Long before the Hollywood sign towered above Los Angeles, the warm climate, lush setting and reimagined cityscape of Jacksonville was luring the biggest names in silent movies to the Winter Film Capital of the World.
Jacksonville's Golden Age really began with its architectural backdrop. An ambitious visionary, Henry John Klutho, rallied local leaders after a fire destroyed the city. Klutho, a pioneer of the modern Prairie School movement put his strong lines, flowing spaces and expanses of windows to work. Bold buildings and blocks arose in displays accented by textures that would give the neighborhood its timeless look.
The city's fresh new face and tropical weather had caught the attention of New York filmmakers. Jacksonville itself was soon buzzing as a living set and the nearby dense forests easily doubled as exotic scenery. Locals soon got in on the act as background extras, embracing their star-studded streets of industry pioneers. At the time, everyone was buzzing about Norman Studios, the first to feature African Americans in heroic roles, and then there was Kalem Studios, which rolled out the first dazzling Technicolor production-from a moving train car studio. As it turns out, this same wildly resourceful edge began rubbing some residents the wrong way. A few directors pulled fire alarms to capture speeding fire trucks on film. Another even advertised a parachute jump from a building to draw the big crowd needed for the shot. One raced a car into the river...never letting on that it was just a movie scene. And outrageous car chases and staged bank robberies were flat-out reckless. By the time city leaders put their feet down, the spotlights and stars had shifted west toward a new studio sanctuary, and the thrill of Jacksonville's action sequences gave way to more dramatic storylines. But a whole new generation says that renegade spirit of moviemaking rolls on creatively right here.
Today, the streets of Jacksonville are once again attracting filmmakers from all over. Norman Studios, the last of that silent empire, was saved by the city and now saves the area's lost cinematic stories while inspiring new ones. And local film festivals have refocused that spotlight on up-and-coming young artists looking for the next legendary backdrop-and a not-so-silent voice all of their own.