Traditionally news stories on the eve of the New Year center on what has happened in the past 12 months and how those events impact the lives of citizens. Such events are normally political, weather-related, disasters, both natural and man-made, peace, war, death and life. That pretty much covers the spectrum.
Large and small, all these stories tend, in one way or another, to create a ripple in that year that extends through the rest of the year and beyond.
This year in review is a bit different in scope and measure. What I have tried to do since the creation of the weekly "From the Archives" earlier this year, is to blow off the dust in the attic of our archive, both the archive housed in the Fort Lee Museum, and also the archive we each carry around in our minds per the people and places of our past in Fort Lee.
These memories need to be brought out into the sunshine to grow and be shared with others.
I hope these columns have brought back great memories that you have shared with friends and family. I do know one direct result has been donations to both the Fort Lee Film Commission and Fort Lee Historical Society archives housed in the Fort Lee Museum. The articles about Palisades Amusement Park have brought about several large donations of material, as you will see below.
The best way to tackle this year in review is to realize that our past is very much with us whether we realize it or not, and the streets of Fort Lee, each one, contain stories and tales from long ago about people who, in a sense, will always be with us as part of our community.
So with a tip of the hat to the King of Late Night Mr. David Letterman, let’s start our Top Ten list of historic events in Fort Lee in 2011:
Placement of Fort Lee Film Commission's "HIT THE SIGN WIN TICKETS TO THE MOVIES" sign on both the Fort Lee National and American Little League outfield fences in April served to connect the young ballplayers of Fort Lee to the ballplayers of the old Fort Lee Athletic Club and their former baseball field, which existed for decades until the Fort Lee Municipal Lot paved it over 50 years ago. We lost the Fort Lee Athletic Club building in late 2010, but the spirit of the Fort Lee AC continues with the members today.
Fort Lee AC members, including Tommy Skelley, donated the original Athletic Club sign that hung on the outside of the building since 1914 to the Fort Lee Historical Society, along with many historic images. We placed the sign and some archival photos in the meeting room of our museum, which has been dedicated to the Fort Lee Athletic Club.
Among the photos are a few of legendary New York Yankees Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig when they played along with members of the Fort Lee Athletic Club during a barnstorming tour through Fort Lee in the fall of 1931. Thus our young sluggers today can swing for the fences knowing the Babe and the Iron Horse did the very same thing in their town.
See also: First Little Leaguer Hits Sign!
The Fort Lee Film Commission and the Fort Lee VFW co-sponsored a Spring 2011 film festival screening of the HBO miniseries The Pacific – the reason behind this program was twofold: to honor U.S. Marine Medal of Honor winner and New Jersey native John Basilone, who was killed in action at the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, and to also applaud the Fort Lee VFW and their Commander, James Viola, who lobbied successfully to have Basilone inducted into the NJ Hall of Fame in 2011.
The final screening included a guest appearance by actor Jon Seda, who played John Basilone in The Pacific. Seda and our own Fort Lee World War II vets brought this period of American history to life for our community, and we were able to capture their memories on videotape as part of our Fort Lee Historical Society living history program. Seda was presented with the 2011 Fort Lee Film Commission Lewis J. Selznick Award for his work in the HBO award-winning series. Also joining us for in person for the series was John Basilone’s niece, filmmaker Diane Hawkins.
For the second year in a row, the Fort Lee Film Commission, Fort Lee Coalition for the Arts and the Fort Lee Historical Society, along with In Napoli Restaurant (116 Main Street) held a Feb. 15 fundraiser on John Barrymore’s birthday to support the Fort Lee High School thespians. We held a ceremony under the John Barrymore Way sign at the corner of Main Street and Central Road near the spot where Buckheister’s Hotel stood in 1900. This is where the then 18-year-old John Barrymore made his stage debut in the play, Man of the World, directed by his famous thespian dad Maurice Barrymore. The Barrymores, then residents of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, held this fundraiser to raise money for a fire house to be built in Coytesville on Washington Avenue – that was the home of Fire Company Number 2 until the late 1950s, and the building still stands. We hope to place a historic marker on the building in 2012. Following the short commemoration, the group went into the bar at In Napoli across the street and raised over $1,000 that was used to pay for a Shakespeare workshop for the acting students at Fort Lee High School.
This event will take place in 2012 on the evening of February 15 at 7 p.m. at the bar of In Napoli restaurant – ticket prices are $15 – call (201) 693-2763 or visit www.fortleefilm.org for more information.
All proceeds will go towards the funding of the May production of the musical, Mack & Mabel, starring Fort Lee High School students in the school's auditorium. The Fort Lee Film Commission will involve actual Keystone Studio film footage shot in Fort Lee in 1912 in this production. This musical will celebrate the founding of Keystone Studio by Mack Sennett in Fort Lee in 1912.
Our June Fort Lee Arts & Music Festival was again proceeded with the Fort Lee Artist Guild Spring exhibit at the Fort Lee Museum. We have held these exhibits each year for the past three at the behest of the late, legendary Fort Lee artist Paul Ortlip. A year before Paul died, we held a town-wide exhibit of the artwork of the Ortlip family, including many of Paul’s own paintings and murals. One in particular is a large painting of several elements of Fort Lee history, which Paul painted in the early 1970s. This painting hung in the Fort Lee Library for decades and suffered serious damage. The Fort Lee Historic Committee, Fort Lee Historical Society, Fort Lee Coalition for the Arts and the Fort Lee Library Board of Trustees are in the process of having the painting restored, and we hope to have it hung above the gallery space in the Fort Lee Library in the coming year.
The story of Fort Lee, and really any community, can only be told and preserved by people. And one of the most important people in this preservation effort for the past 50 years has been former Fort Lee Historical Society President Bob Boylan. Thanks to Bob, we have thousands of photos from Fort Lee’s past. And with the new technology at our hands today, we continue his work via such outlets as Facebook and the wonderful Facebook page, I grew up in Fort Lee. The Fort Lee Historical Society dedicated a room in the Fort Lee Museum in Bob Boylan’s name at the Society’s December meeting.
This year saw great progress in both the fundraising element and the production of the statue of Revolutionary War patriot and writer Thomas Paine. We recently received a $1,000 donation from Universal Studios, the studio that was born in Fort Lee in 1912. This donation was associated with a recent Law & Order SVU shoot in Monument Park. Part of the mandate of the Fort Lee Common Sense Society, the organization behind the fundraising effort, is to put the “Fort” back into Fort Lee by exposing our roots as one of the few Americans towns with a past linked directly to the Spirit of ’76 and General Washington and his troops. Each year on or near Thomas Paine’s birthday, Jan. 29, we go into one of Fort Lee’s public schools to engage the students in a celebration of not only the life of Thomas Paine and his ideals, but also of the story of the American Revolution in Fort Lee that leads us all to the four corners of our own Monument Park.
See also: 'Thomas Paine' Visits School No. 2
The Fort Lee Film Commission applied for and won a 2011 Bergen County History grant to produce the Fort Lee's first ever film history map. Fort Lee’s role as the first American film town has been documented not only in our Fort Lee Museum and in recent books such as Fort Lee: The Film Town, by Fort Lee Film Commission member Richard Koszarski, but also in the recent TCM, multi-part documentary on American film history, Moguls & Movie Stars.
The film history map includes photos from the Fort Lee Film Commission archive, as well as narrative by Professor Koszarski of Rutgers University. The film commission led a film history walk along Main Street this fall, and we will lead other film history walks and jitney tours based on the map in 2012. The map has added significance in 2012 with the centennial of Universal Studios, Solax Studio and Keystone Studio, all born in Fort Lee in 1912.
If there ever was an Irish Wake in Fort Lee, there was one this past Sept. 12, as many of us from the Fort Lee Historical Society and those former employees of Palisades Amusement Park gathered in the Fort Lee Museum on the exact date of its closing – the park closed its gates for the final time on Sept. 12, 1971. The Fort Lee Historical Society set up the exhibit Palisades Amusement Park Our Last Summer in the Sun that has been open since Sept. 12, and the exhibit will continue at the Fort Lee Museum (1588 Palisade Avenue) through Jan 29. We were lucky enough to be able to interview the last living administrator of Palisades Amusement Park, PR legend Sol Abrams. This interview will be placed in the museum living history archive. Sol also joined us on Sept. 12, when he was presented with a special award from the Fort Lee Historical Society for the part he played in one of the most prominent amusement parks in America.
On Oct. 24, our "Great Gray Bridge" celebrated its 80th birthday. Many of us grew up in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, and its looming presence has been a constant in our lives. This celebrated bridge has been depicted in books and films, but to us here in Fort Lee, it is our fellow cliff dweller neighbor.
The Fort Lee Film Commission has been actively lobbying the Directors Guild of America since 2008 to honor the first woman director in world cinema history, Alice Guy Blache. Ms. Blache built Solax Studio here in Fort Lee in 1912 on Lemoine Avenue where the A&P sits adjacent to Fort Lee High School today. From 1912 through the end of World War I, here Madame Blache directed, produced and wrote hundreds of films before women had the right to vote. Thanks to the efforts of the Fort Lee Film Commission and the work of DGA VP Gary Donatelli, the DGA presented their 2011 Special Directorial Achievement Award posthumously to Madame Blache at their October 75th anniversary Honors Award program in Manhattan. The biggest surprise and treat was that Academy Award winning director and film historian Martin Scorsese strode to the stage to honor Madame Blache and to introduce a clip reel tribute that incorporated stills and footage from our Fort Lee Film Commission archive. The Fort Lee Film Commisison presented its 2011 Barrymore Award to DGA VP Gary Donatelli for his work in this cause.
This past October we lost our last living link to the famed Riviera Nightclub of Fort Lee, Rocky Vitetta, better known as "Rocky the Barber." Rocky was the last local person from the Fort Lee area who actually worked at the Riviera. Thanks to Tom Austin, Rocky will forever be remembered via Tom’s new book published by The History Press, Bill Miller’s Riviera, America’s Showplace in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Well, that’s it in something larger than a nutshell. As Thomas Jefferson said, “A morsel of genuine history is a thing so rare as to be always valuable.”
I wish you and yours a very Happy New Year from the archives of the Borough of Fort Lee.