The chairman of the Fort Lee Film Commission in New Jersey is organizing grass roots support for the effort to save the one-time family home of actor John Barrymore from demolition.
In an e-mail campaign that follows local New York television news coverage of the story on March 11, commission chair Louis Azzollini described his commission's plans for the soon-to-be-landmarked property. "The intended use is establishing the Barrymore Center," Azzollini said in an e-mail statement. The commission chair plans to have "a museum and center for the study of film and theatre arts, [as well as a] meeting center" at the site.
Azzollini's e-mail requested letters from the public and initial non-financial support in an effort to influence local politicians and officials who will vote on the fate of the Barrymore home on March 22.
At the turn of the century, the commission reports, Barrymore patriarch, Maurice Barrymore owned a large house in Fort Lee. While living as a Fort Lee resident, Barrymore held a successful fundraiser for the local fire epartment in 1900. There, his son John Barrymore (then 18) gave a performance that is widely regarded as his acting debut.
The Barrymore effort on behalf of the fire department became a local legend and netted "enough funds for the land, building, and equipment for Firehouse No. 2 to be incorporated," according to the commission statement . Though Fort Lee officials have issued a temporary stop work order on the demolition of the Barrymore house, the 1876 structure is scheduled to be razed to make way for development.
As one alternative plan suggests, the town of Fort Lee may be considering a purchase of the historic property. "We are asking, not for any monies, since it has been assured it will automatically be designated a landmark," Azzollini's statement reads, "but for an e-mail and/or phone call from your organization in support for this project...voting on this acquisition will be done on March 22."
Azzollini said the home is a beautiful, three-story structure with 12-foot ceilings and lots of space. News stories portrayed a different image, as Azzollini explained. "The exterior of the home was resurfaced in the '20s or '30s," Azzollini estimated, "judging by the age of the old tar paper siding, which is horrendous." Azzollini believes that once the original wood siding is restored the exterior will once again match the beautiful original woodwork inside the home.
Another aspect of the commission's work is determining exactly where the other Barrymores lived in Fort Lee. Ethel Barrymore is believed to have lived just four blocks from the John Barrymore home, on Washington Avenue. Lionel Barrymore lived just south in the Palisades section.
"Fort Lee was like the movie capital of the world at that time," Azzollini said. People often rented these homes, making it difficult to trace records to determine where people lived if they didn't actually own the property.
Azzollini's group has already collected a great deal of theatre memorabilia, including theatrical artifacts dating to the heyday of the original Empire and Strand Theatres, a period when Maurice Barrymore would often have leading legitimate actors of the day visit his Fort Lee home.
The Fort Lee Film Commission is also compiling its own book, Azzollini said, but for now it relies on the "bible," a 1977 book titled "The Movies Begin" by former Library of Congress employee Paul Spehr. Spehr's book chronicles much of the local entertainment history of the region.
"We do need to raise money," Azzollini told Playbill On-Line. The Fort Lee group is seeking to contact a wide range of possible supporters, from theatre producers to the staff of "This Ol' House." Funding may also come from a variety of sources, including actress and family descendent Drew Barrymore and possibly the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Fort Lee Film Commission can be reached via e-mail at FortLeeFilmCom@aol.com. The former Barrymore home is located in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. The Office of the Borough Administrator in Fort Lee is also accepting inquiries at (201) 592-3785.
—By Murdoch McBride