Museum Exhibit Showcases Founding of Universal Studio in Fort Lee
“Universal Studio Centennial Exhibit: From Fort Lee to Universal City” is open to the public but will change to some extent over the next month or so. It’s a must see for film buffs and fans of “Law & Order: SVU”
The exhibit, “Universal Studio Centennial Exhibit: From Fort Lee to Universal City,” is produced by the Film Commission and documents the birth of the film giant in the borough in 1912 with archival photos, studio artifacts and more.
It includes items on loan from the studio and from the hit NBC Universal TV show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which has in the past shot extensively in Fort Lee.
Executive director Tom Meyers of the Fort Lee Film Commission said most of the props used in episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” will eventually have to be returned, but that some of the pieces will remain in Fort Lee.
“Universal was very generous,” Meyers said. “We talked to the people with ‘Law and Order,’ and we actually had a deal with Universal Studio in California; they had to send us a loan agreement. But some of the stuff stays with us. The sketches stay with us and the director’s chair, which we love.”
The chair was used by “Law & Order: SVU” producer and frequent director Peter Leto, who himself has strong ties to Fort Lee.
“There’s a lot of meaning to that chair,” Meyers said. “It’s great to have it from Universal and the TV show, but the guy who uses it is a graduate of Fort Lee High School. It’s because of Peter that I’m sure that we got that piece.”
In fact, an entire section of the exhibit is dedicated to “Law & Order: SVU,” with two display cases full of artifacts and props, the chair and location photos of production of the show in Fort Lee.
There’s also a picture of Leto with some Fort Lee High School students, taken when he visited the school a few years ago and spoke with local students about directing and producing the show.
But the museum exhibit isn’t just about “Law and Order: SVU;” the primary focus is Universal Studio and its history, as the name suggests.
It includes enlarged archival photos of Universal Studio under construction in Fort Lee way back in the early 1900s, some of which Meyers said the people currently with Universal have never seen.
“It’s the first studio we ever had that kind of relationship with that started here in Fort Lee,” Meyers said, noting that Universal is sponsoring this summer’s Movies & Music Under the Stars series at the Fort Lee Community Center. “We’ve blown up a lot of archival shots of Universal in Fort Lee, and that logo on that poster is their original logo from when they started in Fort Lee. They were unaware of that logo until we sent it to them. They didn’t think they had a logo when they were here.”
The Film Commission is therefore sending photos of the entire display to Universal in California.
The exhibit also includes plenty of movie posters and other artifacts from various people’s collections, including members of the Film Commission, from throughout Universal’s history.
Some of the items on display even came from people who live or lived in Fort Lee or whose relatives did. Meyers points to a horse saddle on display as an example.
“A lady came in here about four months ago,” he explained. “She called us up, and she said she had some items that here grandparents used. They were in Fort Lee, and they acted in westerns.”
Sure enough, Meyers said, the woman’s grandparents worked for Universal, and next to the saddle are photos of them in early Universal westerns.
“Pictures are great, but if we can get pieces like this [saddle], it’s even better,” Meyers said.
Various display cases are also dedicated to different Universal genres the studio became known for after moving to California in 1930.
“Obviously in the 1930s and 40s comedy was a big moneymaker for them just like the monster movies,” Meyers said, pointing out two specific displays. “We’re trying to highlight Universal’s history in Fort Lee; we’ve been very heavy on that. But we also want to highlight their entire history.”
Meyers said that while the exhibit is technically open to the public—he called it a “soft opening”—the Film Commission is still making some adjustments and shooting for an official opening on Sept. 1, with a public reception planned for Oct. 27.
“It’s open to the public, absolutely,” he said. “But we tinker with it as we go along, so people can come here in August, and they can come back in October and see a few different things.”
“Universal Studio Centennial Exhibit: From Fort Lee to Universal City” at the Fort Lee Museum, located at 1588 Palisade Ave., runs through Jan. 27, 2013. Admission is free.
For more information, museum hours or to book group tours, call 201-592-3663 or visit the Fort Lee Film Commission online.