"The Universal"

Yes, that Universal.  Fort Lee's 800 pound gorilla

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Universal Film Manufacturing Co.
(aka Universal Studios)

Main St., Fort Lee, NJ
Site active 1914-1961

The tale of this company begins with Thomas Edison, whose goal was to enforce his patents on much of the motion picture process, from the camera to the processing of film to the projectors that displayed the film. To use "Edison" equipment without his blessing (and a considerable amount of money) meant you lived in peril, always on the run from his private police force.

A small company had 4 choices: 1) pay the fee, 2) import someone else's equipment from Europe, 3) invent your own equipment, or 4) try to outrun Edison's men like bootleggers outran the revenuers. Most small companies chose the 4th possibility. Many fled to California, while others fled to Fort Lee. It didn't matter, Edison still managed to find them.

Enter the 5th possibility: band together and fight. And in the process, make more money.

On April 30, 1912 Universal Film Manufacturing Company, or "the Universal" as it was known, incorporated as the result of a merger between 6 fiercely independent and profitable companies.  These included Carl Laemlle’s IMP (Independent 

Motion Pictures), Mark Dintenfass’ Champion, David Horsley’s Nestor Pictures, Kessel and Bauman’s New York Motion Picture Company, Pat Powers’ Powers Motion Picture Company, William Swanson of Rex Motion Pictures, and Jules Brulatour, noted studio developer and representative of the George Eastman Company to the film industry.

Their power grew and eventually they (and other profitable independent companies) broke the "Patents Company" stranglehold on the movie business.

Each independent company had their own small studio (or, in the case of KayBee, more than one). Production continued more or less as usual and power struggles ensued for control of the Universal.  Brulatour was forced out because of conflicts of interest.  Kessel and Bauman demanded a refund of their properties and they left in a huff.  Eventually Carl Laemmle, forced his other partners out and emerged as President and CEO.  Several partners remained as employees while others went on to other ventures.

On June 8, 1914 Laemmle broke ground on Universal City in Los Angeles and on August 5 property was purchased at Main and Maple In Ft. Lee for construction of what would be (for a short time) the world's largest movie studio. The lot occupied just over 4 acres. The stage was large enough that 10 directors could work at the same time.

They anticipated that the west coast studio would be twice this size. As it turned out, it was actually 100 times the size. But, back to this site:

They consolidated 3 studios into this brand new plant with its state of the art studio and lab. Production began in the winter of 1916. However, in a bizarre decision Universal moved its entire production to the west coast just a few months after construction was completed in Fort Lee.

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Famous Players-Lasky logo
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Beginning in April 1917 Goldwyn Pictures began leasing the Universal plant and on November 17 the property (and the Champion studio inherited in the merger) was turned over to the Motion Picture Realty Company. Goldwyn stayed about a year. In April 1919 Famous Players-Lasky moved in to shoot a single picture.

In August 1919 powerful producer Lewis J. Selznick took over the Universal, as well as Paragon and Solax.  Selznick controlled two-thirds of Fort Les's stage space, staying until 1921.

Inspiration Pictures made two elaborate pictures here in 1923 and the studio was referred to as Inspiration Studio.

On October 24 of 1923 the studio's film vaults exploded causing considerable damage and destroyed most of Universal's negatives as well as many positive prints. Fortunately the explosion had little effect on the studios production capabilities.

In 1924 First National (forerunner to Warner Brothers) produced two pictures at the studio and, for a while, Universal moved back in, resuming production in the east. A Universal subsidiary, Cello Film Corp., also moved in.

In 1927 a second explosion in the vaults finished off the rest of Universal's stored negatives.

In 1930, after the stock market collapse, Universal had a number of business setbacks, forcing Laemmle to borrow considerable sums from Herbert Yates' Consolidated Film Industries (CFI), the world's largest film processing lab. Yates bought the property while, additionally, taking over most of the laboratory production in Fort Lee. CFI demolished the last of the original Universal buildings in 1963 and rebuilt the site to be a modern film processing lab. It was then purchased by Metropolitan Film Storage and Service, Inc.

It's final date of operation in the movie business was 1961, and the last of the buildings remained until 2002.

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