By Bailie Staton
In the era when Jacksonville was Hollywood, Norman Film Studios became famous for breaking racial stereotypes by providing black actors with positive roles in the film industry of the early 1900s.
The Arlington studio was founded by Richard Norman in 1920 to produce “race films” that featured all-black casts and were marketed to black audiences. They were able to showcase the talents of black actors, who otherwise might have been consigned to play more stereotypic roles.
“Norman was brave enough to break the racial barrier in the film industry,” explained Rita Reagan, the community and education director of Norman Laboratories.
Although Norman Studios wasn’t the only production house nationally that made race films, it was the only such studio in Jacksonville, where film companies once flourished.
Over 30 film studios had set up shop in Jacksonville by 1916. Eagle Film Company, which would eventually become Norman Studios, came to Jacksonville from Chicago in that year.
By 1920, the studio at 6337 Arlington Road had expanded to five buildings when Norman purchased it.
It was the last one left in Jacksonville.
Buildings served many purposes
Inside the main building facing Arlington Road were rooms used for prop design, lighting equipment and areas to film the movies. On the second floor was where the Norman family lived and where they hosted screening parties in a special “theater room.”
Nationally known actors were brought to Jacksonville to play the male and female starring roles. Due to segregation and lack of any housing facilities nearby, these actors often stayed in the production building where the Norman family also lived or in the wardrobe cottage.
The generator building housed one huge machine that pumped water throughout the campus, including the pool. A second generator in the properties garage created the electricity for the campus.
Another building served many different functions including as a dressing room, storage, a living place with a small kitchenette and bathroom, and even one point housed Norman’s son’s family.
The most active spot, however, might have been the stage set building. Here was where many of the scenes from Norman’s films were shot.
It included a stage that could be wheeled out from inside to take advantage of the natural light. A pool in front was the site for any scenes that needed water shots.
Norman creates positive images
Norman’s work was originally inspired by the work of Oscar Macheaux, regarded as the father of black filmmaking. Norman was convinced the South needed to see such work so he began casting black actors in his movies.
Norman’s idea was to portray blacks as multidimensional rather than as the stereotypes often shown within other films.
His characters were pilots, businessmen, doctors, family men and even railroad owners. Norman’s films also set the action in positive settings, providing constructive models for black audiences in what was still a deeply racially divided nation.
“The whole point of race films was to depict real people in real situations,” Reagan said.
However, since Norman was white, he didn’t attempt to tell stories from a black point of view or make message films. His are all adventure stories made in an all-black world with a universal point of view.
Before coming to Jacksonville, Norman had been involved in creating a series of movies that all used footage of a train wreck. Each film would follow a similar plot of star-crossed lovers.
“The stories were always a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing,” Reagan said.
Once ensconced in his Jacksonville studio, Norman essentially recreated that film using an all-black cast as his first Norman Studios production — “The Green Eyed Monster.”
Norman’s second movie, “The Bulldogger,” followed black rodeo performer Bill Pickett, who was famous for inventing “bulldogging” in which he would go up to a bull in the ring and grab it by its horns and then bite it on the lip to bring it to its knees.
There was so much footage from “The Bulldogger” left over, Norman was able to make another movie called “The Crimson Skull,” a Western movie of a gang of outlaws.
After watching, “The Bulldogger,” famed black aviator Bessie Coleman was so inspired that she approached Norman to have a film made of her life. Coleman got in touch with Norman and they made arrangements to start filming after her air show in Jacksonville in 1926.
But the day before the airshow, Coleman was practicing a stunt at a field in West Jacksonville when the plane nosedived unexpectedly, and Coleman fell 2,000 feet to her death.
Although Norman was unable to create a film on her life, his next film, “The Flying Ace,” followed a former wartime pilot who returned from the war to become a detective.
While seven films were produced by the studio, “The Flying Ace” is the only film that remains. It has been restored and is housed within the Library of Congress.
All of Norman’s other films, created on extremely flammable acetate film, have been lost except for a few badly deteriorated outtakes.
The end is near
In the late 1920s, a monumental change in the film industry spelled doom for Norman Studios.
It was then that filmmakers started using sound. Although Norman attempted to capitalize on it by creating a machine that synchronized the sound on a disc to play alongside the film, his device was soon eclipsed.
“Everyone’s nemesis was Thomas Edison,” Reagan explained. “His company, Western Electric, had a device that put sound directly onto the film.”
That spelled the end for Norman. By that time, he sunk so much money into his now-unnecessary sound device that he couldn’t afford to make any more films.
Once the studio was officially closed, however, a new business flourished inside its walls. Norman’s wife, Gloria Norman, was an avid dancer and decided to use the empty editing and storage room upstairs in the front building as a dance studio.
Having turned down job offers from major film companies, Norman continued in the film distribution business, operated two silent film theaters in the Gainesville vicinity, and made commercials for the nascent television industry until his death in the 1960s.
In 1974, Hugh Smith bought the property, using it for a variety of purposes. In 1999 he sold the stage set building to the Circle of Faith Ministries, which converted it into the church’s sanctuary
The city of Jacksonville bought the remaining four buildings in 2002, restored their exteriors, then attempted to do renovations and restore some of the generator machines in one of the back buildings, but due to contract complications, much is still left to be done.
In late 2016, Norman Film Studios was recognized with its fame and given National Historical Landmark status because of its significance to the Civil Rights Movement.
Meanwhile, Reagan and her organization are attempting to raise funds to purchase the film stage from the Circle of Faith Ministries.
To this day, Norman Film Studios is a celebrated piece of history. Studied by filmmakers across the United States, this film studio will always be honored as the start of the end of racial segregation in the movie business.
After years of obscurity, Norman Studios is more recognized nationally and internationally, than locally. The danger is that the city-owned, unprotected buildings are subject to fire, vandalism and deterioration from vermin and weather.