Place

Norman Film Studios

Two story building with a green hipped roof, overhanging eaves, and exposed rafters
Norman Film Studios, Jacksonville, Florida

Photograph by Andrew Waber, courtesy of Florida State Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
The Norman Film Studios is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The studio complex, originally developed in 1915 by the Eagle Film Company on the site of a cigar factory, served as the headquarters of the Norman Film Manufacturing Company from 1922 to 1928. At its height, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company was one of the most prominent independent makers of race films in the country, with a national distribution network. "Race films" was a colloquial term to describe movies specifically made for African American audiences. Some of the more notable Norman films shot at the studio include Regeneration, A Debtor to the Law, and The Flying Ace. The studio created a stir in the early 1920s by hiring the legendary rodeo performer Bill Pickett to star in two all-black feature length westerns, which were filmed in Oklahoma. The Norman Film Studios is the last complex from the silent film era located in Jacksonville and is one of the few preserved race film studios in the country.

At a time when most filmmakers were leaving Jacksonville and moving to Hollywood, Richard E. Norman Sr. went against the trend by relocating to Jacksonville. Born in Middleburg, Florida in 1891, Norman acquired an interest in chemistry and motion pictures while attending college in Tampa. He began his filmmaking career while traveling extensively throughout the Midwest and Northeast sections of the country, writing scenes and filming as he went. With headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Norman ventured from city to city, setting up shop, obtaining local financing, using local actors and crew, and then shooting the movie. He would develop and edit the picture at cost in his Iowa lab and return back to the city with the completed version.

It was while working in Jacksonville in 1920 on one of his "city" pictures that Norman decide to return to Florida permanently. Norman established a base in the city realizing that the exodus away from Jacksonville by the major companies meant that reasonably priced studio space was available for a smaller independent company. Once in Jacksonville, Norman also recognized the commercial potential of making black-cast pictures. In a 1978 interview, Norman's son Richard E. Norman, Jr. said his father was "deeply concerned about prejudice." He believed his father had an underlying desire to do something constructive to better race relations while allowing black actors to show what they were capable of as performers and human beings. By the 1920s, Norman emerged as one of the most prolific producers and distributors of all-colored pictures in the country.

From 1920 to 1928, Norman produced an average of one feature picture a year, plus additional comedy shorts, such as The Love Bug (1920). The first movies produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company were The Green-Eyed Monster (1920), a story of rival railroad companies starring Jack "Buddy" Austin; and The Crimson Skull (1921) and The Bull-Dogger (1921), two of the first westerns to celebrate the contributions made by black cowboys in the West. Both westerns featured the legendary rodeo performer Bill Pickett. The initial success of these pictures encouraged Norman to purchase the old Eagle Film studio in Arlington in 1922. Most of Norman's films after these Westerns would be shot on location in Jacksonville, where many Arlington residents were used for characters in certain movie scenes. All the post production work was done at the Arlington studio. In time, Richard Norman proved to be one of the more successful independents supplying ethnic theaters nationwide. Other notable feature films include: Regeneration (1923), a romantic tale of treasure hunting in the South Seas; A Debtor to the Law (1924); The Flying Ace (1926), an aerial drama featuring Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd; and The Black Gold (1928), a Western that re-teamed Criner and Boyd in an Oklahoma oil adventure shot on location.

 

Last updated: September 26, 2019