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November 10, 2021

Lights, Camera, Ithaca?

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The melody bounced off of the violins and covered the room with a layer of liveliness. Soon, the rest of the orchestra will join in to accompany the motion pictures projected on the grand screen. The room sounded like excitement. The room sounded like the 1900s.

Shocking to most, Ithaca was once considered more popular than Hollywood in the U.S. movie industry. When I first found out about Ithaca’s rich history in filmmaking through my FWS instructor, I found it hard to believe. Ithaca was like Hollywood?!

What now stands as Ithaca’s Stewart Park along the shores of Cayuga Lake was once a film company called Wharton Studio. Opened by Theodore and Leopold Wharton, Wharton Studio produced numerous silent films between the years 1913 to 1920. What started as an effort to film the Cornell-Penn football game in Ludlowville, New Tork, Theodore Wharton returned to Ithaca in 1913 with a cast and crew, including Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne (who starred in the silent film Romeo and Juliet in 1916). Following the opening of their film studio, the Wharton brothers became responsible for bringing many famous actors and actresses to Ithaca from New York City. Ithaca became the unofficial capital of the silent film industry. Many of the silent films were shot within intricate studio sets and in natural sites around Ithaca including the gorges on Cornell University’s campus and in the woods near Beebe Lake. Over 20 different silent films and serials were created in Ithaca, including early filmmaking classics such as The Eagle’s Eye and Beatrice Fairfax. In Barbara Tepa Lupack’s novel, Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema, she credits The Wharton brothers’ films as playing “a vital role in the evolution of cinema as a mass medium and as a form of entertainment for people of all ages and backgrounds; and [the Wharton brothers] became forerunners of today’s ubiquitous crime and mystery procedurals and sensation-filled commercial blockbusters.”

Unfortunately, in the early 1920s, the Wharton Studios moved to Santa Cruz, California, following the majority of the film industry’s migration to California and Hollywood due to its freedom to shoot year-round. Despite the Wharton brothers’ extreme success, much of its products were lost in 1929, when hundreds of the Wharton Brothers’ film reels spontaneously combusted in the storage shed. 

Luckily, Ithaca’s local efforts have continuously worked to preserve its prosperous history in filmmaking. In 2009, the Ithaca Motion Picture Project (now known as the Wharton Studio Museum) was incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit in New York State. Wharton Studio Museum’s (WSM) mission is to “preserve and celebrate the role Ithaca and the region played in the history of American filmmaking,” driving the organization’s effort to increase local, regional and national awareness. WSM has been hosting annual events, providing an immersive and memorable experience for and beyond the Ithaca community. Every August since 2011, WSM has hosted “Silent Movie Under the Stars,” an outdoor screening of silent films with live music located at Taughannock Falls State Park. Every October since 2012 has been dedicated to “Silent Movie Month,” celebrating silent films and Ithaca’s role with screenings, exhibits and events at Cornell Cinema, Cinemapolis and other local venues. Some of the newer events include the “Southern Tier Student Film Festival” (every spring since 2017) where it showcases short, black and white, silent films by Southern Tier middle and high school students. Another more recently developed event is “Party for the Park” (every September since 2015), a night full of fun celebrations, good food and live music, dedicated to WSM’s joint fundraiser with Friends of Stewart Park. 

In addition to WSM’s current efforts to preserve Ithaca’s film history, WSM has taken on an exciting and ongoing project. Diana Riesman, the executive director of Wharton Studio Museum said that WSM is “currently working to develop the historic motion picture studio building in Stewart Park into the Wharton Studio Park Center, with exhibit space for displays on the Wharton Studio era, a cafe and also a small shop/office.” 

When I think of movies, Ithaca would have never even been a topic of mind. Now, as I pass the roaring Triphammer Falls and run my fingers along the walls of the rugged Ithaca Commons shops, I can sense the liveliness of each landmark, as if they are screaming lights, camera, action!  

Haley Qin is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].