Most people would never consider Fort Lee a University or college town. Truth be told, the closest college is on the cliffs of the Palisades in Englewood Cliffs (St. Peter’s).
Fort Lee’s schools include our public schools, from elementary to high school, with intermediate in between. We have private elementary schools. Once we could boast that we were home to the Academy of the Holy Angels, which sat where the present day Mediterranean Towers reside on Linwood Avenue.
But a college town? Well, think again!
In conjunction with our Fort Lee Museum exhibit Universal Studio Centennial Salute: From Fort Lee to Universal City, both the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee Historical Society are reaching out to the community to find individuals who worked in Fort Lee studios or film distribution/storage facilities in the borough or whose relatives worked in the film industry in Fort Lee.
We hope to tape interviews as part of our Fort Lee Museum/Fort Lee Film Commission living history project.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 201-693-2763 to schedule an interview.
Once major studio production in Fort Lee ceased in 1925, most of the existing studio structures that survived became film laboratories, storage facilities and film distribution sites. These film plants employed hundreds of Fort Lee citizens right through the 1960s, and the last such plant, Bonded Film Storage, still operates in the historic Brulatour Building on Jane Street in Fort Lee.
We start our living film history documentation with the most recognizable and informed person still living in Fort Lee whose roots are in this industry from its birth in Fort Lee to the present. I speak of James Viola, who most of us know as "Jimmy" and who is the longtime Commander of the Fort Lee VFW Post on Center Avenue.
Jimmy is known for his great work relating to recognition of veterans and promotion of the history of Fort Lee as it relates to veterans. Most, I would guess, do not know of Jimmy’s career in the film industry and his lifelong love of film and this aspect of Fort Lee’s history.
Recently Fort Lee Historical Society president and Fort Lee Film Commission member Donna Brennan and myself interviewed Jimmy at the VFW Post. Those of us in the Fort Lee Film Commission like to call Donna our Mary Pickford, as she truly is a great videoographer and a wonderful modern-day documentarian of Fort Lee history.
A disclaimer should be made public at this point: for those of you who might not know, Jimmy Viola is my uncle.
Most of my love for film and Fort Lee film history comes from him and my mother, who both worked in this industry and told me stories about Fort Lee film history when I was a child.
One Christmas morning, I received the greatest gift ever, an 8mm projector and a box of 8mm Castle Films, which included the Universal monster movies, Abbott & Costello films and of course the Three Stooges. Santa Claus that year took the form of my mom (projector) and my Uncle Jimmy (8mm films), and that started me on the road that eventually connected me with others in Fort Lee with this same love of film. In time, all of us formed the Fort Lee Film Commission.
During the interview, Jimmy spoke of his father and mother, Joe and Carrie Viola, and how both of them worked as kids and adults in the film industry here in Fort Lee.
Carrie, born in 1902, started out as one of the many school kids in Fort Lee who were let out of class to be extras in the films shot in town. As a teenager, she worked in the film studios on Linwood Avenue in the film processing labs, and later, once these studios closed, she moved to the old Universal lot in West Fort Lee and worked for Consolidated Film Industries, a division of Republic Pictures.
Jimmy’s father, Joe, born in Fort Lee in 1898, worked for a time in the film vaults at the Fox Studio on Linwood Avenue and Main Street.
So how did Jimmy enter the Fort Lee film industry? Well, after high school and his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Jimmy came home and, as he says, went to college – his college wasn’t Rutgers or Fordham; it was CFI (Consolidated Film Industries) on Main Street in Fort Lee.
Here, according to Jimmy, there were as many as three shifts a day, and this facility employed over 600 Fort Lee residents. According to Rutgers University professor Richard Koszarski of the Fort Lee Film Commission in his 2004 book Fort Lee the Film Town, “Consolidated Film Industries took over the Universal Studio on Main Street in Fort Lee in 1930. They operated it as a laboratory, storage facility and distribution center adding buildings to the property over the next few years.”
CFI operated at this site from 1930 through 1961, and through that period hundreds, if not thousands, of Fort Lee residents were employed and built careers in the American film industry.
“I worked in the film plant at the back end of the lot” Jimmy said as he pointed to a large poster of the CFI studio lot that Universal originally built in 1914. “They had film vaults all along the eastern side and trucks would enter the lot and pick up films to be distributed across the United States and to US military bases around the world.”
He added, "I worked in building 2, and we took the studio negatives from Hollywood, and we made the prints. This plant produced thousands of prints from the negatives for such studios as MGM, RKO, Paramount and Fox."
Jimmy spoke of the administration building that faced Main Street.
“Republic Studio head Herbert J. Yates had an office in this building and the building also included the company cafeteria and locker rooms, and the secretaries worked out of this building," he said. "Yates formed Republic out of many smaller studios, and his studio production took place in California. His most well known contract player was John Wayne. But he also starred his wife, actress Vera Hruba Ralston, in his films, and when she came on the screen most people left the theatre!”
To substantiate Jimmy’s statement, the authors of the book The Golden Turkey Awards nominated Ms. Ralston for the dubious honor of “The Worst Actress of All Time.”
Jimmy pointed to the center of the poster and said, “This was the old Universal Studio, and during my years at Consolidated, part of that building was used for producing movie posters. But the center of the old studio was left empty, and in the rafters still hung the original Universal Studio lights and equipment left when Universal made their last production here in 1925.”
That studio portion of the lot was demolished in 1963 when Bonded Services Film Storage took over all five acres of Consolidated Park and its 20 buildings. Bonded operated the facility through the 1990s, when they sold part of the lot to the borough and the other part to a developer – this is where a borough parking lot and DPW garages and a private storage facility sit today.
The Fort Lee Film Commission placed an historic marker on the site facing Main Street, and most recently placed a commemorative street sign on the entrance to the property reading "Universal Studio Way."
I asked Jimmy about his post-CFI career.
"Once Consolidated closed, I worked for a time for Universal Studio, which had a film storage faclity in Kearny, NJ," he said. "I left Universal to start a film business in Bogota, NJ with a partner, and we had a contact in New York City. We were able to work on films including The Greatest Moments in Sports series."
Jimmy retired from this business in the 1980s; thus his entire life was spent in the film industry. Jimmy also recalled that this film college of Fort Lee produced many graduates who went on to careers in Hollywood and New York.
His aunt worked as a negative cutter on the west side of Manhattan, and among the films she worked on was Around the World in Eighty Days for Mike Todd.
The most colorful story revolves around Eddie Mannix, a Fort Lee native who went from working for the Schenck brothers at Palisades Amusement Park, to Joe Schecnk's New York studio, and then, in 1924, to Hollywood, where he became the superintendent and general manager of MGM Studios.
Eddie was second in command to studio head Louis B. Mayer and worked at MGM until his death in 1963.
“Eddie was a bulldog of a man who never forgot his roots and would come back to Fort Lee every summer," Jimmy said. "In fact, the VFW building was built in 1919 as the Fort Lee Theatre. In the 1940s, its name was changed to The Metro in honor of Eddie and his role at MGM.”
So here in this Fort Lee VFW Post, formerly a movie theatre, sits the larger-than-life Jimmy Viola, whose memories connect us to a great American industry that was born here in the Borough of Fort Lee.
All we can say is, "Jimmy, you graduated from the Fort Lee College of Film with honors."