Romance, Exploits & Perils
In 2011 Wharton Studio Museum produced Romance, Exploits and Peril: When Movies Were Made in Ithaca, a county-wide 8-part multimedia exhibit celebrating a time, over 100 year ago, when two brothers, Theodore and Leopold Wharton, happened upon Ithaca, New York and made filmmaking history.
The premier installation was a 90-foot sculptural timeline at the Tompkins County Public Library. Other exhibit locales were Gimme! Coffee on W. State Street; the State Theatre; Petrune; the Crescent office building, once a vaudeville theatre; GIAC; Cayuga Medical Center; and Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. An illustrated exhibit guide was available throughout the area providing a map for all locations.
Each exhibit was complete with historical text and rare photographs, some even showed silent film clips. They all chronicled the events that led to, and helped hasten, the rise of Hollywood in the early 20th century.
All photographs of the Romance, Exploits & Peril exhibit by Robyn Wishna.
Historical photographs courtesy of The History Center.
(click on any image to view all as a slideshow)
Romance, Exploits & Peril: The Timeline was housed in the Avenue of Friends atrium at the Tompkins County Public Library on Green Street. The 90′ circuitous structure, chock full of historical facts, photos, and a mini theatre was designed by Art & Anthropology and Zwigard Architects, with text written by Julie Simmons-Lynch.
Close-up of a section of the 90 foot long time-line.
It took over 30 people to construct the 90′ timeline.
A mini theatre set within the timeline screened film clips from the silent film era, like this short, Horse in Motion, directed by English-born Eadweard Muybridge in 1886. In order to get the effect of motion, Muybridge set up a row of cameras attached to trip wires: when the horse broke each wire, a photograph was snapped. This was one of the earliest techniques used in the making of motion pictures.
A mother and child watch an early episode from the 1916 Beatrice Fairfax series, starring Grace Darling and Harry Fox. The 15-episode serial was based on Marie Manning’s Ask Beatrice Fairfax advice column that first ran in William Randolph Hearst newspapers in 1898. She wrote her syndicated column off and on until her death in 1945.
PhotoPlayers: A Portrait Gallery at Gimme! on West State Street displayed 19 Wharton cast and crew members of distinction, including Lionel Barrymore, “Hollywood royalty,” Olive Thomas, “the most beautiful girl on the screen,” and other film folk equally important but with less clever press agents.
Seen from left to right, vaudevillian Harry Fox (1882-1959), star of the Beatrice Fairfax series and originator of the Fox Trot; production and set designer A.D. Chadwick (1871-1939) who would go on to become a professor in the theatre department at Ithaca College; and Syracuse-born Doris Kenyon (1897-1979) who starred in numerous Wharton films including The Great White Trail (1917).
Newly invented screenwriters, directors, and producers, Theodore Wharton (1875-1931) and his brother, Leopold (1870-1927), opened Wharton, Inc. in 1914 in downtown Ithaca. By 1915 the silent film studio moved to Renwick Park (now Stewart Park). The two worked on over 700 reels.
Pratfalls & Paramours, an exhibit outlining blood and thunders, melodramas, and comedies that were screened weekly during the Wharton era, was displayed at the main entrance of Cayuga Medical Center. As with series on television today, these cliffhangers left audiences insatiable and hungry for more. It was this hunger that powered the new industry. The brothers made 100s of episodic silents: some as short as 4 minutes, others as long as 25. Each followed a formula: we meet the protagonist; the plot is revealed; the villain appears and mayhem ensues; the climax; and finally the hero/heroine saves the day. Although predictable, these principles worked and are still being used in film today, over 100 years later.
Trip the Light Fantastic: Ithaca’s Early Theatres was displayed in the main window of the State Theatre box office t
Trip the Light Fantastic: Ithaca’s Early Theatres housed in the main window of the State Theatre box office told of the five main theatres in Ithaca during the late 1800s/early 1900s. When the first of the theatres, the Lyceum opened its doors in 1893 vaudeville acts featuring acrobats, trained animals, magicians–urban lore tells of Houdini performing on that very stage–jugglers, freak shows, and grand doyennes of burlesque crowded the stage. As films moved into the forefront of American entertainment for 15¢ a pop, vaudeville went the way of nickelodeons and penny arcades. Movie theatres featured silent films accompanied by live organ music to packed houses and by 1929 talkies were loud and clear and here to stay.
Silent Beauty: Irene Castle in the window of Ithaca’s famed vintage clothing shop, Petrune, paid homage to Castle (1893-1969), arbiter of fashion, the It Girl of the Roaring Twenties, and star of the Wharton/Hearst 15-part propaganda serial Patria released in 1917.
Lights, Camera, Silents! On Location with the Wharton Film Studio premiered in the Crescent Building storefront, now owned by Holt Architects. The Crescent was originally a movie theatre designed by Ithaca architects Gibb & Waltz in 1916. A front door sign advertised High Class Photoplay and balcony and matinee tickets cost 15¢ apiece. The exhibit outlined the local venues used by the Whartons, including cresting gorges; the downy green fields of Renwick Park; and cityscapes replete with local folk.
Renwick Park on the southern most shore of Lake Cayuga, renamed Stewart Park in 1921, was the home to the Wharton Studio from 1915 to 1919.