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Fort Lee

Fort Lee

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Fort Lee

The Film Town

By Richard Koszarski

Publication date: 2004
Total pages: vi + 378
ISBN: 0 86196 652 X
Price: £ 17.50


Over the next ten years, motion pictures came to dominate every aspect of life in this suburban New Jersey community. During the nickelodeon era, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett would ferry entire acting companies across the Hudson to pose against the Palisades. But as films became longer and more elaborate, permanent studios were occupied by men like Selznick, Goldwyn and Fox. Pearl White still clung from the cliffs, but Theda Bara, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Douglas Fairbanks now worked in the rows of great greenhouse studios that had sprung up across Fort Lee and the neighboring communities. Tax revenues from studios and laboratories swelled municipal coffers, and even the ferryboats were renamed after Mabel Normand and Mae Marsh.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Fort Lee, the film town, once hailed as the birthplace of the American motion picture industry, was now the industry’s official ghost town. Stages once filled to capacity by Paramount and Universal were leased by independent producers or used as paint shops by scenic artists from Broadway. Most of Fort Lee’s film history eventually burned away, one studio at a time.

But why did the “moving picture men” establish themselves so firmly in Fort Lee in the first place? And what made them change their minds? In Fort Lee: The Film Town, Film Richard Koszarski recreates the rise and fall of Fort Lee filmmaking in a remarkable collage of period news accounts, memoirs, municipal records, previously unpublished memos and correspondence, and dozens of rare posters and photographs – not just film history, but a unique account of what happened to one New Jersey town hopelessly enthralled by the movies.


The fields and woods around historic Fort Lee, just across the Hudson, are the scene nowadays of a continuous performance of extremely animated, open-air theatricals. On almost any fine day one may enjoy historic pageants, sham battles, tragedies, comedies, and the bill is changed daily. Few motorists are attracted to this region and they, with the native population, form the only audience. The manager of these one-night, or rather, one-day, stands is the moving picture man …’– New York Times, 19 December 1909


Richard Koszarski is a member of the Fort Lee Film Commission and Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University. His books include An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Film and Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim. He is the 1991 recipient of the Prix Jean Mitry for his contributions to silent film scholarship.

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