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Universal Studio Centennial: From Fort Lee to Universal City, 1912-2012

Fort Lee commemorates the 100th anniversary of the founding of Universal Studio.

This year marks the centennial of the largest studio in the world, one born on the cliffs of the Palisades in the Coytesville section of our very own Fort Lee.

In 1909, a German-born immigrant came to the Coytesville section of Fort Lee to produce his first film, Hiawatha, for his Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) Company. This gentleman was Carl Laemmle. In 1912, Laemmle came back to Fort Lee, where he founded Universal Studio, and its first home was in the old Champion Studio building, which still stands on Fifth Street north of Washington Avenue. It is the oldest standing studio building in America, and its present-day use is as a printing plant.

Mr. Laemmle broke ground in 1914 for what was to be for a short time the largest studio in the country, Universal Studio on Main Street near Jones Road – the present day site of a borough parking lot and a private storage facility. There is a historic marker on the site facing Main Street the Fort Lee Film Commission place there a few years ago. Here, Universal shot portions of their epic 1915 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In 1915, Laemmle built and opened what still is today the largest studio in the world at Universal City in California. However, Universal retained ownership of their two Fort Lee studios through 1931. The Main Street studio was leased to Sam Goldwyn and later to Lewis J. Selznick, both American film pioneers who later would also move production to Hollywood. 

The Main Street lot became part of Republic Pictures/Consolidated from 1931 through 1961. In 1964, Bonded Film Storage moved from their Lemoine Avenue location in the old Solax Studio (present day ) and purchased the old Universal Lot. They demolished the old Universal Studio building in 1964 to build film vaults. Bonded remained on the property until they sold it in the 1990s, and their buildings were razed for the present day parking lot and storage facility.

The Fort Lee Film Commission has made contact with Universal Studio president Ron Meyer and the Universal Studio media department. We are providing Universal Studio with archival photos from our collection for them to fill in the gaps in their own archive from the period between 1912 and 1915 prior to their move west. In return, Universal Studio is waiving all license fees for the Fort Lee Film Commission this year, which will allow us to screen 10 Universal films at our annual "Movies & Music Under the Stars" program outside the every Saturday night from July 7 through September 8.

Additional plans for the centennial are below:

Fort Lee Film Commission Spring Cliffhanger Film Festival - To Kill A Mockingbird 50th Anniversary Screening And Live Performances

The film commission will sponsor a free 50th anniversary screening of the Academy Award-winning Universal Studio film To Kill a Mockingbird on Friday, April 13 at 8p.m. in the Fort Lee Municipal Courtroom at (309 Main St.) This screening is free to the public and made possible by Universal Studio.  

On April 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. we will present the Hudson Shakespeare Company, who will perform a live adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Fort Lee Municipal Court Room (309 Main Street). Tickets are $10, and all proceeds will go toward programs for the Drama Department and student actors.

Fort Lee Museum Exhibit: Universal Studio Centennial Salute - From Fort Lee To Universal City

This exhibit opens on July 6 and runs through the end of 2012. The exhibit, curated by the Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee Historical Society, will display rare archival photos and documents from Universal's birth in Fort Lee in 1912. The exhibit will include items from the two studios' Universal owned in Fort Lee from 1912 to 1931. Though Universal moved large-scale production to California in 1915, they leased their Main Street studio to Sam Goldwyn and later Lewis J. Selznick. This exhibit will also cover Universal's years in California as well as its return to Fort Lee to shoot episodes of their hit TV series Law & Order SVU.

Fort Lee to Honor Universal Studio Centennial With Two Commemorative Street Signs in June at the Site of Universal's First Studios

The Fort Lee Film Commission met with the Fort Lee Mayor and Council during their work session Thursday night, Jan. 12. The Film Commission petitioned the Mayor and Council to commemoratively name the corner of Main Street and Jones Road as "Universal Studio Way" and the corner of Fifth Street and Washington Avenue in the Coytesville section, "Carl Laemmle Way." The Fifth Street location is the site where Universal started their first studio when they formed in 1912.  

From 1912 to 1915 Fort Lee was the birthplace and home of Universal Studio. In this centennial year, the Fort Lee Film Commission has reconnected with the studio. The largest studio in the world, headquartered in Universal City in California, can look back to its birth in the first American film town of Fort Lee, NJ. 

And just as a reminder, Universal still shoots on occasion in Fort Lee – Law & Order SVU’s next episode to air Jan. 18 will include footage they shot in Fort Lee’s in December.

To that we say, “Welcome home Universal.”

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