By Diana Riesman, Executive Director & Co-Founder/Wharton Studio Museum and Board Chair/ Friends of Stewart Park
In 2001, I moved to Ithaca with my husband, our two-year-old son, and a baby on the way. After many years in L.A., we were ready to come back to the East Coast where we’d grown up, to be closer to family, and so our kids could experience the seasons. Cliched but true. Of course, there are seasons in L.A., but it’s just not the same.
I had worked in the movie business in NYC for a few years, and then a dozen more in L.A., followed by a few years at KCRW, a National Public Radio affiliate in Santa Monica, where I produced, along with two other shows, a weekly live program called “Hollywood Wrap” that focused on the movers and shakers of L.A.’s ruling industry. There was no better job in the universe, I felt, than working at KCRW.
Having grown up in Montreal, I was excited to come back to the East Coast and be closer to my native land. But when my husband announced that he’d been admitted to Cornell for grad school and wanted to go, I was a bit wary. Cornell? Where exactly is Ithaca, anyway, and what’s it near? I whined. He put forth that both Rochester and Syracuse were not so far away. No, no, I said. What real cities is Ithaca near? You know I’m an urban creature, right? I like dirty streets, crowded cafes, bookshops. We packed up and headed east.
Truthfully, it took me about ten days—maybe even just a week—to acclimate. I loved Ithaca instantly: abounding natural beauty outside my door; Cornell and Ithaca College bringing a vibrancy and vibe to the day to day; and such friendly and welcoming people. I found this city to be the perfect melding of the rustic and the urban. I bring this up because it is exactly these qualities that attracted filmmakers Theodore Wharton and his brother Leopold to Ithaca one hundred years ago. And it’s what attracts so many people today. You’re asking, “Who are the Whartons?”
Well, six months after moving to Central New York, aka the Southern Tier, aka The Finger Lakes Region, aka Upstate, I found out, through my husband (who found out through his Landscape Architecture prof Rick Manning, who I now work with) that Ithaca had a movie history. What?! Really?! Both a history major in college and a cinephile, I was immediately intrigued and set out to find out more.
Sure enough, I found out that Ithaca was the home of a bustling silent motion picture studio between 1914 and 1919. Theodore “Ted” Wharton had come to Ithaca in 1912, sent by the Chicago-based Essanay Film Co., to shoot scenes of typical college life at Cornell. He was smitten, like I was—like so many people are today—by the scenic beauty in Ithaca and its environs, and the fact that Ithaca offers a lifestyle that sweetly mixes the rustic and the urban.
As a filmmaker, Ted Wharton saw in the region a lot of potential to make movies—he could shoot scenes in the gorges, or on the lake, but then just minutes away was the city itself for more urban backdrops. Wharton returned in 1914, was joined by his brother Leopold shortly thereafter, and they leased 45 acres of what was then Renwick Park, now Stewart Park, and created Wharton, Inc. Studios. During its heyday, the Whartons attracted some of the best-known actors of the day to their studio, people such as Pearl White, Irene Castle, Lionel Barrymore, and a young Oliver Hardy. The Whartons directed and produced dramas, comedies, mysteries, and WWI propaganda films but were best known for their popular serials. Moviegoers would flock to one of Ithaca’s seven downtown movie theatres to see the next episode of Beatrice Fairfax, Patria, or Romance of Elaine. The Whartons embraced Ithaca and Ithaca embraced them back. The studio hired locals as set builders, costume designers, and cinematographers. The newspapers of the day were filled with the comings and goings of the film stars. The Whartons were pioneers in an emerging art form and industry. They made it up as they went along and this must have been awfully exciting.
There was no question in my mind: this unique and fascinating local Ithaca history needed to be exploited, in the best sense of the word. Maybe there could be a museum, or at least some sort of homage paid to these entrepreneurs, these artists. And, when I found out that the original motion picture studio was still standing in Stewart Park, well, that put me over the edge! As the daughter of a developer—one who loves historic preservation—I saw the potential to preserve and celebrate this history, broaden awareness of the Whartons and the role Ithaca played in early American filmmaking, and bring this historic building by the shores of beautiful Cayuga Lake—one of only a handful of movie production studios still standing in the country—back to life.
Almost ten years later, there is much progress and lots to celebrate. It’s been a long road, but an exciting and challenging one. It’s afforded me the opportunity to meet and work with so many incredible people. Wharton Studio Museum (WSM), the nonprofit I co-founded in 2009, produces year-round programming and exhibits; hosts a film festival for youth; puts on a free screening of a silent film with live music every summer at Taughannock Falls State Park; is developing plans for a Central New York Film Trail; offers a self-guided tour of silent film locations; and, in the spring of 2019, will have a permanent exhibit in the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture, in collaboration with a plethora of wonderful organizations—Historic Ithaca, Community Arts Partnership, Dorothy Cotton Institute, The History Center, and Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation. History is happening in New York—to quote from Hamilton—and it’s exciting and rewarding to discover it, preserve it, celebrate it, and revel in it. Ithaca with initiatives like Ithaca Heritage does a swell job of this, with much wonderful support from local government grants and a supportive and generous community that loves and appreciates history.
In 2012, WSM proposed to Mayor Myrick that October be officially proclaimed Silent Movie Month in Ithaca. We chose October believing the Whartons signed their original lease in the park in October, or that Theodore Wharton first visited Ithaca in October of 191—I can’t recall. The City agreed to the proclamation and on a lovely spring afternoon, the mayor signed it outside the Wharton Studio building.
Seven years later Wharton Studio Museum and we, the denizens of Ithaca, are celebrating Silent Movie Month with screenings, a photo exhibit at a pop-up gallery, presentations, and an operetta based on a 1916 Wharton serial. Cornell Cinema, Cinemapolis, The Cherry Artspace, Tompkins County Public Library, and Ithaca Made Movies are all taking part.
I hope you will, too. Celebrate Silent Movie Month with us—we invite you to attend an event this October and make noise about silent film! Just like the Whartons did one hundred years ago. They did not have a website, but we do: www.whartonstudiomuseum.org.