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From the Archives: Universal Studio Centennial Ends But The Melody Lingers On

The Fort Lee Film Commission and the Englewood Cliffs Historical Committee are producing a film documenting the history of the last standing Fort Lee movie studio.

If you have not yet been to the Fort Lee Museum to see our exhibit Universal  Studio Centennial: From Fort Lee to Universal City you still have through Jan. 27 -- time enough to revisit our past and some of our present. 

The exhibit, courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee Historical Society, contains rare archival photos and artifacts from Universal’s early days in Fort Lee.  Thanks to Universal Studios, the exhibit also includes a room devoted to the NBC/Universal hit TV show Law & Order SVU which has shot on location in Fort Lee extensively over the last several years. 

Universal Studios has generously loaned us props from the show and they also have permanently donated items to our museum from the show including Fort Lee High School graduate and Law & Order SVU director Peter Leto’s director’s chair. 

The story of Universal in Fort Lee predates the creation of the studio in 1912. Studio founder Carl Laemmle first came to the Coytesville section of Fort Lee in 1909 when his Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP) shot the film Hiawatha in the then rural fields and meadows of Coytesville. 

In 1910 the Champion Studio was built in the Coytesville section and the studio today actually sits in Englewood Cliffs a few feet from the Fort Lee border.  It was always considered a Fort Lee studio and referenced in correspondence and articles of the time as in Coytesville

Fort Lee Film Commission member, and Rutgers University film professor, Richard Koszarski makes the cogent observation that very few movie studios were located in Hollywood. For example Warner Brothers is in Burbank and Universal is in Universal City, but the term Hollywood includes all theses studios. Koszarski makes the same case for Fort Lee which pre-dated this Hollywood phenomenon. 

The term Fort Lee included the Ideal Studio in Guttenberg, as well as the  Champion Studio in the cliffs. The bottom line is that both Fort Lee and Englewood Cliffs share a wonderful history regarding the birth of one of the largest studios in the world. 

The original Champion Studio was built by the Wunsch family of Englewood Cliffs – they owned a nearby lumberyard. The studio was sold to Mark Dintenfass who operated it as the Champion Studio and produced several films at this studio, the first in the area. In 1912 Carl Laemmle took over this studio, as part of his creation of Universal Studio, and thus the oldest surviving studio building in America is the birthplace of Universal Studios. 

Although this studio was used by Universal, Universal quickly outgrew it. So, by 1914, Laemmle started construction of the Universal Studio on Main Street in Fort Lee--just opposite Jones Road. For a time this would be the largest studio in the world. 

It was here that Laemmle produced 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916. However, by 1915 Laemmle had built Universal City in California and soon would consolidate most of his production out there. Laemmle leased the Main Street studio in Fort Lee to movie pioneers Samuel Goldwyn and then later Lewis J. Selznick. The last major production at this studio was in 1925.

By the 1920’s Laemmle sold the Champion Studio to Hanford Brown and it became a printing plant, which it remains today. So as we leave behind Universal Studios we have one more present to unwrap on its 100thbirthday. 

The Fort Lee Film Commission recently won a 2013 Bergen County History Grant to produce a documentary on the history of the old Champion Studio. The Fort Lee Film Commission has been meeting with the Englewood Cliffs Historical Committee since the fall, and that committee is a co-producer of this documentary with the Fort Lee Film Commission. 

We give great thanks to Englewood Cliffs Historical Committee Chairperson Shirley Raffaele, as well as all of the committee members, for their wonderful assistance and cooperation in making this documentary possible. This is a great but rare example of two sister communities working together to document their shared history.

We hope to have this documentary completed by May of this year when we will schedule public screenings in Fort Lee and Englewood Cliffs, as well as other venues throughout the state of New Jersey.

This month we completed our film shoot at the site. Our crew filmed both the exterior and interior of the building and we conducted interviews with three individuals with great perspective on the history of the building. 

Al Wunsch, a local historian and attorney, shared the history of his family who as noted above were involved in the building of the studio in 1910.  Film historian Richard Koszarski discussed the operation of the studio and the films shot at the studio. Koszarski mentioned that pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux shot key scenes from his groundbreaking 1920 film Symbol of the Unconquered at the studio and that film may well have been the last western shot in the area. 

Building owner Bill MacPhail shed light on his families operation of the printing plant that goes back to the 1920s. He is the latest generation of his family to operate the plant and his perspective, not only of the building’s history, but also of the area of Coytesville, is tremendous. He pointed out a section of the plant that has always been part of the building but not of the printing operation – it is a wall with two doors and faded wallpaper on the walls. Professor Koszarski believes this is the last remnant of the dressing rooms that date back to the studio’s birth in 1910.

Our next step is to work on post-production where we will add archival stills and film footage that along with these interviews will provide a fantastic documentary on the oldest standing studio in America today.

What better way to end our celebration of Universal Studio’s centennial!

Kenneth Michael Henderson January 19, 2013 at 08:09 PM
When this documentary is completed, it would be nice if DVD copies were offered For Sale thru these pages.
Tom Meyers January 19, 2013 at 08:21 PM
We plan on making it available via the internet on our Fort Lee FIlm Commission web site at some point as our point is to get this information and history out to those interested, most especially film historians from around the world. On a regular basis we get inquiries from film researchers / archivists from around the globe via our Fort Lee Film Commission website - this past week researchers from France who are coming to the US to do a doc on film pioneer Sam Goldwyn whose first two studios were in Fort Lee prior to his move west. Our web site is www.fortleefilm.org - once it is complete and once we have had several public screenings we will upload the doc to our web site.

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