Gloria Norman School of Dance at Norman Silent Film Studios

Originally published in the History Corner section of the October 2009 OAI Newsletter.

Richard Edward Norman (1891-1960) purchased Eagle Film City, a silent film production studio, in 1922. He and his wife, Gloria Marie Norman (1898-1983) moved onto the property and until 1928 Norman Studios produced full-length silent films both in Arlington and in Boley, Oklahoma. With the introduction of the “talkies” Mr. Norman invented a system that synchronized sound and moving images, but unfortunately it was made obsolete by the invention of the sound-on-film system.

While Mr. Norman continued in the film industry producing industrial films, around 1935 his wife Gloria started teaching dancing. The studio compound contained several buildings, and she began teaching on the second floor of the main film development and printing building which fronts on Arlington Road. Richard Norman, Jr. states that, “My Dad decided it made too much noise so he put a new floor in the set building (now owned by Circle of Faith Ministries.) Most all classes were held there”. Richard, Jr., flew B-25 planes during WW II and said, “After discharge I still used to get up to Arlington and help Mother with her dance programs at the Jacksonville Civic Center and other locations.”

Thus, what was the cultural center of Arlington during the twenties as a film studio became a very important part of the cultural development of the youth of Arlington through classical and ballroom dancing. I doubt if there was anyone who grew up in Arlington or even South Jacksonville that wasn’t aware of Mrs. Norman’s classes and the dance recitals held at Arlington Grammar, Landon High School, the Florida Theater, the Jacksonville Civic Center and many other prominent locations. At times she would have as many as 200 students enrolled.

The following paragraphs are synopsis of things I’ve been told by former dance students, by Richard Norman, Jr., and individuals who have submitted their memories. My own memories are limited to a brief painful encounter when my Grandmother Johnson took her chubby grandson there to, in her words, “make you graceful.” The sight of the room full of girls in their dancing attire was ten years too soon for me.

This article is written due in part due to the wonderful restoration of the Norman Silent Film Studio complex. I feel that when it is finished at least one room should be dedicated to Mrs. Norman’s memory. Also, my cousin Alice (Pat) Powell Wilson has told me many times of the positive effect the Normans had on her life. My classmates from Landon who learned dancing there have voiced similar sentiments at our reunions.

id=”tipDiv”>Strangely, one of the things that were brought up by another of my cousins, Louise Johnson Sikes, was the ca. 1936 Hudson Terraplane car that the Normans had converted into a mini-limo with wooden benches. Richard, Jr. confirmed that both his parents had matching Hudsons, which were ahead of their time in the auto industry. Mrs. Norman picked up and delivered some of the students, and I was told that Carol Jean Ellis’ mother did also. The Terraplanes must have been a familiar sight in the Arlington neighborhood.

The Mayhugh family was deeply involved. Daughters Betty and Ada Jean took dancing and per Ada their mother, Elizabeth Bell Mayhugh, played the piano for Mrs. Norman at recitals. Son Bobby Mayhugh surprised me recently when he said that he sang at some of the recitals. One he particularly remembered was at the Landon High School Auditorium. I well remember Mrs. Mayhugh’s brother, Howell Bell, dancing a jig for us boys in front of the old Arlington Community Club so I know the family had the talent.

From Patsy Allen Fittipaldi: How lucky I feel to remember the glorious times spent at the Gloria Norman Dance Studio!! The excitement began when lesson time approached and we neared the big white dance studio echoing with music and tap shoes. With her flame red hair, boundless energy and dazzling personality, she greeted us and proved to be an inspiration for us all to be our very best. Whether it be tap, ballet, acrobatics, or modern dance, Mrs. Norman molded us into perfect little “Rockettes.” We looked forward to strutting out in our matching costumes for recitals. How many can remember performing on the Florida Theater stage? What a treat!

Many of us from Landon began our dance lessons and friendships as preschoolers and continued as friends through elementary and high school – even to the present! For all those lucky enough to have been her students, its fun looking back and recalling those days with our very own “star” – the one of a kind – the flamboyant artist Gloria Norman!

From Charlie Hamaker: I guess Mom wanted someone in the family to be in the entertainment world, so around 1941 or 1942 she enrolled me in the Gloria Norman School of Dance. The dance studio (when I took lessons) was actually the little building that was located behind the film studio. It was a small screened in building with a wooden floor. The floor was off grade and made an excellent dance floor because it accentuated the tapping… similar to a drum. As I remember, Mrs. Norman wasn’t exactly a petite person and when she demonstrated a step or as we developed a routine, the whole building seemed to move in unison with the dance routine. It actually sounded good and encouraged you to hit the floor a little harder.

Being required to take tap dancing lessons in Arlington during the early 40s wasn’t an easy assignment. You had to get there and back…without being seen by some of the older boys of the area. And if you were caught leaving the studio, chances are, sooner or later… you would “pay” (The Arlington Boy Scout Troop 38 was made-up of some strong-willed young boys at that time).

I made a game out of the challenging assignment. I pretended I was a WW II commando and had to get though the enemy lines from the main camp (home in Clifton) to the out-post (studio on Arlington Road) complete the assignment…and then back to the main camp without being seen or captured.

The expressway didn’t exist at the time, so I would go through the woods to the Black settlement that was a block or so east of what is now Cesery Boulevard. They were considered “friendly allies” and never questioned or divulged my scheduled routine of passing by their base camp. On return trips I often stopped and chatted with the allies and was frequently served lemonade.

Then came the day of reckoning. My tapping skills had advanced to a point that Mrs. Norman believed I was ready for public presentation. She scheduled my début for a Saturday morning matinee at no less than the…Florida Theater downtown Jacksonville! “my God woman…you’ve blown my cover. There’s bound to be someone from Troop 38 in that audience.” I thought.

Imagine standing alone in the center of the stage behind a huge felt curtain that slowly rises as the announcer gives his introduction and this big organ rises up from the orchestra pit. The commando had been caught and was now to suffer the consequences. I glanced over at Mrs. Norman who was standing in the wings with an encouraging “break-a-leg smile” on her face. “Yeah, sure,” I thought. “I wish my leg was broken.”

The music started and I started. I quickly lost the “stage fright”, it was a perfect routine and a moment I’ll never forget. I loved it…the audience loved it. Or at least that’s what Mrs. Norman said. Thanks Mom…thanks Gloria.

From Alice (Pat) Powell Wilson: I can’t remember my young life without Mrs. Norman. Memories start with being on the stage at the Florida Theater for the first time and stopped, frozen in the middle, with my hands cupped over my eyes looking for my parents. I was only five or so and someone came out and carried me off. Can you imagine someone taking on the job of teaching a child that young?? Well Mrs. Gloria Norman did.

My paternal grandparents lived in Princeton West Virginia, and every summer we would visit up on the farm. There was a particular tap number I did that required a silver top hat and a cane and they found their way into the car. As we would hop out my Granddaddy would shout, “Here comes Patty Wack with her shoes and her hat!” I was known as “Pat” for some reason – a nickname my dad gave me.

My tap dancing was my social hub for many years and I looked forward to our big annual recital. I can remember going out to the Naval Air Station with the “Big Students” to entertain the local USO and going around visiting the injured servicemen in their rooms and the smiles on their faces to see us. There was a musician, Jimmy Bigelow (Bigelows have lived in Arlington since the 1840s), who played the banjo at the George Washington Hotel. My mom and dad would take me there and I would tap while he played.

I remember the times Mrs. Norman would have me sit in the back of the jeep-like vehicle she drove students home in. She would promise me two hotdogs from Mrs. Haines’s store at the Crossroads if I would sit still and be good til she got everyone else home. Then, after following her to the store she would fulfill her promise and I’d hop back into the auto and just devour those cold wonderful hot dogs. Mrs. Norman would then take me back to her place to wait until one of my parents came to get me. I can remember going into a room where they had the big reels they used to show the movies. They were scary, I was allowed to wander around if I didn’t touch anything, and I never did.

Some things I credit to Mrs. Norman: In 1942 I was “Miss Arlington” for bringing in the most money for the purchase of the first Fire Engine in Arlington. In 1951 I was accepted into the Landon High School Majorettes. In 1952 I won the first “Miss Duval County” contest sponsored by the VFW. Tommy Tucker presented me my trophy on the stage at the Florida Theater and of course my talent was tap dancing. Right after graduation I went to work for Arthur Murray Dance Studios and achieved the highest teacher level and worked there until I married my husband Ira Wilson.

After marriage in 1952, when my children were old enough, Mrs. Norman taught my sons Ira and Dan and my daughter Jeri Jo tap dancing. For all three to have the same experience I had meant a lot to me. Mrs. Norman was never critical of us dancers, only uplifting and positive that we could do whatever she taught.

Per Richard Norman Jr.: “My mother closed the school in the early seventies but its memories will live on with all that knew her forever!”