Ithaca has a way of burying its cultural legacies. One relatively well-known chapter in its history is its brief but vibrant period as a center for the early film industry. Between 1913 and 1919, the brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton brought to town some of the top actors and actresses of the day: people like Irene Castle, Lionel Barrymore and Pearl White. Making use of local labor and shooting on location in the gorges and around town, the Whartons completed over forty films before relocating their business to Santa Cruz, California in the early twenties.
Founded in 2009 by Diana Riesman and Constance Bruce as the Ithaca Motion Picture Project, the Wharton Studio Museum seeks to preserve this history and make it better known. With Riesman as executive director, the nonprofit currently acts as a kind of virtual “museum,” holding screenings, talks, and temporary exhibits and collaborating with other local cultural and educational organizations.
Planned for 2021, the Wharton Studio Museum and Park Center will occupy the brothers’ former production space in Stewart Park and will feature exhibits dedicated to Ithaca’s rich film history. The building, currently used by Ithaca’s Department of Public Works and serving for park maintenance, was built in the 1894 by distinguished local architects Clinton Vivian and Arthur Gibb, together with the nearby picnic pavilion. Todd Zwigard Architects of Beacon, NY, have designed the renovation, which will see the budding museum share space with the DPW.
Riesman is also chair of the board at the Friends of Stewart Park, which is overseeing a broader revitalization of the park in advance of its 100th year anniversary in 2021. She foresees the museum and its surrounding space, to be dubbed “Renwick Plaza,” as an anchor for the revitalized park.
“We’re going to […] bring it back as the cultural, recreational hub of the park,” she explained.
The WSM is one of the founding partners for the recently opened Tompkins Center for History and Culture, located in the former Tompkins Trust Co. building on the Commons. (Part of the historical complex was also designed by Vivian and Gibb.) It shares a third floor office with the Ithaca Festival. A small long-term display has been installed in the ground floor gallery space there belonging to the History Center.
An additional exhibition, which will run through August, opened last week at Gimme! Coffee on State Street. According to Riesman, “the exhibit is a three-dimensional portrait gallery featuring a who's who of Wharton stars and crew.” Both presentations were designed by Joe Lamarre of Uncommonplace and incorporate research and writing by Julie Simmons-Lynch. Lamarre and Lynch have both been with the project since 2011.
Another new initiative is the Finger Lakes Film Trail. Following the recent vogue for multi-venue cultural “trails,” the WSM has partnered with the George Eastman Museum in Rochester and the Cayuga Museum of History and Art in Auburn, New York to present what promises to be a multi-faceted look at early film history.
Eastman popularized the use of roll film in photography – an important step on the path to motion pictures. The Cayuga Museum’s Case Research Labs (adjacent the main building) once housed the work of Theodore Willard Case, whose pioneering work synchronizing sound and moving images lead to the development of the “talkies.”
One of the WSM’s most popular programs is their annual summer Silent Movie Under the Stars. Free and open to the public, this year’s event will take place on August 24th in Taughannock Falls State Park. Although past screenings have featured Wharton Studio films, this year’s main event will be “The General” (1926), which Riesman described as “a charming and hilarious film.” Co-directed by and starring the inimitable Buster Keaton, it is considered possibly the greatest silent film ever made. Live scoring will be provided by local improv trio the Cloud Chamber Orchestra.
The WSM will continue to sponsor events into the fall and beyond. October is Silent Movie Month in Ithaca and typically brings a flurry of screenings, presentations, and interdisciplinary activity. Next April will see an important book on the Whartons, written by SUNY Empire State College professor Barbara Tepa Lupak, a noted film and literary scholar, and published by Cornell University Press.
With the new Tompkins Center presence, the film trail, and the book. Riesman is excited. “I feel like for the organization, that it’s all coming together,” she said. “We’re seeing the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.”