Restoring an important, forgotten history

In 1926, silent filmmaker Richard E. Norman was preparing to make a movie starring Bessie Coleman, America’s first female African American aviator.

Then tragically, Coleman was killed in a plane crash in Jacksonville. So Norman wrote a script featuring a beautiful black woman, inspired by Coleman. He filmed “The Flying Ace” at his Norman Studios complex in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood, and in nearby Mayport.

The hero of the film was a black World War I-era pilot, who in his post-war career as a railroad detective solves a mystery, recovers stolen money and saves Ruth’s life in a fiery air drama.Billed as “the greatest airplane thriller ever filmed,” it was not only an exciting adventure story, it was historically important, featuring an all-black cast portrayed in a positive light. Norman made a lot of movies for and about black Americans at a time when few other filmmakers did. Between 1919 and 1928, Norman – a Southern born white man – made films about black people that portrayed them as heroes, cowboys, bankers, businessmen and pretty damsels in distress.

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“Mr. Norman just wanted to tell a great story,” and so “he made family-friendly adventure films,” says Devan Stuart Lesley, co-chair and publicity director for Norman Studios, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his legacy, and that of silent film making in Northeast Florida.

During Norman’s time, Jacksonville was the winter film capitol of the country; between 1908 and the early 1920s it was Hollywood before Hollywood. At its peak, about 30 film production companies were based in Jacksonville, Norman Studios among them.

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But Norman Studios was different. It was the only one that produced what were called at the time “race” films. It is the only studio of its kind still in existence, and likely the only silent film studio in the country left in its original form. The complex of five buildings spread out on a large city block lot is still intact, and the exteriors of four of the buildings, now owned by the city of Jacksonville, have been restored. The Norman Studios organization is raising money to restore the buildings’ interiors with the goal of turning the complex into a silent film museum and film education center.

Norman’s story is amazing, and the history behind his films is important, and deserves to be preserved and told, Lesley says. At one time, before the recession, the National Park Service was considering making Norman Studios a small national park. Now with the economy improving, “that would be absolutely perfect,” says co-chair Rita Reagan, who has been involved in the studio’s preservation efforts for 20 years. It turns out the State of Florida shared the sentiment. This February, Norman Studios was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and Raegan is passionate about turning it into a renowned visitor and tourist destination.

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“That is a very important mission,” says Barbara Tepa Lupack, author of the book “Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking.” “It is an important treasure.”

“It is a little known but very important part of Civil Rights history,” Lesley says. It’s a history of which Jacksonville “can be very proud.”

When movies were first made beginning in the early 1900s, the industry was segregated, and remained so for decades.

Most filmmakers made films for and about white people. Black characters were usually negative and stereotypical, and often played by white actors wearing “outlandish costumes and burnt cork makeup,” Lupack says in her book. Even characters portrayed by black actors, she says, were often “self-serving Uncle Toms,” “dowdy devoted Mammies,” “sexually aggressive bucks,” and “mischievious pickaninnies.”

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Movie theaters were also segregated. Blacks were occasionally permitted to watch mainstream films in white theaters during off-hour screenings. But they also had their own theaters, where “race” films by Norman and black filmmakers were shown.

Norman was inspired by black filmmakers at the time, particularly Oscar Micheaux, who became a friendly competitor. The difference was that movies by black filmmakers were told from a black perspective, Reagan says. “Richard couldn’t do that, because he wasn’t black. So he made upbeat adventure movies. The actors loved them.”

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Born in Middleburg, FL in 1891, Norman began his career as a young man making “townie” films. Armed with a script and footage of a dramatic train wreck, he traveled throughout the Midwest making movies starring local townspeople. He then invited the entire town to the screening and sold tickets.

“To our knowledge, he did that in 40 different towns,” Lesley says. “He would ride through in a big open car with a big sign that said ‘Have You Talent?’”

“He was on the edge all the time” financially, Reagan says. After he viewed some race films, he realized he could make movies for an underserved portion of the population, and create a niche for himself in the booming entertainment industry.

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Norman met his wife, Gloria, in one of the towns, and together they moved to Jacksonville in 1919. One of the city’s many film companies, Eagle Films, was going bankrupt and their Arlington studio was for sale. The main building had been built as a cigar factory in 1916 and converted for film. Other buildings included a wardrobe cottage, prop storage garage, generator shed and interior stage.

Perfect for Norman’s needs, Norman Studios was born.

All told, Norman successfully filmed seven feature length race films before talking motion pictures changed the industry in 1927.

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Also an inventor, he threw his energy and money into making a talking movie sound system, called “the Camera-phone.” Initially successful, his system was rendered obsolete overnight after Thomas Edison invented a better one.

Norman went bankrupt, but stayed in Jacksonville, where Gloria ran a dance studio at Norman Studios for 40 years, continuing long after her husband’s death in 1960.

When she died, the studio was sold to an electrical contractor, who sold it to the city in 2002.

The wonderful fact that all the buildings still exist is because they stayed in the family so long, Reagan says.

Sadly, “The Flying Ace” is Norman’s only race film still in existence, as far as anyone knows. Norman Studios occasionally holds public screenings, and they hold out hope that someday another film may be found.

“Even if we never find another Norman film, I’m glad we have this one,” Lesley says.  “This is a little known film with a lot of historical significance.”

 Click here to view a clip from the documentary “Hollywood East,” about the First Coast’s silent film legacy.

Norman Studios holds periodic silent film screenings, called “Silent Sundays,” as fund-raising events. For more information about Silent Sundays, becoming a volunteer, and to view clips of Norman films, visit normanstudios.org.