From the Archives: As This Year’s Academy Awards Are Presented, Imagine Jacksonville As America’s Movie Capital

By Robert Sanchez

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 18, 2015.

“Hollywood,” like “Wall Street” for finance and “Washington” for the federal government, is one of those place names that has become shorthand for something else. The Southern California town with the iconic hillside sign is now synonymous with the movie industry and, more broadly, with the entertainment industry in general.

Turn back the clock a century, however, and the center of the nascent movie industry wasn’t yet in California; it was in Florida — in Jacksonville, to be exact — at least in the winter months.

Jacksonville? Yes. During the early 20th century, many of the movie studios that were initially based in New York City, that great gaping port of entry for ideas from abroad, sought out sunnier latitudes more suitable for shooting films using the primitive equipment of that era. The studios were cranking out scores of these silent feature films, mostly one reel in length, to feed the nation’s growing appetite for this new medium.

The first studio to come south, New York-based Kalem Pictures, began shooting films in Jacksonville in the winter of 1908, and others soon followed. By 1915, approximately 30 movie studios were operating in Jacksonville. A very interesting account of this period can be found in Blair Miller’s excellent 2013 book, “Almost Hollywood: The Forgotten Story of Jacksonville, Florida.”


Motion picture scene, Jacksonville, Florida, 1916 (Florida Memory)

Obviously the old river port’s fleeting fling with the movie industry didn’t last. The studios began heeding the siren call of Los Angeles. Otherwise, the bejeweled celebrities might be seen on Oscar night strolling along the banks of the St. Johns River en route to their moment of fame on the red carpet.

Perhaps the breakup of Jacksonville and the movie industry was as inevitable as divorce now seems to be among Hollywood’s power couples. For one thing, there was a culture clash — the equivalent of the divorce court’s irreconcilable differences. Jacksonville was a conservative southern town populated by church-going folks. It was relatively small, too; in the 1910 Census, Jacksonville’s population of 57,699 had ranked a distant 95th among America’s cities while its emerging rival, Los Angeles, already ranked 17th with a population of 319,198.

Granted, Jacksonville was growing, rapidly, but too little, too late, to keep the movie industry from seeking a place more in keeping with its sizeable ambitions. Sure, by the time of the 1920 Census, Jacksonville’s population of 91,558 had moved it up from 95th place to rank 79th among America’s cities. However, by then Los Angeles, with a population of 576,673, had cracked the top 10 as the nation’s tenth largest city.


 Motion picture advertisement for Kalem Studios, Jacksonville, Florida, 1910 (Florida Memory)

Not only does size matter, but so does the civic culture. The movie industry was wild in those days — even by today’s loose standards. Indeed, Hollywood of that era appeared to believe that “nothing exceeds like excess.” In response, several cities — most notoriously Boston, Massachusetts and Memphis, Tennessee — had set up censorship boards. Despite this, the studios had continued to test the limits of public tolerance during the decade dubbed “the Roaring Twenties.”

By 1930, however, the industry — under increasing attacks for flagrant and shocking debauchery on the screen and off — set up what was to become known as the Production Code. To head the office in charge of on-the-screen morality, the studio moguls chose former Republican National Chairman Will Hays, who had served as Postmaster General in the Cabinet of the ethically challenge President Warren G. Harding. Hays appointed a man named Joseph Breen to enforce a set of prudish standards that lasted until 1968, when it was finally replaced by the rating system.

As film historian Scott Eyman reports, what Joseph Breen thought of the Hollywood of the day was evident in a letter he wrote in which he complained that studios were controlled by “a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Here we have Paganism rampant and in its most virulent form. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. ”

Unfortunately, that impression of Hollywood was widespread and was not a good fit for Jacksonville. In the end it didn’t matter. By 1930, when things came to a head with the adoption of the Production Code, the movie studios had long since decamped from Jacksonville to Southern California, where civic boosters had offered various financial inducements in addition to the promise of a very different cultural climate, consistently mild weather without Jacksonville’s frequent rainstorms, and a more varied landscape ranging from the ocean to the nearby mountains and desert.


Motion picture scene, Jacksonville, Florida, 1916 (Florida Memory)

There is also no doubt, however, that the movie studios’ exit from Jacksonville was hastened by particular incidents that occurred during filming there — and by a subsequent change in the political climate that stemmed from those incidents.

One of the worst involved the filming of a mob scene that got out of hand. The “mob” consisting of more than 1,000 extras was supposed to wreck a building that had been prepared for destruction, smash the windows of a nearby saloon, and loot the saloon’s liquor supply. The overly enthusiastic crowd of locals broke through the police lines, consumed some of the looted liquor, and caused a number of injuries. Some of Jacksonville’s good citizens, who had not been advised in advance of the filming, thought they’d witnessed real mob violence.

Filming on the Sabbath was also a concern. With the streets of the downtown business district mostly deserted, Sundays were an ideal time to stage car chases and to send fire trucks racing off. Unfortunately, the racket disturbed the worship services at downtown churches, and working on the Sabbath was still frowned upon in this era long before most retail establishments began opening for business seven days a week.

 Gamount Studios motion picture scene w/ convicts, Jacksonville, Florida (Florida Memory)

Remember, too, that the political climate in the state was such that in 1916, Floridians elected as their governor one Sidney J. Catts, a preacher who ran that year as the candidate of the Prohibition Party after narrowly losing in the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial primary.

So storm clouds of a culture clash were on the horizon anyway by 1916, and the “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition was waiting in the wings. Moreover, by the following year public annoyance with the moviemakers had become a key issue in Jacksonville’s mayoral election of 1917. The incumbent Mayor J.E.T. Bowden, a bon vivant who had been — and still was — a big booster of the movie industry, decisively lost his re-election bid to John W. Martin. Martin portrayed himself as a “reform” candidate, and he courted the church vote, which was very important at that time. Martin later went on to become Florida’s governor, presiding during the land boom of the late 1920s. When Martin defeated Bowden to become Jacksonville’s mayor, the movie industry, already feeling unwelcome, quickly pulled up stakes and headed west.

There the studios have remained, but increasingly they have roamed outside of Southern California to film in exotic locales, including Miami, and in cities such as Canada’s Vancouver and Toronto, both of which often serve as stand-ins for U.S. cities where union rules make filming unnecessarily expensive. The studios’ wanderlust has set up a kind of bidding war as states and cities are asked to provide financial inducements for the industry. Michigan, Georgia, and Louisiana have had some success in luring studios to film in their states. And, as reporter Gray Rohrer recently reported in the Orlando Sentinel, the studios are now lobbying the Florida Legislature to resume a tax credit program that cost the state nearly $300 million before it was discontinued. Whether the return on such investments is a net plus or a net minus too often depends on subjective criteria such as assigning a value to publicity.

Hollywood loves sequels, and computer generated images can now supply the mountains and the deserts that Florida’s topography lacks. Even so, whether or not the Legislature coughs up more tax money to lure movie productions here, it is doubtful that Jacksonville will ever reprise its role as America’s movie capital.

Moreover, Jacksonville — now Florida’s most populous city — doesn’t need the film industry or the aggravation that sometimes comes with it. The city’s bustling port and a biomedical industry anchored by the Mayo Clinic have given Jacksonville a solid economic foundation.

Even so, who can blame those Jacksonville residents who are aware of the city’s cinematic history if, as they watch the Academy Awards, they wonder what would have happened if the movie industry had not been made to feel unwelcome. The thought of what could have happened if the city instead had actively competed to hang on to the studios brings to mind images of spotlights and a red carpet . Awakening to the reality that the fight is over brings to mind one of cinema’s most iconic laments, uttered on a different waterfront: “I coulda’ been a contender.”


(Image Credit: Kerim/Flickr)