Nearly a century after Richard Norman (a white man) blazed a trail making black silent films, Norman Studios is ready for its close-up


It’s February 1921, and Richard Norman is on the road again. Driving the dusty backroads of the Deep South was second nature to him by this point, paths well worn in a career that had already taken him across half the country. Streets were not nearly as smooth as they are today, but still he drove carefully, for he carried precious cargo in the back: Fresh prints of The Green-Eyed Monster, his first film as the head of his own studio. As a white man making silent films with an all-black cast, ostensibly for an all-black audience, there was no massive studio infrastructure to fall back on, so he crafted his own distribution and profit-sharing deals with individual theaters, meticulously, one-by-one.

He sealed these deals with a handshake as he personally handed prints to theater owners, in the process building relationships that would prove crucial as he fought to survive amid the chaos that was the film industry in those years. Norman (1891-1960) was about halfway through the journey of his life at this point, a life that would transform American cinema and help define the city we live in today. He started his studio at age 29, having spent the previous decade traversing the nation as a freelance film producer and camera operator. Along the way, he learned every aspect of the business, from writing to directing to financing to distribution, all key pieces of a puzzle he finally assembled just in time to help document what we know today as “The Jazz Age.”

Fast-forward to 2018. It’s been 90 years since Norman’s dream was deferred, and Devan Stuart Lesley is pursuing a dream of her own: Calling attention to the Normans and what they helped do for the city. She is part of an all-volunteer staff that’s spent much of this 21st century trying to reclaim, reinvent and reinvigorate these remnants of the century before, efforts that have gained much traction in recent years, thanks to a new generation of scholars and historians.

The main portion of Norman Studios sits in a two-story, wood-frame building at 6337 Arlington Rd., where it intersects with Westdale Drive. The complex was built in 1916, when the city’s film industry was at its commercial peak. “I don’t think it ever really got started,” says Lesley of its original incarnation as a cigar factory. “Eagle Film City bought this, and bought the other four buildings. Their plan was to make this an area where the actors and the crew would all live—a literal filmmaking city.

“They went out of business around 1920, and Mr. Norman bought it. He’d already started his career, but he was traveling, so he decided to come home. He found a beautiful young redhead … .”

Isn’t that always the way these stories go?

The story really begins with an unknown executive at Kalem Studios, who was first to spread the word about Jacksonville’s charms. “[He] comes off the train at Prime Osborn, and he sees this ultra-modern, gleaming downtown,” says Lesley. “The reason for that is the Great Fire in 1901 destroyed the entire downtown core.

“We had to rebuild, and architects from all over the country came here, so for the next 10 to 20 years, Jacksonville was the most modern downtown in the country—but we still had the beaches and the country, pasturelands. We had the swamps, which could double for the Nile, and close by, we had St. Augustine, which Mr. Flagler had already been building up as a playground for the rich and famous, plus we had those centuries-old buildings there. The Astors and Carnegies and those guys were hanging out at Jekyll Island, so it was just a happening place to be.”

Northeast Florida was, in short, a filmmaker’s dream location, a temperate climate with lots of land and a wide variety of settings to serve as backdrops for almost any kind of production, as well as a population that was eager to be part of the next wave of American entertainment. “[He] sent word back to New York, and said ‘I think we’ve found our winter filmmaking home.” This was 1908.

“The film industry really started in New York, New Jersey, Chicago,” she says. “They had a lot of problems with filming outside year-round. The cold weather would cause a static look, and sometimes the film stock would just freeze together. They could shoot inside, but the problem was that the lights they used were incredibly volatile, so the studios would have a lot of fires.” Thus, moving operations to Florida was not only ideal for aesthetics, but also about personal safety and financial freedom.

In her 2013 book, Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking, Barbara Tepa Lupack notes that Jacksonville had more film studios than Los Angeles at one point. “At our height, we had a little more than 30 studios,” says Lesley. “Some of them were the small, fly-by-night studios that didn’t last long, but some of them were the beginnings of MGM, Paramount and the studios that are the big boys today. At some point during that next 10 to 20 years, all the big players were here” including original matinee idol Rudolph Valentino, early cinematic sex symbol Theda Bara and comedic great Oliver Hardy.

When Norman, born in Middleburg, returned to Jacksonville to launch his own film studio, he knew that success in the highly competitive silent-film market of the 1920s would require thinking outside the box. He immediately recognized that Black America was a massive and largely untapped market; there were not a lot of films catering to that audience, and the “race films” that did exist then were, in most cases, little more than stylized minstrel acts with shoddy production values and no social uplift worth mentioning. By infusing his films with a sense of dignity, he showcased the pride of an ascendant black culture at the absolute perfect time in history.

Black migration to the North was booming, and the industrial jobs they found bankrolled rapid advances in social and cultural progress. The Harlem Renaissance was just beginning, and Duke Ellington would soon move his band there from Washington, followed quickly by an extended booking at the Cotton Club that got the Swing Era rolling. Meanwhile, Louis Armstrong had joined King Oliver in Chicago, and had begun spreading the Storyville style to teenagers from the suburbs, who would end up being the first generation of white jazz stars, changing America forever.

This was the context in which Richard Norman operated. He was a businessman first, but he was firmly aware of the social implications of his work. By coupling the aspirational qualities of the material with the superior aesthetics available by shooting in Northeast Florida, he was able to craft a product that was not only superior within the “race film” genre, but which also had broad appeal to mainstream white audiences nationwide. For a decade, his formula worked like alchemy, for a brief time making Norman one of the most influential men in all of cinema, and Jacksonville briefly a real force in American culture.

Norman Studios released its eighth and final film, Black Gold, on the Fourth of July, 1928. The movie was shot the year before in Tatums, Oklahoma, founded by Lee Tatums and his wife Rose in 1895. The population was listed at 151 in the 2010 census, and apparently it peaked at 281 in 1980. This all-black town sits just two counties away from Texas, which was an issue at certain points in the past. It was only 15 months later that the 1929 stock market crash unleashed economic shock waves that leveled whole cities faster than Godzilla and The Avengers combined.

The people of Oklahoma suffered worse than folks in most states, and its black community saw two generations of hard-earned wealth and social capital obviated, along with what little civil rights they enjoyed at the time. They were already traumatized and terrified by the complete obliteration of “Black Wall Street,” which killed between 39 and 800 black folks in and around the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa in 1921, an act of stylized evil exceeded only by the destruction of the Second Temple and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. And within a decade, their peers around the state had seen their net worth reduced to dust in the wind.

Viewed in that context, Black Gold is a time capsule portrait of Black Excellence, at the exact moment before the wave of progress rolled back and drowned the dreams of the first blacks to ever enjoy real autonomy in that region. Unfortunately, no surviving copy of Black Gold is known to exist, so the people of Tatums, one of only 13 all-black towns that survived out of the 50 there had once been, are thus unable to access a major foundation document of their own history.

That happened a lot back then—thousands and thousands of times. Martin Scorcese, one of the greatest filmmakers ever, estimates that “half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90 percent of films made before 1929 are lost forever.” The Library of Congress figured about 75 percent of all silent films are gone, including all but one of Norman Studios’ productions. “We’re always hopeful that another full Norman film will show up,” says Lesley, but at this point it seems unlikely.

A major factor was the improper storage of nitrate film, the industry standard for the first half of the 20th century, which was more combustible than a Mafia funeral, a lesson every major studio learned the hard way. The stuff was literally too hot for TV, and that’s why we can’t watch it on NetFlix, AMC or TCM, whose website lists 15 calamitous conflagrations between 1914 and 1993. Universal destroyed nearly 5,000 silent films in 1948, scrapping a goldmine, just to get the silver. Paramount has 250 left out of 1,200; Fox lost 40,000 reels in 1937, and today has only 120. At MGM, the stuff that didn’t decompose was trashed on purely aesthetic grounds.

Thus, many of the original icons of global cinema had most or all of their entire creative output snuffed out. The film debut of the Marx Brothers, one of only seven featuring Zeppo, gone. The very first sci-fi film, lost forever. Two of the first films ever made in 3D cannot even be seen in their original form. Out of the eight films produced by Norman Studios, 1926’s The Flying Ace is the only one that survives.

“I hope we can find more of the Norman films, but if we never do, I’m thankful that we have The Flying Ace, because it was inspired by Bessie Coleman. From what we understand, Bessie saw The Bulldogger,” which featured pioneering black cowboy Bill Pickett, “and said ‘Well, if he’s interested in what [Pickett’s] doing, he’ll be interested in what I’m doing,” says Lesley.

“She came here to Jacksonville in April 1926; we don’t know if they met in person, but we assume that they were planning to.” Coleman, the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license, was killed in a plane crash in Jacksonville within the month, so she never got to appear in any of the films herself, though both lead characters in The Flying Ace were based on her.

“He released that in ’26,” says Lesley. “It was by far his most successful film, and we’re told by some war historians that some young boys who went to watch the film were inspired to fly, as well, and some of them became Tuskegee Airmen.” (A bronze plaque was installed five years ago at Paxon School for Advanced Studies, near the spot where her final flight took off.)

Perhaps appropriately for a company built around costumes and makeup, Norman Studios was officially designated as the newest of Florida’s 96 National Historic Landmarks in 2016, on Halloween. It had already been added to the 92,149 other listings in the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places two years earlier. (Norman is one of 1,760 such places in Florida, and 94th of the 96 in Duval County, since followed by the Downtown Historical District and Memorial Park.)

The end was already approaching for the local film industry by the time Norman set up shop, but his technical skill and political savvy kept it going for another decade. Eventually, though, time caught up with him and, like other entrepreneurs of the era, the Normans were eventually forced to adapt as the economy changed. An increasingly conservative political environment, led by future Mayor (then governor) John W. Martin, eventually killed Florida’s nascent film industry once and for all.

While Richard Norman continued grinding out films for outside clients, mostly industrial films, his wife Gloria launched a lucrative new career as a dance instructor. In those capacities, they remained cultural forces in the city. At one point, Gloria Norman had more than 200 students, putting on recitals at places like The Florida Theatre, Jacksonville Civic Center, Arlington Grammar and Landon High School. Meanwhile, their son Richard Jr. became a decorated World War II veteran, helping to liberate Europe from behind the wheel of a B-25 bomber; noted Francophile Bessie Coleman would approve.

By all accounts, Gloria des Jardin, the beautiful redhead he’d met all those years ago, was a truly unique character of local history, an actress and dancer who was her husband’s Girl Friday for all of the 40 years they spent together. Decades after Norman Studios had gone defunct, she was still exerting a significant influence on the city’s cultural life through the dance studio he’d built for her in the same building, keeping her husband’s name alive long enough to pique the interests of a new generation of scholars, activists and historians.

A veteran local journalist, Lesley has worked with First Coast News, News 4 Jax and even Folio Weekly. She discovered Norman Studios while on assignment for the Jacksonville Business Journal 15 years ago and, like any good reporter, she knew a good story when she saw one. She walked me through the building on a blustery day in late January, going into detail about the building’s history. We were joined by Elizabeth Lawrence, a fellow volunteer and founder of the Documentary Film Festival; she was there in her capacity as the auteur of Creative Schemes, shooting footage for her own upcoming documentary about the studio, which takes things full-circle.

Richard Norman died in 1959, but Gloria continued running her studio in the building until the 1980s, at which point it and most of the materials inside were auctioned off, and from there the story might have ended, but for a few enterprising locals. “Ann Burt and Melanie cross-realized, ‘This is a national treasure, and we’re about to lose it,’” says Lesley. (The great Rita Reagan, one of the city’s real human treasures, has also played an indispensable role in this process.) “They connected with then-City Councilman Lake Ray, who was a huge champion for us, and they got the city to purchase the four buildings that were available—that’s the [main] building that we’re in now, the generator shed behind that, and a wardrobe cottage, and the prop storage garage behind that. It cost about a million dollars to purchase the buildings, address the structural issues and renovate the exterior.”

The main building still needs a lot of work. Pressed-wood floors, exposed ductwork and a leaky roof all underscore an “in-progress” feel, while the large antique machinery lends it all a certain gothic majesty. Lesley points out a second-floor window in the fifth building, which they hope to eventually buy from Circle of Faith Ministries. “You can see where it kind of dips; there was a swimming pool buried under there,” she says. This was where Norman shot a lot of his lakeside scenes.

Fast-forward to 2018. It’s been 90 years since Norman’s dream was deferred, and Devan Stuart Lesley is pursuing a dream of her own: Calling attention to the Normans and what they helped do for the city. She is part of an all-volunteer staff that’s spent much of this 21st century trying to reclaim, reinvent and reinvigorate these remnants of the century before, efforts that have gained much traction in recent years, thanks to a whole new generation of scholars and historians. 

Read Shelton Hull’s interview with Barbara Tepa Lupak, author of Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking.

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