Theater projects in Fort Lee put focus on town’s history as birthplace of the modern movie industry

Fort Lee, the birthplace of the modern film industry — where the first gangster film was shot, where the first sex symbol of the silver screen made her name — is approachinA rendering of a film center and museum planned for Main Street and Park Avenue in Fort Lee, where the film industry started in the early part of the 20th century.g 30 years without a movie theater.

A rendering of a film center and museum planned for Main Street and Park Avenue in Fort Lee, where the film industry started in the early part of the 20th century.
The last theater, the Sharon Cinema, closed in 1989 and now serves as retail space on Abbott Boulevard. Another, shuttered a few years earlier, houses a CVS in Linwood Plaza.
Yet another, the Lee Theater, operated across the street from the Plaza Diner on Lemoine Avenue until it was razed in 1973 to make way for a large-scale development project that never materialized. The area lay dormant for more than 40 years.

It could be considered a matter of historical justice, then, that the $1 billion redevelopment project under way at the site will yield not one, but two brand-new centers for cinema in Fort Lee.

The first, an eight-screen affair, part of the iPic Theaters chain, is expected to open this summer with the first phase of the Hudson Lights complex, which will have 140,000 square feet of retail space and 276 rental apartment units.

The second is a film center and museum to be built on the corner of Main Street and Park Avenue alongside a second 47-story tower that is part of a 900-unit residential complex known as The Modern. When it’s completed as early as 2018, it will become the only building in New Jersey dedicated exclusively to showcasing the history of film and screening movies from every era, said Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

The facility will attract visitors to the borough and, Meyers said, “it will also be a clarion call for the rest of the state: ‘Hey! This is our history. Let’s not just put it over in a corner. Let’s bring it out in the open and promote it and use this as an economic engine.’ŸŸ”

The building will be named in honor of the Barrymore family, who lived in Fort Lee and made their first films there in the early 20th century. From 1910 to 1918 — an era when feature-length films replaced the old two-reelers, nickelodeons made way for picture palaces and the motion picture star system was born — at least 11 major studios set up shop along the Palisades.

After World War I, however, producers started to favor working in California, and Fort Lee’s studios became storage and distribution facilities.

SJP Residential Properties, the developer of The Modern, will build the shell of the film center, run electric service and water lines into the structure, install a marquee on its exterior and provide dedicated parking, according to the development agreement that the company reached with the borough.

Fort Lee, which will own the building, will then be responsible for turning it into a film center. The Fort Lee Film Commission, which has been tasked with operating the center, has already hired H3, a Manhattan-based architectural firm, to draw up the designs.

“We were looking for something that was evocative and almost a timeless space to show a film in,” said Nelson Page, the film commission’s chairman and a paid consultant on the project. “Nothing that was art deco but nothing that was too futuristic. Nothing that was art nouveau and nothing that somebody could look at and place a time.”

The preliminary designs show a roughly 23,000-square-foot building anchored by a museum and a 250-seat theater with a stage and orchestra pit. In the lobby, a red carpet winds from the theater entrance up an eye-catching staircase to a second floor with space for an art gallery, offices and conference rooms.

“I think we got in the end something that was very futuristic for the 1920s,” Meyers said, adding that the theater will be able to show films in 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and 4K digital formats.

Meyers and Page have so many ideas for the new center, and are so excited about them, they literally talk over each other when discussing their plans: film festivals, retrospectives, foreign film series, events highlighting emerging filmmakers, filmmaking boot camps, silent films with live orchestras, exhibits in collaboration with friends in New York and Hollywood, archival work, and so on.

Even the proximity to the commercial iPic theater is a plus, Meyers said. The iPic chain promotes an upscale experience that includes reclining leather seats, food and beverage service — and ticket prices to match.

“We think instead of going at loggerheads with them, it’s going to be a very synergistic thing where we’re going to be feeding audiences to them and they’re going to be feeding audiences to us,” he said.

So far, the borough has spent nearly $300,000 on the film center, mostly on architectural fees, Borough Administrator Al Restaino said. About 20 percent of that has gone toward consulting work performed by Page, a longtime theater owner and operator, Restaino said. Another $62,000 has been set aside to complete the design phase. The full cost of the film center won’t be known until the design is finalized and all fixtures and furnishings are selected, the administrator said.

Admission to the museum will be free, Meyers said, but not admission to the theater.

The center’s opening date depends on the speed at which the second Modern tower goes up. Restaino said that construction on the film center will not begin until the majority of the tower is finished, likely in 2018.

Page, who saw his first movie at the Lee Theater as a 5-year-old, said he is thrilled to help bring a theater back to Fort Lee.

“We were charged with the idea of designing this facility and putting it together,” he said, referring to the Film Commission. “But what we’re doing is we’re ensuring that generations will remember and appreciate and understand what contributions Fort Lee made in this industry.”

 

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