Bob infiltrates the gang to free them both, he must stand trail via "The Crimson Skull," wherein dripping blood reveals his fate. The bandits are captured and Bob is rewarded with both a financial reward and the hand of Anita.
For his next exciting tale, Norman turned to the seas and created Regeneration. Violet Daniels (Stella Mayo) is the orphaned, only child of a widowed sea captain. Jack Roper (M.C. Maxwell), the owner of the Anna Belle fishing schooner and first mate to Violet's father, sets sail with Violet, following a mysterious map for their course. After the pair are forced from the ship and stranded on an island, which they name 'Regeneration,' the pair live out a Robinson Crusoe-esque story, where they best their enemy, find buried treasure, and are safely rescued.
This film is notable, as it was an instant hit that benefited from Norman's unique promotional methods. In particular, Norman encouraged theaters to fill their lobbies with sand to draw potential customers in.
The only film from Norman Studios to be restored and kept in the Library of Congress, The Flying Ace was dubbed "the greatest airplane thriller ever filmed." It was filmed entirely on the ground, but used camera tricks to imply movement and altitude for the stationary airplanes. The film was inspired by aviators like Bessie Coleman who sent a letter to Norman Studios expressing a wish to create a film based on her life.
The plot of the film revolves around a former World War I fighter pilot returning home to his previous job of a railroad company detective. Once back, he has to solve a case involving stolen money and a missing employee in order to catch the thieves. The film is the only one from the period known to have survived. The Library of Congress keeps a copy of the film as it is deemed culturally significant. Nowadays, The Flying Ace is screened occasionally across the nation.
This film is notable for several reasons, including the prop plane Norman created, the creative use of the camera to create the thrilling upside down sequences, and the fact that at the time this film was created, African Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots in the United States armed forces.
For Norman's last feature film, he created a film about oil drilling in the West an based on the story of John Crisp, a black leaseholder who found oil on his Oklahoma property. In the film, Mart Ashton, a rancher, looks to invest in oil wells on his property. His driller secretly conspires with the Ohio Company to take over his well. When Ashton is framed for robbery and thrown into jail, his foreman, Ace, and the bank president's daughter, Alice, team up with Peg to exonerate Ashton. When they are successful, Ace and Alice start their future together.
Norman Studios' run as a producer of race films came to a close due to a couple of factors. One such factor was the advent of talking films. Richard Norman invested and developed a system to sync audio to the moving images. Units were sold to theaters in the nation, but unfortunately a new method of putting sound-on-film debuted making Norman's system obsolete.
Filmmakers were already steadily making an exodus to southern California which emerged as a new hub for films. In 1917, John W. Martin was elected mayor of Jacksonville on an anti-film campaign intending to curb the wild excesses of the film industry. Filmmakers did not help their cause by filming car chases on the streets on Sundays, pulling alarms to film fire trucks, or accidentally inciting riots. By the 1930s, the film industry had moved on from Jacksonville while Norman Studios became a distributor of films and then Richard Norman began exhibiting films in the 1940s.
Gloria Norman, the wife of Richard Norman, began teaching dance in 1935 on the second floor of the main production and film printing building. Richard, who was still in the film business by producing industrial films for the Pure Oil Co. and distributing Joe Louis fight films, felt the sounds of dancing were too loud. A dance floor was built in the set building which is now used as the site for the Circle of Faith Ministries and is the sole building of the original five not owned by Jacksonville currently.
Only when Ann Burt, a local resident, discovered that the dilapidated buildings were actually an important movie studio in another time were there efforts to make the former site of Norman Studios into a museum. As a member of the Old Arlington Inc, an Arlington area preservationist group, Burt was able to bring together others to save the site.
Three years after the movement began, the city of Jacksonville bought four of the original five buildings for $260,000 in April 2002. The structures acquired were the main production and processing building, a small cottage for costume changes, a storage shed, and a building that holds the original power generators for the cameras and lights. It was not until February 2004 that the city received a grant from the state of Florida to help preserve and restore the aging complex. Their $140,000 grant was used for emergency roofing, security lighting, a security system, and the largest chunk was paid to Kenneth Smith Architects to redesign the complex into its future life as the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum.
Restoration of the exterior of the property completed in about 2008, while more fundraising has been done to try to purchase the fifth building from the Circle of Faith Ministries.
Currently, Jacksonville is beginning the process to transfer the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum to the National Park Service. The move will allow the federal government to pay for the preservation and restoration of the studio as well as the operation of the buildings. Transferring the buildings to the National Park Service will help refurbish the interior of the buildings which the city and the museum group have been unable to afford.