Fort Lee 1912: Parlez-vous Francais?
The diversity of Fort Lee's population and the French film migration of 1912.
Fort Lee in the 21st century represents a diverse ethnic mix that to some may feel like a new element to the history of this municipality. The perspective I have is that of a person born in the borough in the 1960s. As I grew up in Fort Lee, the ethnic mix was diverse as well and included a huge population of Italian-Americans, and large segments of the community could trace their roots to Greece and Ireland.
The Jewish community of Fort Lee was also a growing segment of the population in those days. As a tyke, I recall among my first friends on the streets of the Coytesville section of town a Japanese girl named Keiko. So growing up in Fort Lee was, in a sense, like a trip around the world in a square-mile town even a half a century ago.
Today many newcomers marvel at the size of our vibrant Korean-American population, which is evident in many of our Main Street storefronts and in the faces of many of our fantastic Fort Lee students from grade school through the high school.
This diversity and constant change in the ethnic makeup of our borough should not be a surprise and really isn’t to those of us who are students of Fort Lee history.
I find one of the useful tools to understand our borough's history 100 years ago is to study the largest business in our community then, and that would be the burgeoning young film industry.
We can learn about the economy of Fort Lee via a diary of Fort Lee resident Jack Van Epps, who worked at all the movie studios in town at the time. The diary, which was donated to the Fort Lee Historical Society, is housed in the archive of the Fort Lee Museum. Van Epps, like other Fort Lee residents a century ago, found work at the studios and was a beneficiary of the economic boom brought to Fort Lee by the development of the motion picture industry.
What else can we learn about Fort Lee history from the film industry?
Well, this archive piece will use said film industry to display a migration of sorts to Fort Lee in 1911-1912 that was not Italian, Greek, Korean, Jewish, Irish, German, Russian, Hispanic or African-American in nature. This migration to Fort Lee was from France, and it was to such a degree that there would soon be a French language newspaper published in Fort Lee. This is directly linked to the construction, starting in February 1911, of the American Éclair Studio on Linwood Avenue, the present day site of Constitution Park.
The wonderful 2004 book, "Fort Lee The Film Town," by Fort Lee Film Commission member and Rutgers University professor of Film Richard Koszarski, details Éclair Studio in Fort Lee:
The Societe Francaise des Films at Cinematographs Éclair was a French manufacturer of films and film apparatus. In a move to increase their share of the lucrative American market, then dominated by Pathe, they began construction of a studio and laboratory in Fort Lee in February 1911. The original property ran along the west side of Linwood Avenue for 175 feet, to a depth of 250 feet, the current site of Constitution Park. Jules Brulatour controlled the sale of George Eastman’s motion picture stock and was one of the most powerful men in the industry. Although Eastman insisted that Brulatour avoid any financial entanglement with the production end of the business, Brulatour found many ingenious ways to get around this beginning with his silent backing of Éclair’s American operation.
Numerous French employees of Éclair lived in houses they purchased in Fort Lee. Éclair scenic artist Ben Carré in the 1960s recalled that there was very much a self-contained French community working in Fort Lee in those days, and the studio maintained a resident translator. Some of the names that sprung out of this community to cinema fame include in 1912 Solax Studio president and the first woman director in cinema history, Alice Guy-Blaché, and later, director Maurice Tourneur and pioneer animator Émile Cohl.
Éclair eventually became affiliated with the new Universal Studio, born in Fort Lee in 1912. Jules Brulatour in 1912 was also in a large way responsible for placing his then girlfriend, Éclair actress and Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson, into the Éclair film Saved From the Titanic.
Unfortunately the only surviving print of this film was destroyed in a 1914 fire at the Éclair laboratory, which constituted the first major film fire in Fort Lee, though many would follow over the next decade. The Éclair studio in 1914 would morph into the Peerless Feature Producing Company whose studio would be built on the adjacent lot on Linwood Avenue.
Thus by 1914, Éclair dropped its association with the studio in Fort Lee, but the films shot there, such as the first American film version of Robin Hood (1912), stand as a record of their achievements, innovation and presence as a vital part of the Fort Lee community.
One specific member of the French community in Fort Lee we need to mention is George Doublier whose career began in 1894, when the then 16-year-old became associated with the Lumière brothers and their experimentation with motion picture photography.
From 1896 to 1900, Doublier went on tour, recording the first motion picture images of Europe, Asia and Africa. He lived at 2011 Lemoine Avenue in Fort Lee and eventually formed his own company, Palisade Film Laboratories, in the old E.K. Lincoln studio, which stood on Bergen Boulevard.
Doublier documented such local Fort Lee events as General John Blackjack Pershing’s visit to Monument Park in Fort Lee in 1919 upon his return from Europe and the fighting in World War I. This footage is archived in the Fort Lee Museum by the Fort Lee Historical Society.
This is the story of the diversity of Fort Lee a century ago.
This past year saw the success of two films with more than a hint of a French twist, The Artist, produced by a French film company, and the Martin Scorsese directed Hugo, about the great pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès.
The roots of our history here in Fort Lee are intertwined with many cultures and peoples from around the world, and our past defines, in a sense, our present. That being the case, though we are on the Hudson River and not the River Seine, and we live in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge and not the Eiffel Tower, still we have a French perspective most communities in the United States lack, and to that I say, "C'est la vie!"