Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee will have a distinguished profile
John Barrymore, famously, had the "great profile."
The Barrymore Film Center, half-completed on the corner of Fort Lee's Main Street and Park Avenue, has an unusual one.
Even on Tuesday morning, with just the naked beams in place, the building seemed modern and striking.
"The last girder I signed was on the Freedom Tower," remarked Fort Lee Mayor Mark J. Sokolich, lifted by elevator-scaffold to a high beam where, in the company of other dignitaries, he signed the girder with a Sharpie. "So excited. Mayor Mark Sokolich, 5-28-19."
Among the things not in place on Tuesday was the roof. Between the joists, rain fell intermittently.
"The happiness outweighs a couple of raindrops," said Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky, who also signed, along with a dozen others.
Tuesday's "high-beam signing ceremony" marks about the halfway point in a $15 million project that broke ground last October and is expected — if all goes well — to receive its first visitors in early October 2020.
"Art and culture have always been of paramount significance to Fort Lee, given our history," Sokolich said. "Quite frankly, this is the cherry on the sundae."
A combination 260-seat movie theater, museum and educational resource, the Barrymore Film Center promises to be as unusual as it looks. And it looks pretty unusual.
Around the circumference of the 21,500-square-foot structure, designed by architect Hugh Hardy, a vaguely pyramidal shape flares out. "The veil," the center's promoters call it.
"It points the way westward, toward Hollywood," said Nelson Page, president of the not-for-profit Friends of the Barrymore Film Center.
"The exterior of the building is very futuristic," Page said.
The cultural center honors two enduring, and interconnected, legacies of Fort Lee.
One is the town's role in film history — as the Hollywood before Hollywood, where more than a dozen studios cranked out movies in the early 1900s.
The other is the Barrymore family — the famed acting clan, sired by Broadway star and Fort Lee resident Maurice Barrymore, which included sons John and Lionel, daughter Ethel, and John's granddaughter, Drew.
Lionel Barrymore you probably remember: He was the villainous Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life." Drew Barrymore you know from "E.T."
But even more celebrated, back in the day, were Ethel Barrymore, one of Broadway's most distinguished actresses (there's a Broadway theater named after her), and John Barrymore, the most famous Hamlet of his generation, widely held to be the most handsome man of stage or screen.
'The Royal Family'
Together, the three siblings — John, Ethel and Lionel — were Broadway royalty in the 1920s and '30s. They were lampooned, as such, when comic playwrights George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber painted them as a tribe of crazy egotists in a 1927 Broadway hit called — what else? — "The Royal Family."
But John Barrymore, in the end, parodied himself better than anyone else could have. Toward the end of his career, he looked so sodden and sorry that a friend asked him if he was going to die.
"Die? I should say not," Barrymore is said to have replied. "No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him."
The Barrymores had a twofold connection to Fort Lee: Not only did their father have a house on Hammett Avenue in the Coytesville section (the children spent only intermittent years there), but John, Ethel and Lionel all made some of their earliest films in the town's studios. Naming the town's film center after them was a no-brainer.
But it's also a bittersweet victory for Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission: He had tried unsuccessfully, back in 2001, to keep the Barrymore homestead from being razed.
"We came within one vote to save it," Meyers remembered. "But we lost the house. But the mayor, Jack Alter, said, 'The Barrymore name has magic in Fort Lee. Someday there will be a proper building to attach the name to.' We never forgot that."
The first exhibit in the center's museum space is expected to be "The Royal Family of Fort Lee: The Barrymores," which will include — among other treasures — the costume that John Barrymore wore in one of his signature stage roles, the villainous Richard III. It was one of many deformed monsters that Barrymore, profile or no profile, delighted in playing: Svengali, Captain Ahab and Mr. Hyde were others.
"He wanted to play all kinds of roles, including roles that wouldn't accent his profile, but almost disguise it," Meyers said.
"The Royal Family" will be one of many rotating exhibits, most related to the movies, that are expected to cycle in and out of the center's 2,500-foot museum space every six months.
There also will be a permanent exhibit devoted to Fort Lee's studios — which included, back in the day, Paramount, Fox (later 20th Century Fox), Keystone and Solax, the first and only film studio run by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché,
But the Barrymore Film Center's main attraction is the theater, which will feature revivals of classic films, foreign films, new works by up-and-coming filmmakers, and a Reel Jersey Film Festival, expected to launch at the same time as the theater.
"When people ask me, what is your programming going to be, we always say it's going to be like the Film Forum with parking," said Page, who will be programming along with Meyers.
The theater, complete with "retro-futuristic" art deco trimmings, will be equipped to show not only the latest 4K digital films, but also 16, 35 and 70mm analog movies — making it one of the last places left to see celluloid films.
It's also probably the first movie theater designed since the late 1920s, the end of the silent era, to be be built with an orchestra pit and a theater organ.
"We're looking to do a lot of live accompaniment, when we do silent films," Page said.
The center's nonprofit arm is aiming to raise another $8 million, $5 million of which will go for endowment and another $3 million for exhibits and additional operating expenses. It has raised $200,000 so far. But organizers are expecting more, as the excitement builds toward the opening day — when, it is rumored, Drew Barrymore herself may appear.
"She's very aware of her family history, and very proud of what we're doing here," Meyers said.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jimbeckerman1