The function of the artist is to make people
like life better than they have before.
I have a passion for movie studios.
I worked for a quarter of a century in Los Angeles in the film and television industry (in the late 20th century), and I loved getting onto the studio lots, exploring the sets and soundstages, moving from dream-world to dream-world.
I moved from L.A. back to Ithaca in the early 21st century. Imagine my delight when I learned that my other home of Ithaca, N.Y. was a center of world filmmaking before Hollywood.
Once upon a time, in a lost Golden Age, one hundred years ago, in the early 20th century, before the horror of World War I, when Hollywood, California was a little rural village north of Los Angeles dotted with farms, livestock, and orange and lemon groves, Ithaca, N.Y. was a film capital of the silent film era.
That ethereally beautiful park on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake that we know as Stewart Park was called Renwick Park, and it was the site of Wharton, Inc., a large, thriving film studio.
If we read the booklet Ithaca Silent Movies: The Forgotten History by Aaron Pichel, the presenter of the Annual Ithaca Silent Movie Event at the State Theatre on June 1, we discover that the Wharton Studios encompassed “indoor and outdoor stages, dressing rooms, camera and lighting equipment, a film processing lab, an editing room, a special effects studio, sets and props departments, offices, and even an open-air theatre to present plays, movies, and vaudeville entertainment to paying audiences.”
The studio was the creation of two visionary brothers: Theodore Wharton, an accomplished actor, screenwriter, director and businessman of the Silent Film Era, and Leopold Wharton, a Broadway actor and equally accomplished film director.
The Wharton Bros. Studio had a great run. Cranking out hit serials and feature films as contract producers for the American Pathé company, the largest film production and distribution operation in the world, and for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service. Serials like The Eagle’s Eye, The Romance of Elaine, The Mysteries of Myra, Beatrice Fairfax, and Patria, and features like The Lottery Man, The Crusher, The Great White Trail, and A Romance of the Air.
Silent-Era stars who lived and worked in Ithaca included Pearl White, Theda Bara, Norma Talmadge, Milton Sills, Irene Castle, Doris Kenyon, Olive Thomas, Grace Darling, Lionel Barrymore, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne, Harry Fox (for whom the Foxtrot was named), Warner Oland (before he became famous playing Charlie Chan), and Oliver Hardy (before he teamed up with Stan Laurel).
What a time it was. The Wharton Bros. hurled a trolley car off the Stewart Avenue Bridge into the Fall Creek gorge, and drove an automobile over Taughannock Falls. There were “daredevil races between vintage automobiles and steam-belching locomotives, glamorous film stars strolling on State Street, mock German submarines on Cayuga Lake, fires, explosions …”
Other film studios followed in the Wharton Bros. wake: Cayuga Productions, Metro (before it became MGM), and Hol-Tre Studios (a partnership with the wonderfully named Edwin Hollywood and Robert H. Treman, who later gave us the ethereally beautiful Robert H. Treman State Park).
The whole Golden Age lasted about a decade, from 1912 into the early 1920s and then vanished like a dream to wherever the past goes …
And, because the past vanishes into God knows where, how fortunate we are to have the Ithaca Silent Movie Event each year at the Ithaca Festival.
I went to the first Ithaca Silent Movie Event in spring 2006.
It was to be held outdoors at DeWitt Park, but got rained out, and, at the last minute, the Ithaca Hilton Garden Inn graciously offered to host it in their Grand Ballroom.
It was a wonderful event.
And I remember the strangeness of it. This was the first time I had seen films and photos of Ithaca’s silent movie past. I felt like I was looking at films from some weird parallel universe where Hollywood had never happened, and Ithaca, N.Y. had always been the film capital.
And the event had a piano accompanist, Donald Sosin, and a singer/music coach, Joanna Seaton, to teach the audience to sing along with the film at the appropriate places. (She actually rehearsed us as I recall.)
The thing that struck me was how much fun it was.
The late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once said that he thought that one of the most fun things a human being could do was to sing harmony. (And, having played guitar and sung in a couple of rock & roll bands in L.A., I tend to agree …)
And it occurs to me that people used to sing more in America in our past … hymns in church, perhaps, and drinking songs in saloons … and (Aaron Pichel tells me) there was a time when people routinely sang at the movies. Even before the convention of having the Bouncing Ball and lyrics on the screen, exhibitors would project the lyrics for the audience with glass slides …
The film that first year was from the Beatrice Fairfax series … with the Silent-Era stars Grace Darling and Harry Fox playing newsperson/detectives, and at the appropriate time in the film, there was a theme song with lyrics and a Bouncing Ball, and the audience was expected to sing along and exhort the heroine to greater feats of derring-do.
And, when I went to the Ithaca Silent Movie Event last year, in 2011, I was once again struck by how much fun it was … how the State Theatre was packed … how into it the audience was … how they were so obviously enjoying themselves … how it was this wonderful human event.
The State Theatre is one of those fabulous, over-the-top movie cathedrals from the early days of the cinema … the perfect setting for the event.
And the amazing Dr. Philip Carli, the world-renowned silent film accompanist, graced that event. According to the program book, Dr. Carli “performs frequently at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal, the National Film Theatre in London, and at film festivals worldwide.”
It seems to me to be a miracle that somebody makes a living accompanying silent films here in the 21st century, but there it is.
And Dr. Carli will be returning to the State Theatre for the 2012 event, performing live accompaniment on a 1907 Steinway grand piano.
I sat down with the impresario of the Ithaca Silent Movie event, Aaron Pichel, at the Owl Café on the Commons to chat about the upcoming June 1 event.
Aaron didn’t want me to focus on him, so I’ll merely mention in passing that he is an attorney, a film producer, a former Disney development executive on films like The Lion King and Pocahontas, and the author of a 1986 biography of his cousin, the film director Irving Pichel. (He also worked for Interpol.)
Ithaca Times: Probably, the most important thing I should ask is what can the audience expect this coming June first? What have you got planned for us?
Aaron Pichel: We’ve got a great show planned. We’re going to start with cartoons…some short animated films from the era …
IT: And then we’re going to show two episodes of the series Beatrice Fairfax. Both episodes are two-reelers – running in the low twenty minutes (depending on how fast one cranks the projector)…
AP: And we’ll have live musical accompaniment by Dr. Philip Carli…
And it will be a guaranteed family-friendly event…or I guarantee double your money back!”
IT: [laughs] (The event is free.)
AP: Of the two episodes of Beatrice Fairfax, one of them is called Play Ball…and that is a historically significant film…because it is the first appearance of a young actress who went on to become a very major film star…Olive Thomas…”
IT: And we’ve got Grace Darling starring as Beatrice Fairfax, and Harry Fox – such an appealing actor…”
AP: And the films were written by the screenwriter, Basil Dickey, who ended up having a very long career in Hollywood up through the 1950s and ‘60s. He wrote Tarzan movies in the 1930s, and most of the serial films you would have seen in the 1940s: Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, Captain America …
The way that he structured these stories would be … someone is having a love problem and writes into Beatrice Fairfax, the Hearst newspapers’ love advice columnist …
Meanwhile, at the same time, Jimmy Barton – the Harry Fox character, a news reporter at the paper – is working on some criminal story…and by chance, in every episode, the love advice issue is directly related to this criminal story…and Beatrice and Jimmy team up and solve the crime.
IT: They’re like detectives or something,
AP: It’s really like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
AP: And there’s this love tension between the two reporters as well. Dickey really got it down to a winning formula: love problem, criminal problem, and the reporters solve both, together. It hits with all cylinders firing. It has action-adventure, love, romance and a happy ending …
Love problem solved and the Bad Guys get justice.
IT: You can’t do better than that.
AP: There were fifteen episodes total for that series, of which, fourteen survived. So we’re not done with Beatrice Fairfax, yet. We’re getting there. We’re starting to run out. Then we’ll move on to the next find…”
IT: The audience seemed to have an awfully good time last year.”
AP: Well, the films are exciting. They’re very engaging … very captivating …
With the right music. If you don’t have the right music, the movies fall flat. They weren’t meant to be seen in a quiet room…
They were meant to be seen with music, and an audience around you, and people gasping and applauding and laughing together …
It was meant to be a communal experience, and that’s what we try to recreate at the State Theatre …”
The 6th Annual Ithaca Silent Movie Event will be held at the State Theatre of Ithaca, 107 West State/MLK Street on June 1st at 8:30 p.m. as part of the 2012 Ithaca Festival. The event is free and open to the public. A free after-party will be held after the screening at the Autumn Leaves Bookstore, 115 the Commons, just down the street from the State Theatre.