October 27, 2011

When Movies Were Made in Ithaca

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When you first chose to come to Cornell, you quickly realize that the grand and scenic surroundings factored in to the decision of where to build the school. The local scenery, as it turns out, also brought Theodore and Leopold Wharton to Ithaca in the beginning of the 20th Century. If, you do not know who these two men are, as is very likely the case, you should take a walk down the hill to Tompkins County Library and check out the first of eight exhibits, produced by the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, titled Romance, Exploits, and Peril: When Movies Were Made in Ithaca.

And yes, you read that correctly: Once upon a time, people made movies in Ithaca. From around 1912 to when the last film was made in 1920, Ithaca was among the centers of silent film, and was the film-making playground of choice for the Wharton brothers. With a studio in what is now Stewart Park, the brothers brought stars such as Pearl White, Lionel Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s grand-uncle) and Jean Sothern to mix with Ithaca residents. Pearl White even stayed at the Ithaca Hotel when she was here (she also stirred up gossip by speeding around town). Ithaca residents enjoyed helping the brothers make their movies, providing props, acting as extras and even selling Leopold a trolley to send flying off Stewart Avenue bridge.

Told via a “90- foot-long sculptural timeline” designed by an architectural team led by Todd Zwigard, the Tompkins County Library exhibit details not only the story of the Wharton brothers, but also the general growth of the movie-making industry, from the technological innovations that made making movies physically possible, to the societal and even infrastructural changes that allowed the expansion of the film industry. The exhibit is split into two giant rolls of film. The first roll traces the technological progress made in the 19th Century during the Industrial Revolution and lists the products necessary to make a film. Various facts follow, such as the invention of the popcorn popper (in 1888), and Thomas Edison’s inventions, from the Kinetoscope (a prototype movie projector) in 1889 to his invention of the motion picture camera in 1891 and the first copyrighted film (“Fred Ott’s Sneeze”). Alongside these advancements, the timeline illustrates societal developments and the changes that accompanied the burgeoning American film industry.

Above this general history timeline, on the second roll of film (and a little too easy to miss because of it), lies the congruent timeline for Ithaca. The story begins by illustrating the infrastructural progress that allowed Ithaca to become a center of film-making.  Undoubtedly one of the main reasons Ithaca was able to become a center of film-making was because of the infrastructural developments of the era, which connected Ithaca to other, larger cities in the state.

And then the exhibit gets to the Wharton brothers. Theodore Wharton began filming in Ithaca after shooting a Cornell-Penn game in 1912. That same year, he used a house on Thurston Avenue to film “The Hermit of Lonely Gulch.” Aiding the Wharton brothers’ efforts were not only Ithaca residents and college students, but also Oliver and William Thomas, airplane manufacturers who lent the Whartons the use of their planes. In 1917 the brothers refused backing from their previous supporters and began producing films completely on their own. The next year, the brothers barely made a profit with their war film, and shortly thereafter, in 1920, the last silent film was made in Ithaca.

Described as the “centerpiece” of the town-wide exhibit, lead architect Todd Zwigard employed the shape and image of two rolls of film, aiming to create an “animated sculptural presentation” that would “come alive for the viewers.” The design succeeds at this goal, becoming a grand manifestation of the history it represents. The timeline itself, written by Julie Simmons-Lynch explores the growth of the film industry in a thorough and attentive way. Her clear devotion to and admiration of Ithaca’s unexpected history make the innovation and shenanigans of the Wharton brothers, and the early film industry in general, come alive for the audience.

The story of the Wharton brothers and the rise of Ithaca into movie industry is surprising, but truly amazing. Romance, Exploits, and Peril wonderfully highlights that incredible journey, from the seemingly mundane inclusion of Ithaca in New York’s early transportation system, to the beautiful landscape that brought the Wharton brothers here. Though this particular exhibit appears relatively short, its content, from the history of the film industry in general to Ithaca’s own moment in the spotlight, is riveting and includes details that casual passerby would have glossed over. It also reveals much about Ithaca’s history that was not common knowledge, especially for the area’s many short-term residents at Cornell and Ithaca College. If nothing else, this town-wide exhibit, and the timeline in particular, offer students a chance to explore the hidden history of the town that used to be the Biggest Little City.

Romance, Expolits and Peril will be running until this Friday, Nov. 4. The IMPP will be hosting a closing reception on Nov. 4, at Petrune, in the Commons, from 6-8:30.

Original Author: Fiona Modrak