The upcoming Academy Awards remind me that movies are a true dilettante's delight. Where else is there such variety as in the movies. I've been a fan since elementary school when my family went to the drive-in theater several times every week. Then television came along. As an adult, I discovered that Jacksonville, FL my home residence was once a popular and exciting movie filming locale. Conservative Jacksonville, FL a movie capital? Jacksonville producing more films than Los Angeles? Not possible, you say, but this was the case during the silent film era.
By 1916, movie making was Jacksonville's most important business. Between 1901 and 1921, more than 300 feature films were shot in and around the area. The very first Technicolor feature film,"The Gulf Between," was made in Jacksonville.
The Kalem Studio, looking for a place to film away from the wintry blasts of New York, was the first to arrive about 1908, and by 1914 had built the world's largest outdoor stage and a glass-roofed studio with a $20,000 lighting system. The studio's, "A Florida Feud," made in 1909 in Jacksonville was the first film shot in Florida. Kalem's films were very popular at the box office. After these successes, many other studios arrived in Jacksonville, among those named are the Edison Company, King Bee Film Company, Vim Comedy Company, Lubin Studios.
The actress/script writer/ producer/critic, Gene Gauntier, who worked for Kalem Studios, has left wonderful descriptions of early filmmaking in Jacksonville in her autobiography, "Blazing the Trail: The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier" as they appeared in serialized versions in 1928-1929, Woman's Home Companion.Jacksonville and Florida history buffs as well as film buffs will greatly enjoy her accounts. The cast and crew of Kalem were housed in the Roseland, a big hotel on the St. John's River in Fairfield about fifteen minutes by trolley from Jacksonville. Rooms were also rented at the same time to the casts of variety acts playing at the Ostrich Farm, a block away on Talleyrand Avenue.
Most of the filming was done directly across the St. John's River from Fairfield at Strawberry Creek. The crew reached it by row boat. She describes the Jacksonville area as a "moving-picture paradise":
"There were wonderful stretches of sand at Pablo and Manhattan Beach, facing the open sea, uninhabited and desolate, with their scrubby palmettos, which served as setting for many desert island scenes. There were fishing villages, primitive as even a picture company could wish, quaint old-time Florida houses with their 'galleries' of white Colonial columns, orange and grapefruit groves, pear and peach orchards which gave forth lovely scents when in full bloom; formal gardens and Spanish patios; the gorgeous Ponce de Leon hotel and gardens, and the picturesque old fort in St. Augustine."
She describes life at the Roseland and in Jacksonville as exciting and lively.
What happened to the movie industry in Jacksonville? Many factors caused its demise. The local citizens did not approve of the free lifestyle of the movie people and the fact that they filmed on Sunday. Some of the movie companies were fly-by-night leaving stacks of unpaid bills when they hastily departed. Politics changed and those supporting the studios were not re-elected. Then World War I slowed the production of raw film to a trickle, and the influenza epidemic of 1918 closed theaters. When the dust cleared, the movie industry had moved to Hollywood.
The movie industry, however, has not entirely forgotten Jacksonville. Jacksonville has recently provided the background for many feature films and television shows. All those wonderful locales described by Gauntier are still excellent for filming. The City of Jacksonville Film and Television Office gives all the current information about making films in Jacksonville and Jacksonville film history.
The Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee has movies in Florida memorabilia: props, posters, lobby cards, advertising.