When Detroit’s North End community was a Filmmaking Mecca

Once upon a time – between the mid-1930s and late 1960s – a cluster of buildings in Detroit’s North End community served as the World Headquarters for the Jam Handy Organization, a mammoth national filmmaking company.   The structures’ centerpiece was a Gothic-Revival building bathed in white and blue located at 2900 E. Grand Boulevard, just west of Oakland Avenue. 

Jam Handy specialized in the full production of industrial, business, motivational, educational, and sales training motion pictures, filmstrips, and other audio-visual platforms and aids.   Included in the company’s portfolio of clients were General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, Coca-Cola, Montgomery Ward, Campbell Soup, Sunoco, Electric Auto-Life, and the United States Military, particularly the U.S. Air Force whose training films from Jam Handy, included visual and training aids for aviation mechanics during World War II, which began in 1939. 

It is estimated that Jam Handy made more than 7,000 military training films.  And overall, the North End-based company produced more than 25,000 industrial, business, motivational, educational, and sales films for many of the nation’s biggest companies of the era.   

The company’s founder, Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy, set up his filmmaking World Headquarters in the North End to be close to many automotive companies to better serve their needs for industrial and training films.  General Motors World Headquarters was a few blocks away on W. Grand Boulevard.  In addition, Chrysler Corporation’s World Headquarters in Highland Park,  the massive Dodge Main Assembly Plant in Hamtramck, Highland Park’s storied Ford Plant, and the Fisher Body Plant 21 were within a five-mile radius of Jam Handy.     

In addition to the automotive industry, Jam Handy soared as a pioneering leader in producing thousands of sales films and slides in other industries.  The films were created to teach and motivate nationwide sales teams to sell almost any product and service to potential clients successfully.  The company was also a forerunner in producing educational films for American universities on various subjects.  And Jam Handy gained popularity in the 1930s into the ‘50s with its production of  “one-minute movies” to advertise other companies’ products and services to theatergoers at almost 9,000 movie theaters in the United States and Canada each week. 

Showing its versatility, Jam Handy, in 1948, according to the Theatre Historical Society of America, produced the first animated version of the new Christmas story “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  Sponsored by Montgomery Ward, every aspect of the animated production was done at Jam Handy’s North End Corporate headquarters.  Trade ads in America’s top print newspapers and magazines  featured artwork of Rudolph flying over the company’s Detroit World Headquarters.  

Jam Handy brought Max Fleischer to Detroit from Hollywood to produce and direct the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” classic animation.  At the time, Fleischer was considered the premier animator in Hollywood, having produced animated classics such as Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman.    

In its quest to always be the best, Jam Handy Organization was often lauded nationally and internationally for its top-shelf cinematography, visual effects, special effects, cartoon animations, state-of-the-art soundstage, equipment, and skilled film crews.  The company maintained two orchestras for its music soundtracks for films but often drew musical talent from “moonlighting Motor City musicians” from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Motown Records. 

Jam Handy took pride in letting the world know that 100 percent of its film productions and other       film-related endeavors were done under the company’s banner without outsourcing any of its work.  In essence, everything was done from the company’s multiple North End buildings on E. Grand Boulevard.  And when filmmaking projects called for outdoor backdrops, Jam Handy’s production and camera crews often used neighborhoods in Northwest Detroit, such as Sherwood Forest and University District. 

In its heyday – the 1940s and ‘50s – it is believed Jam Handy employed almost 700 people.   And with Detroit as its base, the company also ran viable movie operations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Dayton.  

While it is unclear how many African Americans were employed by the company, it is known that one of the first Black producers and executive producers at Jam Handy was Gary L. White in the early 1960s.  

“At the time, and even decades before, Detroit was the ‘industrial and training’ filmmaking capital of the United States, perhaps the world,” White told this writer during a 2011 interview for a Real Times Media Who’s Who in Black Detroit story.  “And at times, Jam Handy was actually producing more films than Hollywood.” 

In 1969, per the Theatre Historical Society of America, Jam Handy sold out to Teletape, a New York City-based television production company.  Teletape, however, continued to operate in the North End under the banner of Jam Handy Productions and later Teletape-Detroit.  The company specialized as a film and video production house into the early 1970s before reportedly selling the 2900 E. Grand Boulevard facility to Faith Through Miracles Church.   

According to www.thejamhandy.com, before Jam Handy purchased the historic building in the 1930s, the structure, built in 1919, was home to Maranatha Baptist Tabernacle.  The historic Jam Handy North End building at 2900 E. Grand, bought by brothers Simeon and Nat Heyer in 2010, is now a performance venue and available for corporate, private, community, and filming and photo events.  

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