Friday, February 15th marks the 131st birthday of the most acclaimed actor in American history, John Barrymore, or as we like to call our one time Coytesville (Fort Lee) resident, just plain Jack.
Each year on February 15th for the past several years the Fort Lee Film Commission and Fort Lee Coalition for the Arts members gather at 6 PM at the intersection of Main Street and Central Road opposite In Napoli Restaurant to lay a wreath at the commemorative street sign John Barrymore Way.
This site, which is very close to the western section of the new development known as Redevelopment Area 5, was once the location of Buckheister’s Hotel and Beer Garden. Here in 1901, then 18-year-old Jack Barrymore made his stage debut. How? Why?
The patriarch of the acting Barrymore clan was Maurice Barrymore, father to Jack and his brother Lionel and their sister Ethel, and in fact Drew Barrymore’s Great Grandfather. Maurice moved to Coytesville (northern section of present day Fort Lee) in the late 1890s.
Coytesville/Fort Lee was but a short ferry ride to Manhattan and the theatrical stages. Maurice took occupancy of a rambling Victorian house on Hammett Avenue at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue. Here Maurice entertained his Broadway brethren as they spent their weekends on the veranda of the house sipping libations whilst in their silk pajamas. Quite a site for the local folk in this rusticated section of Fort Lee.
Many of the residents of the area were Coytes who first settled the neighborhood that bears their name in the mid 19th century. Several decades in America turned these former Englishmen and women and their descendants into one hundred percent American hillbillies, and I mean that in the best sense. For truth be told, I grew up in Coytesville and even into the 1960s and well into the 1970s this particular neighborhood of Fort Lee maintained those hillbilly roots in more ways they I can say in this short piece.
One night while a party was going full steam near the midnight hour, an alarm rang for the Coytesville Fire Company (today’s Fort Lee Company #2). According to Maurice Barrymore biographer James Kotsilibas-Davis in his book Great Times Good Times The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore. In Mr. Kotsilibas-Davis's words Maurice had donated a hose cart and his services as captain to the fire company. Maurice recruited all the theatrical residents of the neighborhood as volunteer firemen and established that fire company motto We Strive to Conquer and Save.
Well, that night they may have conquered old man Coyte’s chimney but they clearly did not save it! The fire alarm rang as old man Coyte’s farmhouse on the hill had caught fire. It’s a landmark boys. We’ve got to save it, shouted Captain Barrymore, taking command in a pair of pink pajamas. Walter Allen, Henry Donnelly and a score of other Broadwayites strained at the hose cart ropes as it crawled up the hill. Rose Moulton and Dorothy Donnelly cheered them on from Maurice’s front porch.
The fire’s out, yelled old man Coyte from his ridgepole as the brigade approached. I put it out with a bag of salt. Salt doesn’t go with the Coytesville Fire Company, shouted Captain Barrymore. Turn her on! The mighty stream washed away the last remaining sparks – and half of Coyte’s chimney.
Afterwards, Coytes had cursed Barrymore, actors, and acting in general, Captain Barrymore decided that the Coytesville Fire Company was not getting proper respect from the locals. Uniforms and a firehouse were needed and this led Maurice to stage a fundraiser at Buckheister’s Hotel on Main Street near Central Road.
This is where young Jack Barrymore comes in to play. I didn’t become really acquainted with my delightful father until I was eighteen years old Jack remembered, when we were together constantly for more than a year. According to author Kotsilibas-Davis, Ethel Barrymore handed her young brother Jack over to her papa at Coytesville as she had a new acting role to handle.
The importance of Fort Lee (Coytesville) to Jack Barrymore is immeasurable since when he came to live with Maurice he wanted to be an artist and had no inclination towards the family profession of acting. Maurice decided that his youngest child would enter the acting profession in the year 1901 at the very fire department fundraiser on Main Street in Fort Lee that led to the building of the firehouse on Washington avenue used by Fort Lee Company #2 until the late 1950’s and still standing today.
The play was A Man of the World. Jack Barrymore’s entry on stage for the first time, right on Main Street, the present day location of Redevelopment Area 5, was greeted by hoots and hollers from the Fort Lee audience as Jack was a wee bit heavy on the stage makeup and burlesqued his role as the young seducer.
According to stories of the day, young Jack applied enough hirsute flourishes to cover half his face, making himself, he supposed, terribly dangerous looking. Thus the career of the greatest American actor of all time was born on Main Street in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Three years ago the Fort Lee Film Commission successfully petitioned the Fort Lee Mayor & Council to commemoratively name the intersection of Main Street and Central Road (opposite In Napoli Restaurant) John Barrymore Way. Each year on Jack’s birthday, February 15th, we gather at the sign and lay a wreath at 6 PM and then we adjourn to the bar at In Napoli Restaurant across the street and hold a fundraiser for the Fort Lee High School Drama Department and student actors in Jack Barrymore’s name.
Each of the last three years we have raised enough funds to cover Shakespeare work shops for the students as well as a trip last year to meet the Broadway cast of Godspell and see the show. This allows us to teach our history of the Barrymore family to a new generation of Fort Lee students and to help them through our ability to raise funds in Jack Barrymore’s memory.
We hope anyone reading this archive piece will come out this coming Friday, February 15th, at 6PM to help us honor Jack as we lay a wreath at John Barrymore Way and then from 6-8 PM as we hold our fundraiser at the bar of In Napoli – tickets are $15 at the door.
This year as the development on the western section of Redevelopment Are 5 is going big guns it is time for the Fort Lee Film Commission to suggest a name for the new movie theatre and film museum which will be built as part of this development. We are clear in our choice as we wish to honor a family who lived in Fort Lee, who volunteered as fire fighters in Fort Lee, who raised funds for the building of a Fort Lee firehouse, who acted in films in Fort Lee during our days as the first American film town (Ethel and Lionel Barrymore made films in Fort Lee), and whose youngest member in 1901 made his stage debut right here on the site of this new development.
We ask the Mayor & Council to name the new movie theatre / film museum The Barrymore. That family name continues to aid the student actors of Fort Lee and it can bring magic to Fort Lee in many ways.
More than a decade ago our then Mayor Jack Alter, upon the loss of the Barrymore house, told us that even though the house was razed that the Barrymore name in Fort Lee is very special and some day there would be a proper building erected to which we could attach the name Barrymore. That time is now and the place is on the soon to be erected movie theatre / film museum.