Over 100 years ago in the fragrant Ithaca, New York spring of May 1914, a newlywed couple — stage actors from New York City — Thurlow Bergen and Elsie Esmond arrived in town to star in silent movies. They settled into a suite at the stately Ithaca Hotel and quickly began working on their first film as leading players for the local Wharton brothers’ movie studio.
Just one month prior, in April 1914, those enterprising and experienced brothers — Theodore and Leopold Wharton — had done something unique and extraordinary in Ithaca. They formed a locally based film company —Wharton, Inc. — to produce top-quality silent motion pictures for distribution throughout the world.
The multinational Pathé company contracted to buy the Whartons’ output and to distribute the reels all over the U.S. and around the globe.
A TROUPE GROWS IN ITHACA
That spring of 1914, to fulfill the Pathé contract, the Wharton brothers gathered a troupe of cast and crew made up of expert professionals plus members of the local community, and prepared for a full season of filmmaking in Ithaca.
For a cinematographer, the Whartons secured 32-year-old Joseph A. Dubray, an experienced Milan-born, French-raised cameraman who would go on to a lengthy career in the film industry.
Cameraman Dubray met the Whartons while he worked at the Pathé company on the blockbuster serial “Perils of Pauline” (1914), starring Pearl White. Dubray would become an early and important member of both the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (founded in 1916) and the American Society of Cinematographers (founded in 1919).
To fill the roles of leading man and leading lady, the Whartons hired stage actors Thurlow Bergen (1875-1954) and his new bride, Elsie Esmond (1880-1958). The pair, proficient and seasoned actors on the legitimate stage, made their first ventures into the movies that year.
“With this start on the personnel of his company, Mr. [Theodore] Wharton believes he will turn out some of the best acted plays in the motion picture field,” noted the Ithaca Daily News upon Theodore and Leopold’s arrival in town for the start of the filming season.
Actress Elsie Esmond would make her cinematic debut with the Whartons, while husband Thurlow Bergen had just one motion picture under his belt, “The Stain” (1914), made for the Pathé company earlier in the year. “The Stain” would be released by Pathé to theaters in October 1914, while Bergen was in Ithaca acting for the Whartons.
Bergen’s debut also featured the very first film role of “vamp” actress Theda Bara (1885-1955), credited under her birth name of Theodosia Goodman. She would later film one movie in Ithaca, the Fox feature “Kathleen Mavourneen” in 1919. “The Stain” also showcased the second screen appearance of actor Creighton Hale (1889-1965), who would star in many Ithaca-made movies, including the Whartons’ 1914 production “The Warning.”
Bergen and Esmond had married in April 1914 in Hoboken, New Jersey, and began their newly wedded life with a sojourn in Ithaca for work with the Whartons. Filming in bucolic Ithaca may have been the closest they got to a honeymoon.
Ithaca offered a respite for the couple from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Bergen, after spending some time sightseeing in Ithaca with Esmond, commented to the Ithaca Daily News, “I had heard a great deal about your beautiful city in New York, and what I have seen confirms everything that was said.”
“We feel it a great advantage to us in coming to Ithaca,” Bergen added enthusiastically, “and especially the importance of being associated with Mr. [Theodore] Wharton in his motion picture venture.”
“Mr. Wharton’s standing is considered to be at the head of the profession as a manager and producer,” Bergen noted.
The couple arrived in Ithaca by train on Friday, May 8, 1914, Esmond’s 34th birthday. Bergen was 39 years old. Their life, at that moment of arrival in Ithaca, was at an inflection point: a new marriage (the second for Esmond, the third for Bergen), and a new medium of acting (transitioning to cinema from stage), but also a burden of financial worries (heavy debts from Bergen’s previous theatrical ventures).
A TALE AS OLD AS TIME
Prior to his Ithaca arrival, Bergen ran his own live theater troupe. As the locomotive force of the company, Bergen took on the roles of producer, director and leading man.
“Mr. Bergen has had considerable experience as a manager,” noted the Ithaca Daily News, “having run a stock company in St. Paul [Minnesota], where he met Miss Esmond who came to his company as leading lady several years ago.”
Bergen hired Esmond as leading actress for his St. Paul theater troupe and the headliners fell in love — a story as old as theater itself. For Bergen, even though the theater company was not profitable, what he lost in money, he gained in love.
The married couple would spend the spring, summer, and fall of 1914 in Ithaca, starring together in six action-packed movies under the direction of the Wharton brothers.
The following year in 1915, they would return together to shoot two more feature-length Wharton movies. Esmond would also come to Ithaca at the end of 1916 to star in the Whartons’ eugenics feature, “The Black Stork” (1917), without Bergen.
Acting in the movies was not quite as glamorous in 1914 as it would later become. “Legitimate” stage actors were leery of the new medium: the motion pictures were silent, so stage actors’ theater-trained voices were of no avail, and acting in movies was considered lower class work than on the legitimate stage.
But the couple was glad to have the movie work, and they “agreed that the motion picture business had reached a development where it is attracting the best actors on the legitimate stage,” noted the local paper. “A few years ago they would not consider propositions to act before the cameras, but now the best actors are securing engagements with picture producers.”
The Wharton brothers placed enormous faith in the acting pair. The couple, playing the leading roles in most of the 1914 Wharton movies, would have to carry the pictures (and the company) to success.
ACTOR FILES FOR BANKRUPTCY
Bergen and Esmond both told the local paper of important stage engagements and leading roles they had declined in order to join the Whartons’ movie company. While they may have passed on those stage roles, money was a problem for the couple. Bergen would file for personal bankruptcy in federal court while living in Ithaca (no Ithaca creditors were involved with the $15,000 of liabilities; Bergen claimed no assets).
The local newspaper published a blunt notice about the matter, under the bold headline: “Thurlow Bergen Files Petition in Bankruptcy.”
“Thurlow Bergen of this city,” noted the Ithaca Daily News, “the leading man of the Wharton Motion Picture Company, has filed a petition for voluntary bankruptcy in the federal court… through his attorney, Howard Cobb of this city.”
(Attorney Cobb would represent the Wharton brothers, too, before the same court when the Wharton’s Ithaca moving picture company faced corporate bankruptcy of its own in 1918, four years after Bergen’s filing.)
“It is understood’” the newspaper pointed out, “that Mr. Bergen’s financial condition was precipitated by losses he sustained in various theatrical ventures before coming to Ithaca.”
The theater business did not confer an easy life. Theodore Wharton himself lamented that “the theatrical profession was a tough game to buck.”
The couple had hopes that coming to Ithaca would bring them a brand-new start in life — as cinema stars in the blossoming new world of the movies.
LEADING MAN THURLOW BERGEN
Bergen was a talented gentleman. Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1875, the son of a lawyer, he was a prodigy.
As a teenager, Bergen composed the music and lyrics of the then-well-known song “Esther’s Lullaby,” which he performed in 1894, at age 19, at the White House for President Grover Cleveland and family. With the permission of First Lady Frances Cleveland, Bergen dedicated the song to the Clevelands’ new 8-month-old baby daughter, Esther, born in 1893 (the only child of a U.S. President born in the White House).
As a young man, Bergen moved to Washington, D.C. to study law like his father, but gave up jurisprudence to begin a life on the boards as an actor.
Bergen grew to become an accomplished thespian, director, manager, composer, lyricist, singer, playwright, author of children’s books, and an expert horseback rider and athlete. His athleticism would serve him well in the stunt-filled roles where the Whartons planted him.
Bergen’s work in stock troupes (including performances in Ithaca in 1905 and a season in Syracuse), in touring companies throughout the U.S., and in performances for six plays on Broadway prepared him for the cinema acting that the Whartons would require in Ithaca.
LEADING LADY ELSIE ESMOND
Elsie Esmond, like Bergen, was an accomplished actor — she had toured the U.S. in stock companies (including a season in Albany and tours through Ithaca) for over a decade and had one Broadway credit on her resumé. Elsie was a natural; audiences and critics loved her.
“Elsie Esmond,” wrote one Los Angeles theater reviewer in admiration, “played an ingenue part with much grace and vivacity. Miss Esmond is a clever little actress with a face that reminds one of Maude Adams and with an interpretative ability that is all her own.”
Esmond (née Elsie Augusta Elizabeth Sturkow) was born in Chicago in 1880 to an artistic family. Her Russian-born father was an avid amateur violinist, her English-born mother was a writer, and her older sister was an accomplished pianist and composer.
“Though an American by birth, she is of English-Russian parentage, which probably accounts for her wonderfully expressive eyes, mobile features and wealth of vibrant golden hair,” commented the Ithaca Daily News.
Elsie took the stage surname Esmond when she embarked on her theater career, though she never legally changed her name (the headstone at her grave reads “Elsie Sturkow”).
In 1903 at age 23, Esmond married a young theater producer, Robert Morris, Jr., with whom she worked in the Neill-Morosco theatrical circuit. That first marriage ended in divorce. But Esmond would try again with Bergen, and they had high hopes. The two had much in common; Bergen and Esmond were both actors, athletic, splendid swimmers, and expert riders.
THEIR FIRST ITHACA MOVIE
The couple’s first production for the Wharton brothers, “The Boundary Rider” (1914), was ready to start shooting in Ithaca in May of 1914. The drama in five reels (some sources say four) involved opium smuggling, murder, false arrest, escape from the law, and the Canadian Border Patrol riding to the rescue on horseback (taking fine advantage of Bergen’s equestrian skills).
The Wharton crew built an outdoor stage, 25x50 feet, in the large yard of the company’s Ithaca headquarters at 946 East State Street (the house still stands today). Sets were designed and constructed, the cast was at the ready, and cameraman Dubray was eager to start cranking. The Whartons had everything prepared to commence production on Tuesday, May 12, 1914.
But rain immediately hindered the work. “Theodore W. Wharton was ready to begin his new four-reel moving picture production, at the East State Street studio this morning,” explained the Ithaca Journal, “but the downpour made it out of the question. When the weather clears up the Whartons intend starting.”
Here was an early inkling that weather in places like California might be better suited to moviemaking than Ithaca.
Theodore Wharton was still upbeat. “We are not going to rush things,” he declared, “we are not here to grind out pictures by the wholesale, but we intend to produce high-quality photo-plays, taking our time, so that they will be of the highest grade of perfection.” With resolve and exuberance, the Wharton brothers intended to surmount any obstacle.
The Ithaca Journal offered bad news about the weather, though: “More like it coming. The Weather Bureau predicts that the same brand of weather will probably prevail for a few days.” Indeed, filming was delayed for three days — an expensive proposition when a full cast and crew must still be paid.
Finally, after the three days of heavy rain, the sun broke through and a flurry of activity began.
To Be Continued…