Picture City, as shown in Exhibitors Trade Review.
The madcap Jazz Age bubbled with possibility, exploding mores and conventions as it raced to the next new thing, the next adventure. After the harrowing days of the Great War and the economic depression that followed, America dropped inhibitions and often propriety, during the Roaring Twenties, drinking, dancing, and gambling away the blues.
Schemes and scams mushroomed as people scrambled to double their money and ride the wave of prosperity. Real estate rode the peaks and valleys of land booms and bubbles, developments skyrocketing in popularity one day, and bankrupt the next.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is now available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
Picture City advertised in Variety, 1925.
The state of Florida exemplified the real estate boom, exploding in population in the early 1920s, fed by land speculation. Americans who now possessed disposable income visited the Sunshine State, enjoying its sandy beaches and relaxing resorts. Dog and horse racing fueled rising gambling profits, and the repeal of state income and inheritance taxes drew large numbers of new residents. Real estate speculators employed Florida’s rising popularity to devise elaborate themed developments which employed popular architecture and industries as their hooks. These hooks would draw land gamblers looking for their next jackpot.
In 1925, developers launched Picture City, Florida, as the East Coast’s answer to motion picture mecca Hollywood. Taking over Malcolm Meehan’s 8,000 acres of the former Gomez Grant land in Hobe Sound, Florida from the Olympia Improvement Corporation, New York investors Charles Apfel and Felix Isman envisioned a grand Xanadu of film occupying the site, one filled with giant studios and mega stars.
The promised land, the former Gomez Grant, Fruita Salerno property, and Olympia Investment Corporation, just twenty miles north of Palm Beach, spread four miles along the Atlantic Ocean, the highest point between Key West and Jacksonville, Florida, surrounded by three railroad stations and a further two on the way, and boasted river frontage, the Dixie Highway, and abundantly sunny weather.
Olympia’s proposed development featured avenues graced with Greek god names, but Apfel and Isman renamed their sunny streets after famous movie stars and studios to gild the prospects of their fledgling enterprise. They employed the old razzle dazzle in ballyhooing their project far and wide. Billboard magazine reported on July 18, 1925 that the magnates were blanketing the motion picture industry, stars, and newspapers with maps of Picture City or Sun City.
On July 26, the Syracuse Herald featured a story listing all the celebrity street names of the proposed town. Studio Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, delivered drivers to streets devoted to studios, like Paramount Place, Fox Place, Christie Drive, First National Drive, Goldwyn Drive, Pathe Place, Metro Drive, and Universal Drive, as well as top Hollywood movie stars: (John) Barrymore Drive, (Betty) Blythe Avenue, (Lon) Chaney Drive, (Charles) Chaplin Drive, (Betty) Compson Circle, (Douglas) Fairbanks Drive, (Thomas) Ince Drive, (Pauline) Garon Avenue, (D. W. ) Griffith Avenue, (Harold) Lloyd Drive, (Thomas) Meighan Drive, (Alla) Nazimova Avenue, (Marshall) Neilan Drive, (Olga) Petrova Circle, (Mary) Pickford Avenue, (Norma) Shearer Avenue, (Constance & Norma) Talmadge Avenue, (Alice) Terry Drive, and (King) Vidor Avenue. Pickford Avenue, Fairbanks Drive, Chaplin Drive, and Talmadge Avenue circled and bisected each other, some of the largest streets in the project.
The Hide-A-Way RV Resort on Chaney Drive in Ruskin, Fla., via Google Street View.
In August, the New York Times described the property as America’s new Deauville, an exclusive seaside resort with property costing $1,500 an acre for six days before rising to $1,750 an acre, with 10% down required upon signing a contract. The developers blanketed New York and New England newspapers with huge advertisements promoting their Shangri-La, noting their modern improvements, transportation opportunities, breathtaking views, and affordable homes costing $11,000 and up. The Philadelphia newspaper played up the modern facilities soon to be erected: ice plant, light factories, water facilities, up-to-date infrastructure, turning Picture City into a winter playground for snow-bound Easterners.
On September 2, a newspaper wire story reported that such celebrities as Fanny Hurst, writer, William McAdoo, former United States official, Governor Martin of Florida, and leading professors from Columbia, New York, and the University of Georgia, and leading sports figures had all purchased plots in the development.
Film Daily announced on September 16 that producer Lewis J. Selznick believed great things would come out of the area, taking over 250 acres in the former Olympia property on which to construct a world class, high visibility motion picture studio, one to put any Hollywood studio to shame.
On October 10, Billboard stated that Ossinow Brothers of New York and Philadelphia would serve as contractor, with Charles G. Hancock serving as engineer and Leo P. Keene serving as publicity director. Stephen Gooson, former art director for Pickford and Talmadge Studios, would serve as architect for the elaborate stage. Workers would soon stake off boundaries for the large sate, with the foundation to be laid in a few weeks in order to complete construction and open in June 1926. Many more studios were planned to follow.
Selznick, in financial straits due to following the dying practice of selling states’ rights to films instead of establishing his own distribution network, hoped to use the project as a lifeline to revive the family’s flagging production interests and reestablish them as major moving picture players. Selling himself and the project for dear life, his hyperbole suggested grand possibilities for Picture City, and for the producing prospects of he and his sons Myron and David Selznick.
“We are to have the largest studio in the world and we plan to start taking motion pictures early next summer. We will have also a modern and fully equipped laboratory. I can safely predict that Florida will in time be the real motion picture center of the country.”
Vidor Avenue in Sun City, Fla., via Google Street View.
While Selznick talked a great game, his finances were imploding, sending the family into monetary morass. By December they were out. At the same time, the real estate market began crumbling in Florida as over speculation and virtual pyramid schemes blew up day by day. Railroads could not keep up with building material delivery, cost of living prices soared, and an abnormally cold winter deterred many potential buyers.
On November 30, New York real estate magnates reorganized the real estate scheme with capitalization of $20,000 at their offices at 522 Fifth Avenue, announcing they intended to carry out the construction plans for building the huge studio. They acquired the full 10,000 acres in the area, including Jupiter School. Lawyer Charles Apfel would continue to serve as president, though newspaper reports were hinting that former law partners threatened to sue him. Felix Isman continued to serve as an executive, K. B. Conger acted as Construction Supervisor, and Joseph P. Day served as salesman.
Isman feverishly promoted the project to keep money flowing. He told the December 13 Los Angeles Times, “The boom in Florida and California lands is a matter of climate. The American people at last recognize the beauty of perpetual summer and perpetual sunshine. A land where there is no winter. What happiness!”
Within months however, gloomy sales darkened the Florida real estate market, causing ballooning land sales to burst. Large investors pulled out what they could while small investors lost much if not all of their bets.
By July 27, 1926, the Los Angeles Times described abandoned and overrun Florida real estate developments, virtual cemeteries of broken dreams. Ghost towns, most sat desolate, with only real estate billboards filling their horizons. The Times noted that billboards promoting Picture City remained, exclaiming, “Prize Development, and “You are now entering Picture City.”Once considered glamorous and elegant, Picture City sat empty of buildings, but contained an abundance of palm and pine trees, along with 6,000 empty lots.
Picture City reverted to the Olympia Investment Corporation, losing any hope of becoming America’s new film capital. The area is now virtually fully developed, but devoid of any entertainment industrial production or connection, save for a few celebrities who live nearby. While never constructed, it still reveals America’s fascination with glamour and celebrity, still popular branding tools to this day.