As I write this blog on the evening of Thursday, December 12th, the fate of the historic Champion Studio, the oldest standing movie studio building in the United States, may hang in the balance on of all days Friday the 13th! Apparently, according to the Englewood Cliffs Building Department (per a phone call I made there today) the owner, if he presents the proper paperwork, can obtain a permit to demolish this historic building immediately.
Why the interest of the Fort Lee Film Commission in a building a few feet over our border in Englewood Cliffs? Easily answered – this studio was always considered in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee according to all the primary source material gathered – you can read this in the book “Fort Lee the Film Town” by film historian and Rutgers University Professor Richard Koszarski. The studio was built in 1910 and in 1912 it became the first home to Universal Studio and that studio owned the building until 1923 when it was sold for use as a printing plant. The building operated as a printing plant through the middle of 2013 when the owner retired and sold the property. Given the history of this building and the fact that it remains as of today the oldest standing movie studio building in the USA it is quite proper for the Fort Lee Film Commission to attempt to educate citizens and those citizens do include the Mayor & Council of Englewood Cliffs. We have been working with the Englewood Cliffs Historical Committee for the past year and the Fort Lee Film Commission applied for and was awarded a Bergen County History Grant by the Bergen County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs for a documentary we are producing about the history of the Champion Studio. We are currently in postproduction of this documentary, which should have been completed already, but there was a major delay in the Library of Congress finding the remaining films produced at the Champion and getting them to the Fort Lee Film Commission. The documentary should be complete by early January and if nothing else it will serve as a testament to the history of this site, which is important not only locally but also in world cinema history. We have also, with the former owner’s permission, removed a dressing room door and part of the dressing room wall that remained on the northern interior of the building and these artifacts are now housed in the Fort Lee Museum. We did this to avoid losing every part of this history of the building if it was to be demolished.
This historic studio building deserves someone to speak on its behalf. Would some people have the Fort Lee Film Commission silenced and have no voice be heard to speak on behalf of this building? That would be a great disservice to all who live in New Jersey and who love film and history. Given the fact that over the course of the past few years we have had film crews and documentary filmmakers from around the world, most recently from France and Germany, have us take them to the building so they could shoot footage of the exterior proves the importance of this building to people from outside our area.
This isn’t the first lost cause the Fort Lee Film Commission has been involved with, as our first one was our attempt to save the Barrymore House in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee more than ten years ago. Though we lost that battle we vowed to educate the public and in the past ten years we have mounted twice a year historic jitney tours throughout the borough, won a grant to produce a film history map which has been distributed to schools and citizens throughout the area, worked with documentary filmmakers to promote our history, and created and placed historic markers around the borough. The results have been great in that earlier this year we effectively worked towards the saving of historic Rambo’s Saloon building on First Street.
The Champion Studio of course poses a unique challenge to the Fort Lee Film Commission, as the building is a few feet over the border in Englewood Cliffs. But again, if we did not speak out in favor of saving this building and the importance of its history we would not be worthy of the title film commission. We wrote a letter from the Fort Lee FIlm Commission to the Englewood Cliffs Mayor & Council in October. We started an online petition to save the Champion which we intended to present to the Englewood Cliffs Mayor & Council on January 2, 2014 but that might be too late – I would still urge you to sign the petition which you can visit at www.fortleefilm.org on our upcoming events page.
So this clearly seems a lost cause as the shadows of cranes appear on the horizon to dismantle this 103year-old building. But let us state that this building could have a bright future. We have publicly proposed that Englewood Cliffs approach LG, the giant electronics corporation that recently broke ground on their new North American HQ in Englewood Cliffs. Given the fact that this corporation is involved in digital media and is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of television sets, it might make sense to see if they would be interested in purchasing the Champion to convert it into a 21st century digital media arts center for the kids of Englewood Cliffs and the surrounding areas. This might be a regional media center for Bergen County high school students to access. What a unique opportunity that would be to train a new generation of filmmakers in the oldest standing studio building in America.
I will end with a clip about a lost cause from a film. What better way to end our work on saving the Champion Studio than to allow director Frank Capra via actor Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith teach us a lesson about lost causes and why these are the only causes worth fighting for.. .. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRiJ_rOqkC0