Ithaca Silent Movie History



It was an exciting time nearing the end of the Second Industrial Revolution and with it came advancements in electrical, camera and filmmaking technology. By the early 1900s Americans felt there was nothing they couldn't do, from flying in newfangled contraptions to watching people come to life on the silver screen.  

This atmosphere, a society seemingly without limitations, created experimentation and an unprecedented outlet for the imagination.  Cubism and Dadaism turned the art world pear-shaped, women's skirts rose an inch or two, and Sigmund Freud's theory of  id and ego became a worldwide obsession.

Although moviemaking had made great strides in other countries, America was slightly behind.  The Whartons' Ithaca, New York studio was a groundbreaking endeavor.  One of the first of its kind in America, it grew with each technological milestone.

In 1912 Theodore Wharton, an employee of Essanay Studios, visited family in Ludlowville, NY.  While in the area he filmed a Cornell v. Penn State football game being played on Percy Field (now Ithaca High School). Wharton's first film became the one-reel movie, Football Days at Cornell.

Intrigued by the dramatic gorges and the vast Cayuga Lake landscape, Ted invited his brother Leopold to join him and in 1915 they set up Wharton Inc. in Renwick Park (now Stewart Park), making numerous three- and five-reelers within the first year.  

Ithaca and its townspeople were willing accomplices to the Whartons' moviemaking escapades.  Leo needed a trolley to fly off Stewart Avenue Bridge; the city sold him one.  Ted needed furniture, homes, or a surfeit of skunks for any given scene; the locals eagerly complied.  A call for extras would be immediately answered by townies and Cornell students alike.  

Stars like Lionel Barrymore, Oliver Hardy, and Irene Castle mingled and made merry with Ithacans and, in Irene's case, even married one.  Readers of The Ithaca Journal were riveted by the daily shenanigans of the actors: Who was that with Harry Fox in the Tap Room at the Ithaca Hotel? Was that Pearl White driving her roadster at breakneck speed down Buffalo Street?  Just how much whiskey did Irene Castle sneak into her Cayuga Heights home just before Prohibition?  The blood and thunder serials that stoked the public's love for romance, exploits and peril were screened weekly and audiences were insatiable.  It is estimated that the Wharton brothers had a hand in over 700 movie reels in the five years they turned the small college town upside down and into The Biggest Little City.

Wharton Inc. studio, ca. 1915

Despite common belief, Ithaca's wet and cold climate didn't do the Wharton movie studio in: on the contrary, the brothers happily worked within the limitations and their movies were better for it.  They were empiricists, artists and mavericks because they had to be.  Like other filmmakers of the time, they were making much of it up as they went along and it worked.  

By the time the Whartons lost their Ithaca studio to creditors, the popular movie serial had begun to make a natural progression toward feature-length films.  Prohibition was in full swing and helped jumpstart the jazzy Roaring Twenties.  Movie stars were royalty and common folk freely imitated them. Speakeasies permeated society, flappers flapped, juniper berries begat gin, and crime was very organized.  

It was a highly political time, as well, with much of the country at odds in regard to labor laws, immigration, and socialist philosophy.  Newsreels brought protests and crusades to life and Americans saw close-up soldiers returning after WWI, the women's suffrage movement, and a simulated sinking of the Titanic.  Audiences were spellbound.  


The Wharton brothers were best known for their serials; whether blood and thunder, cliffhangers, or romantic melodramas, they were screened weekly. Despite the frenetic pace of fulfilling such a schedule, the brothers made 100s of episodic silents, some as short as 4 minutes, others as long 58.  Two elements most used in these serials were slapstick, or anarchic comedy, burlesque in its roots, and heartbreak.  And because these were silent movies, every emotion was exaggerated.  If a young woman was lovelorn, she sobbed and gestured, held the back of her hand to her forehead reeled in anguish.

Wharton Inc. studio ca. 1916

Comedy was just as overplayed with vaudevillian-like hijinks; two-by-fours whacking the least-suspecting character in the head, lots of pratfalls and brick walls appearing out of thin air, and a perfectly placed banana peel.  

Each reel followed a prescribed formula: enter the protagonist; the plot is laid out; the villain appears, mayhem ensues; the climax; and finally the hero appears and saves the day.  Although predictable these principles worked and are still being used in film today, 100 years later.

Theodore and Leopold Wharton's impact is indelible, not only on Ihtaca's history but film history.  In their story we have a glimpse of what it's like to be on the cutting edge of an industry so seductive, so unique, you'd expect to only see it in the movies. 


Theodore Wharton Filmography

The Hermit of Lonely Gulch, 1913
Sunlight, 1913
For Old Time’s Sake, 1913
Tony the Fiddler, 1913
Dear Old Girl, 1913
The Love Lute of Romany, 1913
The Whip Hand, 1913
The Right of Way, 1913
The Toll of the Marshes, 1913
The Way Perilous, 1913
The Boundary Rider, 1914
A Pawn of Fortune, 1914
A Prince of India, 1914
The Stolen Birthright, 1914
The Fireman & the Girl, 1914
The Exploits of Elaine,  serial, 1914
The Warning, 1914
The Romance of Elaine, serial, 1915
The New Exploits of Elaine, serial, 1915
The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford, 1915
The Mysteries of Myra, serial, 1916
Beatrice Fairfax, serial, 1916
            The Missing Watchman
            Adventures of the Jealous Wife
            Billie’s Romance
            The Stone God
            Mimosa San
            The Forbidden Room
            A Name for the Baby
            At the Ainsley Ball
            Outside the Law
            The Wages of Sin
            The Ringer
            The Hidden Menace
The City, 1916
Out of the Drifts, 1916
The Lottery Man, 1916
Hazel Kirk, 1916
The Black Stork, 1917
Patria,  serial, 1917
The Great White Trail, 1917
The Crusher, 1917
Below Zero, 1917
Romance of the Air, 1918
The Eagle’s Eye, 1918
April Fool, 1918
The Candidates, 1918
The Missionary, 1918
Mission of the War Chest, 1918
The Red Peril, 1918
Marriage à la Mode, 1918
Kute Kids vs. Kupid, 1918
God’s Outlaw, 1919
The Crooked Dagger, 1919
The Invisible Bond, 1919


1855     The Second Industrial Revolution begins and continues until WWI. Steel production; milk pasteurization; steam, electric, diesel, and gasoline powered cars; oil refinery; pulp mills; airplanes; electrification; alkaline batteries; and camera and film production equipment are invented and/or perfected during this 60-year-long technological revolution.

1865     Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, is founded by Ezra Cornell and A. D. White.

1876     Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.

1878     Eadweard Muybridge photographs Horse in Motion using a series of 12 cameras arranged alongside a track: each of the camera shutters is controlled by a trip-wire triggered by the horse's hooves.  This technique is called Chronophotography

1880     The Ithaca Gun Factory is built and quickly becomes one of the country's most trusted gun manufacturers.

1885     Popcorn popper invented: popcorn sold in arcades for $.05 a bag.

1887     The first trolley runs in Ithaca: one of only 13 lines in the country.

1888     Village of Ithaca becomes a chartered city.

1888     The term nickelodeon is coined at a Boston arcade.

1889     Thomas Edison invents the Kinetoscope: the forerunner to the movie projector. 

1890     American Impressionism begins to flourish decades after the European art movement sets the pace.

1891     The Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester is founded by George Eastman; by 1900 he introduces the Brownie camera to be sold for $1 [$11.50 today].

1892     Ithaca College is founded as the Ithaca Conservatory of Music by William Egbert. It is housed in the Boardman House and other locations in downtown Ithaca. 

1892     The birth of the ice cream sundae at Platts & Colts Pharmacy in downtown Ithaca.  Six years earlier Coca Cola made a splash and a decade later Milton Hershey will plant a Kiss on the American public. 

1894     The first showing of a motion picture at a peephole Kinetoscope parlor in New York City: viewings cost $.01.

1894     Fred Ott's Sneeze, directed by William K. L. Dickson and filmed at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey film studio, Black Maria, is the first film copyrighted in the US

1994     The Leonard-Cushing bout is the first sporting event filmed.  Each of the six Kinetoscope one-minute rounds sells for $22.50 [$256.00 today].

1895      The Black Diamond Express, a deluxe train running between NYC and Buffalo begins to make daily stops in Ithaca.  A one-way ticket costs $5.50 [$63.00 today]. 

1895     The Phantascope projector is developed, sold to Edison, and renamed the Vitascope.  Edison goes on to build the world's first movie theatre, The Vitascope, in Buffalo, NY.  A ticket costs $.03.

1895      France's Lumiere brothers' Cinematographe replaces the Magic Lantern, a slide projector illuminated by oil lamp.  Despite his important contributions to film, Louis Lumiere is quoted as saying, "The cinema is an invention without a future." 

1895      The Ragtime music era begins in roadhouses and jazz joints throughout big American cities.

1896     The Lumieres send cameramen around the world. Close to 1,000 short films are made and mass-produced up until 1901, nearly all of them actualities (newsreels). 

1900     Cornell anatomy professor G. S. Moler makes an early movie using frame-by-frame technology.  For The Skeleton Dance he takes single-frame photos of a human skeleton in varying positions giving the illusion of a dancing skeleton. 

1901     A camera crew from Edison's Black Maria Studio arrives in Ithaca to film a Cornell/Columbia/Penn State regatta on Cayuga Lake.

1901     US president William McKinley is assassinated.  Theodore Roosevelt becomes the 26th president.

1902     Pathe Freres of Paris acquires the Lumiere brothers' patents, the most notable being the film perforation technique used to advance film on the teeth of a reel.

1903     Leon Gaumont invents the Chronophonographe and loudspeaker system, one step closer to synchronized sound in film.

1903     Typhoid epidemic devastates Ithaca affecting 1 out of 10 citizens.

1904     Georges Melies releases the first two-reel film, Impossible Voyage

1905     Marcus Loew buys up penny arcades and theaters in Manhattan and Cincinnati: the forerunners to the omnipresent AMC Loews Theaters.

1905     D.W. Griffith sees his first film and comments, "Any man enjoying such a thing should be shot," just three years before his first of more than 450 films, The Adventures of Dollie, is released. 

1905 - 1918  Construction of the New York State Barge Canal.  It brings the Erie, Oswego, Champlain, Cayuga, and Seneca Canals together making for swift lake travel.

1907     The Chigago Daily Tribune lambastes nickelodeons as "firetraps and tawdry corrupters of children." 

1907     Bell and Howell develops a film projection system.

1907     The biggest American film companies, Edison, Essanay, and others, establish the Motion Picture Patents Company monopolizing and standardizing the American film industry.

1908     Sears, Roebuck, and Co. begin their mail order Modern Homes program.  A prefab home can be bought for as little as $650.00. [Depending upon the locale, a comparable home today would cost at least $120,000.00.]

1908     New York City is the first city to pass film censorship laws: only theaters that promise to show solely moral fare will be licensed.

1909     The New York Times creates the term stars for movie idols.  Soon after the word movie is first coined in the Bowery. 

1909     Wilbur Wright pilots a flight in Italy while a passenger shoots the first footage filmed from an airplane.  This just six years after his brother, Orville, manned his first flight from Kitty Hawk.

1909     America's first feature-length film, The Life of Moses, premieres in New Orleans.   

1910     The Arts and Crafts movement thrives, as can be seen in the Ithaca homes used in the Wharton movies. 

1910     Average US worker makes an annual salary of $750 ($15 a week for a 59-hour work week).  The biggest film stars are making close to $10,000 a week.

1910     Gaslighting is replaced by the affordable incandescent bulb. 

1910     The Christian Endeavor Society of Missouri strives to ban all films depicting kissing between anyone but family members.

1910     The Mighty Wurlitzer cinema organ is mass-produced and used to accompany silent movies and serials.

1910     Ithaca's Star Theatre on East Seneca Street is built and with an unprecedented 1,200 seats, becomes the most popular vaudeville venue in the area.  Wharton movies are filmed and shown there.  The theatre is designed by the firm of Gibb & Waltz, the architects responsible for many Cornell and City of Ithaca buildings.

1912     The Edison Company creates the first movie serial, What Happened to Mary? 

1912     Pennsylvania Station is built in NYC offering convenient train travel between Manhattan and Ithaca on one of four railways.

1913     Essanay's US government-backed, seven-reel documentary, The War for Civilization, is released.  Filmed in the badlands of South Dakota, the epic employs 5,000 soldiers and Native Americans.  Buffalo Bill Cody leads vivid reenactments for the epic.

1913     The film industry, settled in Los Angeles's district of Hollywood, is now colloquially referred to as Hollywood.  Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man is the first feature-length movie made in Hollywood. 

1913     Henry Ford creates the car assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan.

1913     The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first cliffhanger serial, is released.

1914     The Exploits of Elaine, starring Pearl White and Arnold Daly is released and is the first movie serial to gross over $1 million in sales. 

1914     The Whartons shoot their most famous stunt of all for the movie, A Prince of India.  They buy an old trolley car from Ithaca Traction Corporation, rig a track, and film the car careening off the Stewart Avenue Bridge.  Trolley car #305 lands in the Fall Creek Gorge without a hitch to the awe and amazement of over 1,000 spectators.

1914     Oliver and William Thomas, airplane manufacturers, move to Ithaca and open the Aeroplane Factory on Brindley Street.  They become the chief suppliers of the US Army and Royal Navy. Their Thomas-Morse S4-C (aka Tommy) would play a prominent role in Wharton productions. 

1914     WWI, "the war to end all wars," begins on July 28 with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

1914     US population is 99 million.  [US population will rise to 316 million by 2013].

1914     Kid Auto Races at Venice is released featuring silent film great Charlie Chaplin in his first performance as the Tramp.

1914     The first episode of The Perils of Pauline, an early blood and thunder serial starring future Wharton star, Pearl White, is released.

1914     The first dramatic feature-length color film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil in Kinemacolor, premieres in London.  Kinemacolor's simple process shows black and white film through a color filter, replacing hand-tinted film.

1915     The sinking of the Lusitania (to be reenacted in the Wharton serial The Eagle's Eye).

1915     D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansmen) is released.  Although financially successful, it's considered by most to be a blatantly racist film and is banned in many American cities.

1915     In May the Whartons move into their newly renovated studio in Renwick Park [now Stewart Park], leased for $2,000 a year from the Renwick family.

1915     Once settled in the Renwick Park studio the brothers begin filming The Romance of Elaine, starring Pearl White and the young Lionel Barrymore in a supporting role.  Pearl becomes one of the most popular female stars in silent movies.  The actress does many of her own stunts, including racing cars and jumping into the cool waters of Cayuga Lake.  She is quoted saying, "I have actually gotten to like fear."  While in town, she stays at the Ithaca Hotel on the corner of Aurora and State Streets.

1915     Working with a large costume budget is a newfound luxury for the Wharton brothers and cast.  On one film, an actor orders himself an expensive costume without prior approval.  The next day, the Whartons have written him out of the script via his character's untimely death.

1915     The New Adventures of J. Rufus Wallingford, which consists of 14 two-reel episodes, stars unknown Oliver (Babe) Hardy.   

1915     Dozens of skunks are rented from a skunk farm in Caroline, NY and brought to the film set for a scene.  Some of the animals escape, spray the crew and actors, and the set is closed down and aired out.

1916     Beatrice Fairfax, starring Grace Darling and Harry Fox, premieres.  Based on the widely popular Beatrice Fairfax syndicated advice column that ran in the Hearst newspapers, the 15 episodes will prove to be among the most notable movies made during Ithaca's short reign as Hollywood on Cayuga.  It is the film debut of ingenue Olive Thomas hailed as "the most beautiful girl on the screen" by Pictorial Review.

1916     The Whartons continue their relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his International Film Service with The Mysteries of Myra: early examples of special effects in film are used to simulate the supernatural.  

1916     Ithaca is dubbed The Biggest Little City.

1916     The Crescent Theatre opens on North Aurora Street in Ithaca featuring "high-class photoplays."  Balcony seats cost $.10; orchestra seats $.15. 

1917    The US enters WWI on April 16th.

1917     Patria, starring Irene Castle, Milton Sills, and Warner Oland [later known for his Charlie Chan character] is released.

1917     Housing an unprecedented 1,650 seats, the Strand Theatre, the most modern theatre for stage and screen to date in Central New York, is built in downtown Ithaca.  Its distinctive Tudor Revival facade, with Gothic arches and stone comedy and tragedy theatre masks, was a nod to London's theatrical Strand district.  The interior was designed in the Adamesque style, with gilt bas-relief, lush velvet rose draperies, and an enormous 37' wide, 24' high and 34'  deep stage.

1917     The Whartons continue to make elaborate movies with budgets of up to  $75,000 each but without the security of third-party backing by Pathe or Hearst's IFS.  They form the Wharton Releasing Co. and their first film under this new shingle is The Great White Trail starring Doris Kenyon.  The film fizzles at the box office and the brothers find they've spread themselves too thin, directing, producing, and distributing their own movies.

1917     The Whartons' efforts are thwarted by Hearst, some believe it to be in retaliation for the brothers striking out on their own.   Ted's last serial The Crooked Dagger would never be released.  The brothers sue Hearst, but the media mogul's power prevails and the case is held up in legal red tape for two years.  They eventually are awarded a small sum in 1919.  

1918     The Spanish Flu keeps people at home and away from the movie theatres.  Within two years more than 50 million people have died from this worldwide pandemic.

1918     The brothers secure loans from local banks for one of their last serials.  The Eagle's Eye, sure to be a hit with its spies, intrigue, and pro-American rhetoric, is released at the end of WWI.  At this point the public has had their fill of war films and the movie barely turns a profit.

1918     A spate of pro-American propaganda films are produced.  While in Ithaca to film the Mission of the War Chest, Wharton actors Marguerite Snow and King Baggot sell Liberty Bonds for the Tompkins County War Chest.  Rochester's George Eastman, the film's financier, donates the film's profits to purchase liberty bonds. 

1919     Leo Wharton moves to San Antonio and sets up the San Antonio Picture Company.

1919     Ted Wharton finds himself in financial turmoil, sublets the studios in Renwick Park to Grossman Pictures and moves to a smaller space on West State Street.

1919    The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th. 

1919     The Wartime Prohibition Act takes effect on June 30th and July 1st becomes known as the Thirsty-First.

1920     Women get the right to vote in part thanks to western NY residents Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's tireless efforts.

1920     Wharton Inc.'s creditors, many of them local Ithaca businesses and banks, hire A. W. Feinberg and begin foreclosure proceeedings.  The studio's contents are sold for $12,000 [$136,600 today] to Feinberg to disperse among his clients.

1920     Ted Wharton leaves Ithaca for sunnier, and potentially more lucrative, climes.  In Los Angeles, he is hired as a writer by MGM, working on The Moon Riders. 

1920     Cayuga Pictures, Inc., a state-chartered company with a budget of $525,000 [$6 million today] sublets the studio in Renwick Park.  Their sole production, If Women Only Knew, would be the last silent movie ever made in Ithaca.  

1921     The City of Ithaca buys Renwick Park and renames it Stewart Park after recently deceased Mayor Edwin C. Stewart.

1925     By the mid-1920s, five major film companies make up the film cartel known as the Big 5.  They own their own studios, distribution departments, cinemas, and contracts on the biggest stars and directors in Hollywood.  

1925     Theodore Case and Earl I. Sponable of Auburn, NY invent the Movietone sound system perfecting synchronization of sound and picture.

1926     Ted Wharton establishes Wharton Film Classics, Inc., in Santa Cruz, CA, setting up a studio identical to his Renwick Park studio.  He never makes a movie there.

1927     The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson and co-starring Wharton star Warner Oland, is recognized as the first talking picture (talkie).  Although there had been other films with sound this film is the first to synchronize the actor's words and actions.  

1927     Leo Wharton dies of cancer on September 27th in New York City at the age of 57.  He had worked on over 100 movies in his career.

1928     Mickey Mouse is introduced to the world in Steamboat Willie.

1929     The first Academy Award for best picture goes to the silent film, Wings.

1929     Hundreds of nitrate-based film reels, housed in a film storage shed at the home of the Whartons' Ithaca lawyer, Howard J. Cobb, spontaneously combust.  Lost in the blaze is the legacy of the Wharton brothers' short but expansive moviemaking career.

1929     The stock market crashes igniting the Great Depression.  Americans flock to the cinema in droves hoping to escape life's tumult for a couple of hours at a cost of $.25 a ticket.

1931     Ted Wharton dies of a lingering thyroid ailment on November 28th in Hollywood at the age of 56.  He had worked on the production of over 600 films throughout his career.  


Irene Castle: Ithaca's It Girl

At the turn of the 20th century the Gibson Girl was considered the archetypal woman: she was buxom and curvy with hair swept high atop her head like a small nest accenting a clean-scrubbed face. All bustled and buttoned, she was a man’s invention of what a woman should look like, demure, yet provocative.

Clearly, ballroom dancer Irene Castle would have none of that. Her flowing feminine gowns, many of her own design, were made of fabric that clung yet sashayed with every step and dip. She wore her hair in a bob style, short and elegant, and instigated the rise of the hemline. She and her husband, Vernon Castle, danced snug to the rhythmic ragtime music of the era, their lithe bodies in absolute alignment. Society dames didn’t know what to make of these bohemians but the masses did and the tango and fox trot became de rigueur in dance halls and nightclubs throughout America.

Irene made her film debut alongside matinee idol Milton Sills in Patria, a 15-part serial with an unprecedented budget of $85,000 [$1.8 million today]. Released in 1917, 10 of the episodes were directed by Ted and Leo Wharton and made in Ithaca. Funded by William Randolph Hearst, the seemingly patriotic film contained anti-Japanese propaganda. President Woodrow Wilson personally asked Hearst to pull and rework the film, which he did, barely masking his political bias. History doesn’t allude to why the Whartons didn’t direct the last 5 episodes but the rest of the series was directed by Jacques Jaccard and shot in Los Angeles.

Irene Castle, Patria, 1917 

In 1919, a year after Vernon died, Irene married childhood chum, Ithacan Robert Treman. She was the It Girl and every move she made was chronicled in magazines and newspapers worldwide. Soon after, just before Prohibition took effect, Irene had crates of whiskey brought up from New York City and stored in her Cayuga Heights mansion, so as not to interrupt the lavish parties the Tremans had become famous for.


Wharton Silent Movie Studio

Wharton Inc Studio, 1915

In 1914 producer and director Theodore Wharton leased 45 acres in Renwick Park (Stewart Park) at the southern end of Cayuga Lake and established Wharton Inc., a full-service movie studio. Hundreds of silent movies and episodic serials were produced there, bringing the future royalty of Hollywood to live, work, and play in the region until its closing in 1920.



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