Redevelopment Area 5 is the talk of the town, and rightly so. The development of the 40-plus year vacant tract of land off Main Street is a long time coming. But to look ahead to the future, we also need to take a look at the past - about 100 years ago.
On Main Street, right across the street from Redevelopment Area 5, stands the Bank of America. This same building, pre-exterior job, was Fort Lee’s proud First National Bank.
For many of us growing up in Fort Lee, especially lower Main Street, the image of the large clock on the exterior of the building is burned into our memories. I mention that very bank because on the Main Street side of the bank in 1911 DW Griffith shot one of his many Fort Lee-based Biograph films – this one starred his new find, Mabel Normand, and the film was called Her Awakening.
Working for Sennett as a star and a co-director of sorts in Fort Lee since 1909 was a young Mack Sennett. On this very Main Street, Mack starred in the first American slapstick comedy, 1909’s The Curtain Pole, again directed by Griffith. Mack met his Mabel in Fort Lee, likely on Main Street in 1911.
Thus began their partnership and ill fated romance. Together in 1912, they would leave Biograph and Griffith, as Sennett formed his own studio, Keystone, here in Fort Lee.
Sennett shot his first few films in Fort Lee in 1912, and one recently was discovered by film historian and preservationist, Paul E. Gierucki. The film was A Grocery Clerk’s Romance. This film was shot entirely around Rambo’s Hotel on First Street in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. That hotel and saloon was open until the late 1970s, and Gus Becker tended bar there from the silent film days until he passed in the late 1970s. The building stills stands and is a private residence owned by Gus’s family.
Thanks to Paul Gierucki, we have a copy of the unrestored short film, and we will screen it to open the upcoming Fort Lee Film Commission-produced musical "Mack & Mabel," which will run at the Fort Lee High School auditorium (3000 Lemoine Ave.) for performances on May 18 at 7:30 p.m. and May 19 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The play will star Fort Lee High School actors from the high school's Drama Department under the direction of their teacher, Jodi Etra. All proceeds from ticket sales ($10 each) will go towards programs for the Fort Lee High School Drama Department.
Mack and Mabel moved to California with the Keystone Studio later in 1912. But Fort Lee was never far from Mack’s mind. In 1915-1916, Mack leased space at the Fort Lee studio on Main Street and Linwood Avenue under the Keystone/Triangle banner, and he sent his stars Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle back east to make several Arbuckle-directed comedies.
These films, the ones that survive, are some of the best Keystone Studio movies ever produced. The titles include the wonderful Arbuckle-Normand comedy of 1916, He Did and He Didn’t. Paul Gierucki is restoring a number of these comedies including Arbuckle’s hilarious The Waiter’s Ball (1916). Many of these restored Keystone films will be screened on TCM in August in celebration of Keystone Studio’s centennial.
So as we discuss the new development on Main Street in this 21st century, let us remember that in the shadows of the new will be the memory of the old, when a young man named Mack met his Mabel on Main Street in Fort Lee, and together they made American film history.