Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Ithaca houses the historic Wharton Studio Building in Stewart Park, where the early silent film production originated.

October 2, 2023

“Hollywood On Cayuga”: Ithaca’s Cinematic History

Print More

As the City of Ithaca celebrates its 12th anniversary of Silent Movie Month in October, The Sun paid homage to a time when Ithaca was known as “Hollywood on Cayuga.”

Beginnings at Cornell

The history of silent filmmaking in Ithaca begins with a tale of two brothers, Theodore and Leopold Wharton.

“In 1912, Theodore — Ted — Wharton and his brother came to Ithaca. … They were young filmmakers, and Ted Wharton was working for a Chicago-based company called Essanay Films,” said Diana Riesman, executive director and co-founder of the Wharton Studio Museum, a local museum preserving Ithaca’s early movie history. “He was sent to Ithaca, specifically to Cornell’s campus, on assignment, to shoot footage of typical college life.”

Riesman said that the Wharton brothers shot a famous football game between Cornell and Penn State, as well as scenes of students walking around Cornell’s campus.

“They thought the campus was fascinating,” Riesman said. “There are people, students from all over the world. They describe them in their native garb, walking around.”

The Whartons in Ithaca

Riesman said that the melding of Ithaca’s rustic and urban elements intrigued Ted Wharton, and a few years after his visit, he returned to Ithaca and leased 50 acres of Renwick Park — what is now Stewart Park — to start Wharton Inc. Studios with his brother Leopold.

Wharton Studio actors film an action scene in one of Ithaca’s many gorges. (Courtesy of Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

“The Whartons made episodic serials. They made features. They made comedies and dramas. They had a series called “Mysteries of Myra” that was sort of based in the occult,” Riesman said. “And they were very, very successful.”

Riesman said that the Wharton Studio was responsible for bringing some of the best-known actors of the time to Ithaca, including Irene Castle, Oliver Hardy and Lionel Barrymore. She said that the city of Ithaca embraced the Whartons’ venture, adding that there were seven movie theaters in downtown Ithaca a century ago.

“If you look at Ithaca Journal articles at the time, they’re just full of stories about the comings and goings of the actors, little gossip pieces, and then just all the ads for what was playing and what film in what theater,” Riesman said. “It must have been a very exciting time.” 

“At one point, the Whartons were filming on State Street, and there was a bank robbery scene that was occurring,” said Barbara Lupack, author of “Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema.” “Some of the residents thought that the bank was really being robbed.”

Lupack said that the Wharton Studio eventually drew in Ithaca residents to work for a few hours at a time.

“Even those feature films were not the feature films by the kinds of standards that we consider today,” Lupack said. “It wasn’t a six-month shoot — in most cases it was on average two, three, four weeks.”

“[The Whartons] would put out a call that they needed some kind of coverage for a particular scene,” Lupack said. “The newspaper coverage stated that, for example, students would take furniture out of their dormitories or their fraternity houses, and they would carry it across campus so the Whartons could use it in their filming. Oftentimes [students] would appear as extras.”

Actors from the Wharton Studio pose in the yard of the Chi Psi fraternity at Cornell University. (Courtesy of Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Lupack said that the reactions of locals to the Whartons’ presence in Ithaca were overwhelmingly positive. However, she said there was one instance where the Whartons’ antics got them into trouble with locals.

“At one point, the Whartons had imported a group of skunks to appear in one scene. The skunk handler was apparently not as good a handler as he might have been, and the skunks got loose, and they raised a stink — literally and figuratively — throughout the town,” Lupack said. “So people were not amused by that.”

The Wharton Studio

The Wharton Studio building was located in the then privately-owned Renwick Park. Lupack described the set as a lively place bustling with famous names of the day, with some famous actors playing pranks on each other in between shoots. She said that the studio building was a big draw for Ithacans of the time.

“At least for the initial years that [the Whartons] were in the Wharton studio, there was a trolley that went from the town of Ithaca out to the Wharton studio,” Lupack said. “Scores of people would jump on that trolley every day. They would go to the site, and they would watch everything that was going on.”

Lupack noted that this interest spilled over into employees, saying that many employed by the Whartons worked at the studio out of genuine interest in the business.

“Oftentimes the people who worked there would go weeks without even collecting their paychecks. So they weren’t there working for the money, they were working there for some ‘greater good of cinema’ or whatever else they assumed that they might be doing with their talents,” Lupack said.

A band performs in a larger crowd gathered in front of the Wharton Studio. (Courtesy of Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Inside the old Wharton Studio building, ceiling tracks believed to have formerly held scenery and backdrops are still visible from Whartons’ movie sets.

“These metal tracks we believe were scenery tracks, because since the movies were silent, there was no need for quiet on the set, so they could shoot multiple scenes from different films,” Riesman said, pointing to the metal pieces lining the ceiling.

Wharton Finances

Despite the Whartons’ advancements in the filmmaking industry, they struggled with creditors during their time at the studio.

“They were not good business people,” Lupack said. “They were good filmmakers, and they were innovative filmmakers, and they were pioneers in their area. And they were clearly among the finest talents of their day. But they weren’t businessmen.”

Lupack said that in the early days of the Whartons’ time in Ithaca, they were financed by William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy newspaper publisher who built America’s largest newspaper chain, Hearst Communications.

“[Hearst was the financial] equivalent of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates — he had it all. He had a media empire, he had money,” Lupack said. “He was very anxious to expand his empire, and he wanted to get into the movies. In order to get into the movies, at what was a relatively late point in the film industry, he knew that he had to dump a lot of money. And that’s exactly what he did.”

Lupack said that the Whartons parted ways with Hearst due to Hearst’s requests for receipts from the Whartons, who had little experience with budgeting, and Hearst’s intrusions into their business without technical expertise to back him. 

“[After separating with Hearst, the Whartons are] on their own in every respect: finding talent and also in financing the talent and financing their films,” Lupack said. “They realized that it was a much trickier proposition than they had imagined, because they hadn’t had to do it all in the past. And so that was actually the beginning of their demise, as soon as they went independent.” 

Riesman attributed the Whartons’ departure from Ithaca in 1919 to a variety of factors, including the influenza epidemic in 1918 that slowed movie theater attendance nationwide and the Whartons’ aversion to Ithaca’s weather.

“One brother Theodore went to Santa Cruz on the West Coast, central California. There was a movie studio there, and the other brother Leopold went to Texas, and they were estranged by the time the studio closed down,” Riesman said, noting that the brothers’ studio in Ithaca was operational for only five to six years.

Pioneers of Theme and Technique

Lupack said that the Whartons were lauded for their representations of female heroines.

“The serial heroines of theirs were progressive, independent women, who were markedly different from the women of 10 and 20 years prior to that, the sort of late-Victorian model of morality,” Lupack said. “These were independent, ambitious, oftentimes well-educated women.” 

Lupack said that the Whartons were instrumental in introducing themes of independence and female sexuality. 

“The [Wharton] character Beatrice Fairfax gave rise to the whole genre of girl reporters, that’s what they were called,” Lupack said. “Many films came out soon after Beatrice Fairfax. I don’t want to say that the Whartons initiated that particular type, but they certainly did an awful lot to promote it.”

According to Lupack, the Whartons introduced new themes to the business, such as the supernatural in “The Mysteries of Myra” and the first anonymous villain in motion pictures, the Clutching Hand in “The Exploits of Elaine.

Riesman added that the Whartons created their special effects themselves as they went along.

“They were inventing a lot of the stuff they did, like ghosts appearing in the camera,” Riesman said. “They hired a lot of local people to be camera operators, set designers, scenic designers and costumers.”

A trolley falling over the Stewart Avenue bridge for a scene in the Wharton Studio’s “Kiss of Blood” (1916). (Courtesy of Cornell University Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Race and Eugenics in Wharton Films

Despite the Whartons’ progressive featuring of female characters, Lupack said that the Whartons pictured characters of color in a way that was “consistent with the era.”

“There were no strong Black heroes, but there were a number of Black characters who served in domestic work in the homes of some of the other characters,” Lupack said.

Lupack said that the Whartons tended to have Black Americans represent Black characters in their movies during a time when many producers of the era would attempt to “transform the racial identities” of their actors using “blackface,” “brownface,” or “yellowface.”  

Lupack said that when the Whartons made movies with Native American characters, they went to reservations and recruited Indigenous people to be extras in their films. Other extras, including Cornell students of the time, would dress in brownface to portray Native Americans for some Wharton films.

Lupack said that the Whartons received negative feedback for their pro-eugenics film “The Black Stork.” 

“It was one of the genres of a number of filmmakers who were making films about the subject of eugenics,” Lupack said. “And essentially it asked — if people have any kind of special need, should they be allowed to live?”

Continuing on Ithaca’s Film History

Riesman said that after the Whartons left Ithaca, their studio building was taken over first for a year by a company called Grossman Pictures.

“Grossman Pictures made one film called “The Million Dollar Reward,”” Riesman said. “Then they left, and a state-funded entity called Cayuga Pictures came in and made one movie called “If Women Only Knew.” And then they left and that was kind of the end of moviemaking in Ithaca.”

Lupack said that artifacts of the silent film era were not considered valuable at the time, as silent film was a fledgling industry.

“Unfortunately, back in that era, people did not place a premium on the kinds of movie artifacts that we do today,” Lupack said. 

Lupack said that another reason for the lack of artifacts from the time is the nature of the Whartons’ filming at the studio.

“[The Whartons] oftentime constructed their sets as what they called indoor-outdoor sets, so even when they were doing interior filming, for the most part, it was done on a soundstage with three walls rather than four,” Lupack said. “Once the sets were finished, they were struck and were not preserved.” 

Riesman said that none of the 35-millimeter film that the Whartons shot exists today.

“The film’s nitrate is very flammable,” said Riesman. “That was a whole issue — how to store these films and not put people at risk.” 

Both Lupack and Riesman were familiar with various speculations about the demise of the Wharton film. 

“The Whartons were apparently storing a lot of their film in a barn somewhere in Lansing, it might have been at their attorney’s house,” Riesman said. “[One story is] that it spontaneously combusted, the whole thing went up in flames. And the other story we’ve heard, which could be an urban legend, is that they threw all the canisters of film into Cayuga Lake.” 

Through the Wharton Studio Museum, Riesman and Friends of Stewart Park, a local group devoted to revitalizing the park and the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, plan to revitalize the old Wharton Studio Museum, which is currently being used for storage and maintenance by the Ithaca Department of Public Works.

“We are developing the Wharton Studio and Cafe in about 1,000 square feet of the building by the lake by the Waterfront Trail,”  Riesman said. “It’s going to be a little cafe on the corner, outdoor seating and then all this exhibit space that tells the history — a little bit of the history of Stewart Park but also the history of the Wharton brothers and their bustling motion picture studio.” 

In addition to making renovations on the building, Riesman said the group hopes to transform the parking lot of the space into a multi-use performance plaza.

“On the weekend, you could have a concert or theater or dance or movies shown there,” Riesman said. 

Riesman noted that as of May, Stewart Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places following restoration efforts by Friends of Stewart Park, Wharton Studio Museum and Historic Ithaca. 

October: Silent Movie Month

This month, Ithaca will hold a host of events to celebrate the city’s rich history of involvement with silent film. 

Molly Ryan, director of Cornell Cinema, said that Cornell Cinema has planned three screenings of silent films with live musical accompaniment. The first, “The Toll of the Sea,” occurred Oct. 1. Oct. 11 will see “The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari” at 7:30 p.m in Sage Chapel, accompanied by the Invisible Czars, and on Oct. 29, “Peter Pan” will play in Cornell Cinema, accompanied by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton.

“We’re very excited to continue the tradition of honoring Ithaca’s silent film history, but to do it in contemporary ways and with new musicians and pique student interest, we hope, in this amazing body of work,” Ryan said.
In addition, Deep Dive will be hosting a Silent City Film Festival Oct. 4-8. At 11 a.m. on Oct. 14, a walking tour of Ithaca’s Historic Theaters will depart from Harold Square on the Commons, led by Historic Ithaca and the Wharton Studio Museum. On Oct. 22, Cinemapolis will feature screenings of Silent Comedy Shorts.

Correction, Oct. 3, 10:38 p.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled the studio name Essanay Films. The Sun apologizes for this error.