Ithaca and the Silver Screen
It was an exciting time nearing the end of the Second Industrial Revolution and with it came advancements in electrical, camera, and filmmaking technology. Americans felt there was nothing they couldn’t do, from flying in newfangled contraptions to watching people come to life on the silver screen. This atmosphere, a society seemingly without limitations, created experimentation and an unprecedented outlet for the imagination. Cubism and Dadaism turned the art world pear-shaped, women’s skirts rose an inch or two, and Sigmund Freud’s theory of id and ego became a worldwide obsession.
Although moviemaking had made great strides in other countries, America was slightly behind. The Whartons’ Ithaca studio was a groundbreaking endeavor. One of the first of its kind in America, it grew with each technological milestone. When Theodore and Leopold Wharton set up their film studio at Renwick Park, now Stewart Park, it was perhaps by happenstance that they fed the animal that would make the twenties roar six years later.
Ithaca, Take One
In 1912 Theodore Wharton, an employee of Essanay Studios, visited family in Ludlowville, NY. While in the area he filmed a Cornell v. Penn State football game being played on Percy Field (now Ithaca High School). His vacation photos become the one-reel Football Days at Cornell.
Intrigued with the beauty of Ithaca, Ted invited his brother Leopold to join him in the small northwestern New York town. In 1915 they set up Wharton, Inc. in Renwick Park (now Stewart Park), making numerous three- and five-reelers within the first year.
Dramatic gorges and the vast Cayuga Lake landscape were two unique natural backdrops used in the five years the Wharton brothers turned the thriving college town upside down and into The Biggest Little City. Ithaca and its townspeople were willing accomplices to the Whartons’ moviemaking escapades. Leo needed a trolley to fly off Stewart Avenue Bridge; the city sold him one. Ted needed furniture, homes, or a surfeit of skunks for any given scene; the locals eagerly complied. A call for extras would be immediately answered by townies and students alike. Many of their production team were moonlighting while employed at Cornell or Ithaca College.
Stars like Lionel Barrymore, Jean Sothern, and Irene Castle mingled with Ithacans and, in Irene’s case, even married one. Readers of The Ithaca Journal were riveted by the daily waggery of the actors: Who was that with Harry Fox in the Tap Room at the Ithaca Hotel?Was that Pearl White driving her roadster at breakneck speed down State Street? Just how much whiskey did Irene Castle sneak into her Cayuga Heights home just before Prohibition?
The blood and thunder serials that stoked the public’s love for romance, exploits, and peril were screened weekly and audiences were insatiable. It is estimated that the Wharton brothers had a hand in over 700 films.
Ithaca, Take Two
Despite common belief, Ithaca’s wet and cold climate didn’t do the Wharton film studio in: on the contrary, the brothers happily worked within the limitations and their films were the better for it. They were empiricists, artists, and mavericks because they had to be. Like other filmmakers of the time, they were making much of it up as they went along and it worked.
By the time the Whartons lost the Ithaca studio to creditors, serials had begun to make a natural progression toward feature films. Prohibition was in full swing and helped jumpstart the jazzy Roaring Twenties. Movie stars were royalty and common folk freely imitated them. Speakeasies permeated society, flappers flapped, juniper berries begat gin, and crime was very organized. A highly political time, much of the country was at odds in regard to labor laws, immigration, and socialist philosophy. Newsreels brought protests and crusades to life and Americans saw close-up soldiers returning after WWI, the women’s suffrage movement, and a simulated sinking of the Titanic. Audiences were spellbound.
The impact of Ted and Leo Wharton’s filmmaking is indelible, not only on Ithaca’s history but film history. In their story we have a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the cutting edge of an industry so seductive, so unique, you’d expect to only see it in the movies.
- Cornell is founded by Ezra Cornell and A.D. White.
- The Ithaca Gun Factory is built and quickly becomes one of the country’s most trusted gun manufacturers.
- The first trolley runs in Ithaca: 1 of only 13 lines in the country.
- Village of Ithaca becomes a chartered city.
- Ithaca College is founded as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music by William Egbert. It is housed in the Boardman House and other locations in downtown Ithaca.
- The birth of the ice cream sundae at Platts & Colts Pharmacy in downtown Ithaca. Six years earlier Coca Cola made a splash and a decade later Milton Hershey will plant a Kiss on the American public.
- Cornell anatomy professor G.S. Moler makes an early movie using frame-by-frame technology. For The Skeleton Dance he takes single-frame photos of a human skeleton in varying positions giving the illusion of a dancing skeleton.
- A camera crew from Edison’s Black Maria studio arrives in Ithaca to film a Cornell/Columbia/Penn State regatta on Cayuga Lake.
- Typhoid epidemic devastates Ithaca effecting 1 out of 10 citizens.
- Ithaca’s Star Theatre on East Seneca Street is built and with an unprecedented 1,200 seats, becomes the most popular vaudeville venue in the area. Wharton movies are filmed and shown there.
- Theodore Wharton, a director, producer, writer, and employee of Essanay Studios, visits family in Ludlowville, NY. While in the area he films a Cornell v. Penn State football game being played on Percy Field [now Ithaca High School]. His vacation photos become the one-reel Football Days at Cornell. Essanay pays Cornell $300 for allowing them to film.
- Thirty-seven-year-old Ted Wharton returns to Ithaca with a cast and crew to shoot numerous one- and two-reels for Essanay’s The Hermit of Lonely Gulch using a house on Thurston Avenue as his studio. The film stars “the king and queen of the movies,” Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne.
- Essanay’s US government-backed, seven-reel documentary, The War of Civilization is released. Filmed in the badlands of South Dakota, the epic employs 5,000 soldiers and Native Americans. Buffalo Bill Cody leads vivid reenactments for the epic.
- The Exploits of Elaine, starring Pearl White and Arnold Daly is released and is the first film to gross over $1 million in sales.
- Ted’s brother, 43-year-old Leopold joins him in Ithaca and the two set up Wharton Inc. They make numerous three- and five-reelers and features within the year.
- The Whartons shoot their most famous stunt of all for the film, A Prince of India. They buy an old trolley car from the Ithaca Traction Corporation, rig a track, and film the car careening off the Stewart Avenue Bridge. Trolley car #305 landed in the Fall Creek gorge without a hitch to the amazement of over 1,000 spectators.
- Ted Wharton is quoted in a local paper: Ithaca is certainly a great place and the citizens of the community cannot do enough for us. Their good will is a tangible asset in our business. In fact, they look upon our company as their own. If there is a rainy day, the business people worry about us. It is certainly a splendid town. In Cornell University there are students from all over the world, and we can get the services of men of almost any nationality and native garb.
- Oliver and William Thomas, airplane manufacturers, move to Ithaca and open the Aeroplane Factory on Brindley Street. Their Thomas-Morse S4-C (aka Tommy) would play a prominent role in Wharton productions.
- In May the Whartons move into their newly renovated studio in Renwick Park [now Stewart Park], leased for $2,000 a year from the Renwick family. Local architects Vivian & Gibb, protégé’s of Ithaca’s legendary architect, William Henry Miller, designed the pavilion complex in 1894 and the former trolley amusement park is the perfect setting for closed and open sets, dressing rooms, and offices. The filmmakers hire artisans, electricians, and crews from around the Ithaca area. Locals are cast in supporting roles and as extras. On any given set extras might include real coppers, lawyers, or Onondaga Indians from the Syracuse area tribe.
- Once settled in the Renwick Park studio the brothers begin filming The Romance of Elaine, starring Pearl White with a young Lionel Barrymore in a supporting role. Pearl becomes one of the most popular female stars in silent films. The actress does many of her own stunts, including racing cars and jumping into the cool waters of Cayuga. She is quoted saying, “I have actually gotten to like fear.” While in town, she stays at the Ithaca Hotel on the corner of Aurora and State Streets.
- Working with a large costume budget is a newfound luxury for the brothers. On one film, an actor orders himself an expensive costume without prior approval. The next day, the Whartons have him written out of the script via his character’s untimely death.
- The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford, which consists of 14 two-reel episodes, stars unknown Oliver (Babe) Hardy.
- Dozens of skunks are rented from a skunk farm in Caroline, NY and brought to the film set for a scene. Some of the animals escape, spray the crew and actors, and the set is closed down and aired out.
- Beatrice Fairfax, starring Grace Darling and Harry Fox premieres. Based on the widely popular Beatrice Fairfax syndicated advice columns that ran in the Hearst newspapers, the 15 episodes will prove to be among the most notable films made during Ithaca’s short reign as Hollywood on Cayuga. It is the inaugural film of the ingenue Olive Thomas hailed as “the most beautiful girl on the screen,” by Pictorial Review.
- The Whartons continue their relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his International Film Service with The Mysteries of Myra: early examples of special effects in film are used to simulate the supernatural.
- Ithaca is dubbed The Biggest Little City.
- The Crescent Theatre opens on North Aurora Street in Ithaca featuring “high class photoplays.” Balcony seats cost 10¢; orchestra seats 15¢.
- Patria, starring the dancer Irene Castle, Milton Sills, and Warner Oland (of Charlie Chan fame), a 15-part serial with an unprecedented budget of $85,000 is released. Directed by the Whartons and funded by Hearst, the seemingly patriotic film contains anti-Japanese propaganda. President Woodrow Wilson personally asks Hearst to pull and rework the film, which he does, barely masking his political bias. The Whartons don’t direct the last five episodes: the rest of the serial is shot in LA and directed by Jacque Jaccard.
- The Whartons continue to make elaborate films with budgets of up to $75,000 each, but without the security of third-party backing by Pathé or Hearst’s IFS. They form the Wharton Releasing Co., but soon find they’ve spread themselves too thin, directing, producing, and distributing their own films. Their first film under this new shingle is The Great White Trail starring Doris Kenyon.
- The Whartons’ efforts are being thwarted by Hearst, some believe it to be in retaliation of the brothers striking out on their own. Ted’s last serial The Crooked Dagger would never be released. The brothers sue Hearst, but the media mogul’s power prevails and the case is held up in legal red tape for two years. They eventually are awarded a small sum in 1919.
- The brothers secure loans from local banks for one of their last serials. The Eagle’s Eye, sure to be a hit with its spies, intrigue, and pro-American rhetoric, is released at the end of WWI. At this point, the public has had their fill of war films and the movie barely turns a profit.
- A spate of pro-American propaganda films are made. While in Ithaca to film The Mission of the War Chest, Wharton actors Marguerite Snow and King Baggot, sell Liberty Bonds for the Tompkins County War Chest. Rochester’s George Eastman, the film’s financier, donates the film’s profits to the purchase of liberty bonds.
- Leo moves to San Antonio and sets up the San Antonio Picture Company.
- Ted Wharton finds himself in financial turmoil, sublets the Renwick Park studios to Grossman Studios and moves to a smaller space on West State St.
- Wharton Inc.’s creditors, many of them local Ithaca businesses and banks, hire A.W. Feinberg and begin foreclosure proceedings. The studio’s contents are sold for $12,000 to Feinberg to disperse amongst his clients.
- Ted leaves Ithaca for sunnier, and potentially more lucrative, climes. In Los Angeles, he is hired as a writer by MGM, working on The Moon Riders.
- Cayuga Pictures, Inc., a state-chartered company with a budget of $525,000 sublets the Renwick studio. Their only production, If Women Only Knew, would be the last silent film ever made in Ithaca.
- The city of Ithaca buys Renwick Park and renames it Stewart Park after recently deceased Mayor Edwin C. Stewart.
- Ted establishes Wharton Film Classics, Inc., in Santa Cruz, setting up a studio identical to his Renwick Park studio. He never makes a movie there.
- Leo dies of cancer on September 27th in New York City at the age of 57. He had worked on over 100 films in his career.
- Hundreds of nitrate-based film reels, housed in a film storage shed at the home of the Whartons’ Ithaca lawyer, Howard J. Cobb, spontaneously combust. Lost in that blaze is the legacy of the Wharton brothers’ short but expansive career.
- Ted dies of a lingering thyroid ailment on November 28th in Hollywood at the age of 56. He had worked on over 600 films throughout his career.
© 2015 WHARTON STUDIO MUSEUM.