Early January is a time to look back as well as ahead - back to the previous year's successes and shortfalls and ahead to what we all hope will be a good year for all.
This being an archives piece, I have the great good fortune of revving up the old Fort Lee way back machine and heading to a January distant in time but, as Einstein said, relatively not so distant in scope. The time, my friends, is January of 1916, some 97 years ago.
Imagine Fort Lee without the George Washington Bridge, a small rural town with a vibrant Main Street, trolley tracks and movie studios. This was near the apex of Fort Lee’s days as the center of American film production. True, studios were consolidating in Hollywood by 1916, but Fort Lee still had the lead in production of films, though that too soon would be ceded to California.
Suffice to say; in 1916 most everyone in Fort Lee worked for the movie studios in the film industry. So the town was buzzing with the news in late December of 1915 that Mack Sennett, the king of American film comedy, was sending his troupe to Fort Lee.
Mack Sennett started his film career in Fort Lee with his mentor, Biograph Studio director D.W. Griffith. D.W. assigned young Mack to the 1909 film The Curtain Pole shot on Main Street in Fort Lee. Though Griffith is listed as director, most film scholars today believe Sennett really directed this, the first American slapstick film comedy.
Sennett continued to toil in the film vineyards of Griffith and Biograph until the summer of 1912 when he broke off to form his own studio, Keystone, here in Fort Lee. After shooting his first few films in Fort Lee that summer, by the early fall of 1912, Sennett and his comedy troupe headed to California to base their Keystone Studio out in the land of milk, honey and oranges.
The Triangle Film Corporation was organized in 1915 to distribute the films of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince. According to eminent film scholar Richard Koszarski in his 2004 book Fort Lee the Film Town, “Kessel and Baumann’s New York Motion Picture Company controlled the Ince and Sennett pictures, and they became major factors in Triangle, renaming the facility the 'Triangle Film Corporation Fort Lee Studios and Laboratories.' It was through this connection that Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and Mabel Normand arrived in Fort Lee to make a series of two-reelers for Mack Sennett’s Keystone in 1916.”
The Triangle Studio was actually in the Willat Studio, which also housed Fox Studios from 1914 through 1919. The studio was on the corner of Main Street and Linwood Avenue, the current location of the Fort Linwood Garden Apartments. My parents brought me home from the hospital after my birth to an apartment they lived in at this very complex, and their unit was on the Linwood Avenue side, just about where the entrance to the studio was back in the day.
On December 26, 1915 the Keystone Studio comedy troupe led by Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand left California by train and headed east to the Triangle Studio in Fort Lee. A photo that accompanies this article shows the troupe at a railroad stop in Salt Lake City, Utah as the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper covered this story and listed the troupe as heading to the Fort Lee studio.
Once the troupe arrived at the Triangle Studio in Fort Lee, they transformed our community into the comedy capital of the nation. Such films directed and starring Arbuckle here in Fort Lee in 1916 include A Reckless Romeo, He Did and He Didn’t and The Waiter’s Ball.
Not only did Arbuckle use the studio stages, but he also went out into the community. Key sequences of these films include the exterior of the Triangle Studio, Linwood Avenue and Main Street, as well as Palisades Amusement Park. The three films I mentioned above fortunately have been found and restored and all are available on DVD today.
The Waiter’s Ball ends with Arbuckle and Al St. John, Arbuckle’s nephew and frequent film co-star, walking through the studio exit and onto a very rural looking Linwood Avenue. Arbuckle also used the exterior studio wall as well as the intersection of Main Street and Linwood Avenue and the exterior of the Academy of the Holy Angels, the present day site of Mediterranean North and South, in portions of his film A Reckless Romeo. That film includes a shot of the Main Street trolley in action.
So as the January winds sweep through our cliff-top borough, let’s listen carefully for the laughter of a long ago January in 1916, when comedy was king for a year in Fort Lee.