Pearl White in The House of Hate, filmed in 1918 in Fort Lee.
Sad to say, fewer people are going into a dark theater to watch movies as more people channel surf the TV or even cut the cable and pull up an on-demand film through Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.
And with it, a part of our state’s history may be disappearing too. The film industry started here. We were the movie capital of the world, and it started in West Orange. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was an employee in Thomas Edison's Orange laboratory, and it was Mr. Dickson who invented a camera and projector called a Kinetograph. A peephole on top of the large cabinet, called a Kinetoscope, allowed a viewer to look at moving pictures.
By 1892, Dickson and Edison had finished versions of the products. They used flexible 35-mm film from the Eastman Company (Kodak) to take the pictures.
Edison and his assistants then needed to produce things to show. In December 1892, the Kinetographic Theater, opened in West Orange. Only sunlight was strong enough to allow images to be seen on movie film at that time, so the roof of the studio opened to let in sunlight. Inside was a stage, barely 12 square feet.
Movies Move Out to the World
The following year, Edison demonstrated the Kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. To his joy, the public loved it. The first Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York, followed by similar openings all over the country.
Quickly, some 75 films were made, each lasting about 20 seconds. They filmed many different people and actions , including vaudeville acts, plays, magic tricks, and dancing. The “stars” were Buffalo Bill, gunslinger Annie Oakley, and strongman Eugene Sandow.
Then came The Great Train Robbery that viewers could see on a screen instead of a peephole. The 14 scenes were shot on location in and around Patterson. (You can see this wonderful 116-year-old drama online through the Library of Congress at https://www.loc.gov/item/00694220.)
Stars Are Born
In addition to Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, moving pictures created “stars.” People like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pearl White and Harold Lloyd built their reputations in New Jersey and called Fort Lee home. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, the Keystone Cops and Rudolph Valentino could be seen strolling through town.
In 1907, Edison’s company came to Fort Lee to shoot “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” featuring D.W. Griffith in his first starring role. The cliffs of the Palisades and the town’s boulder-strewn woodlands offered a dramatic background for the short silent film. Competing motion picture companies quickly followed suit, finding that Fort Lee’s diverse landscape could double for a range of settings from exotic Algeria to Sherwood Forest. By 1918, 11 major studios were operating in the town, according to the Fort Lee Film Commission.
World War I spelled the decline of movie-making in New Jersey. California’s climate was too inviting, and there was cheap land. New Jersey is still a popular film location, and choosing New Jersey as a place to film a production will result in a 20% tax credit on production material purchased within the state. But. our state still had one more claim to fame coming.
From the Comfort of Your Car
On June 6, 1933, motorists began parking their cars on the grounds of Park-In Theaters, the first-ever drive-in movie theater, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey.
Park-In Theaters (the term “drive-in” came later) was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products. Reportedly, he was inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats. His idea was for an open-air theater where you could watched movies in the comfort of your own automobiles. “He experimented in his driveway with different projection and sound techniques, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinning a screen to some trees, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound,” according to the website, ‘This Day in History.’
Hollingshead was issued a patent in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later. He charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar. The idea caught on, but Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949. The craze had taken over, however, and drive-in theaters began appearing all over the country.
This medium ran its course until the rise in suburban real estate, more walk-in theaters, color TV, and — finally — the introduction of video killed the drive-in concept. As of 2014, there were about 348 drive-ins still operating in the U.S.
We’re Still Creating Movie Stars
You can’t escape the fact that some of the most popular film celebs come from the Garden State. Meryl Streep was a Summit native James Gandolfini hailed from Westwood. John Travolta was an Englewood boy. Then there’s Bruce Willis from Penns Grove, Queen Latifah from Newark, Tom Cruise from Glen Ridge, Kevin Spacey from South Orange. Oh, heck, find your own favorites at the website http://nj1015.com/top-20-famous-actors-from-new-jersey/.