A Mack, A Mabel and A Mockingbird
Centennial of Keystone Studio's birth in Fort Lee to be celebrated with high school student performance of "Mack & Mabel," produced by the Fort Lee Film Commission.
The readers of this weekly "From the Archives" column are familiar with the centennial of Universal Studios, founded in Fort Lee in 1912. Thus, you may also be aware that the Fort Lee Film Commission is kicking off a yearlong tribute to this Fort Lee-born studio with a free public screening of the Universal's 1962 Academy Award-winning film To Kill A Mockingbird tonight (Friday, April 13 at 8 p.m.) in the Fort Lee Borough Hall Municipal Courtroom at 309 Main Street)
What many of you may not know is that there was another studio founded in Fort Lee in 1912. It was born in a sense a wee bit earlier, when Mack Sennett appeared in a D.W. Griffith-directed Biograph film in 1909, The Curtain Pole. This short comedy, shot on the streets of Fort Lee, was the first American slapstick movie.
How appropriate that this column comes out on the same day that the Farrelly Brothers latest film opens in theatres across America, The Three Stooges. Moe Howard, a great pie thrower in his own right, and the top stooge for 40 years, was really following in the footsteps of Mack Sennett.
While Mack toiled for Griffith in Fort Lee, out in Brooklyn, a young comedienne, Mabel Normand, was stepping before the cameras of Vitagraph Studio in 1910. Shortly thereafter, in 1911, Griffith hired Normand for Biograph and brought her to Fort Lee to star in Her Awakening. So it was that right here in Fort Lee in 1911, Mack met his Mabel, and their partnership soon blossomed.
As 1912 dawned, Mack began the work of creating his own studio to produce comedies. The summer of 1912 saw Mack create Keystone Studio in Fort Lee, and he took Mabel with him on an adventure that would eventually bring them both to Hollywood and big screen immortality. One of Keystone’s first films was A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912).
That film was recently found by film historian and preservationist Paul Gierucki. Paul, who is a friend, sent us a DVD of the unrestored film, which was shot outside Rambo’s Saloon on First Street in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. This is one of the only surviving films that used Rambo’s Saloon as a location.
During the days when Fort Lee was the center of film production in the United States, Rambo’s Saloon was used by many film companies as a location in addition to a dressing room, a place for film crews to have lunch and a location where production companies held cattle calls for actors and extras.
The building stills stands as a private residence, the saloon having closed around 1980 after the death of the bartender of the saloon and owner Gus Becker. Gus tended bar during those early days when Mack and Mabel were careening all over Fort Lee in their early films. After 100 years, this early Keystone film found its way back to Fort Lee.
Though Mack and Mabel moved Keystone Studio to California by the fall of 1912, Sennett was not through with Fort Lee. In 1915 and 1916, he leased studio space at the corner of Linwood Avenue and Main Street at the Fox Studio for his Triangle Keystone Company. Though Mack didn’t leave his California studio, he dispatched one of his finds, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and reliable Mabel to Fort Lee to shoot films.
Roscoe, without Mack’s interference, was able to direct and star in some wonderful films; many would say the best he ever made. And he directed and starred with Mabel in a number of them, including the wonderful He Did and He Didn’t (1916).
You might ask at this point, where does a "Mockingbird" come into play? The answer is simply this: through our weekend live performances of To Kill A Mockingbird by the Hudson Shakespeare Company in the Municipal Courtroom at Borough Hall (April 14 & 15 at 7:30 p.m. – doors open at 6:30 p.m., and tickets are $10, or $5 for senior citizens and students), we hope to raise funds to help fund our Fort Lee Film Commission production of the fabulous Jerry Herman musical Mack & Mabel.
We have already won a Bergen County History grant and a grant from the NJEA for this production. This musical will be performed by students of the Fort Lee High School Drama Department under the direction of their teacher, Ms. Jodi Etra, on May 18 at 7:30 p.m., and May19 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. All funds raised at these performances will go toward programming for the Drama Department. The performances take place in the high school auditorium at 3000 Lemoine Ave., and tickets can be purchased at the door or by reaching out to the Fort Lee Film Commission (201-693-2763 or www.fortleefilm.org).
So this weekend, help us celebrate the centennial of Universal Studio with our tribute to To Kill a Mockingbird. With your help, we will be able to have the young people of 21st century Fort Lee bring to life early 20th century Fort Lee, when a young man named Mack met his Mabel and cinematic history was born.