We return to the Finger Lakes Film Trail and our three-week journey through film history. Last week we began in Rochester at the Eastman Museum, and now we turn to Stewart Park in Ithaca.
The Wharton Studio was full of silent film activity from 1915-20, but it’s been more than 100 years since silent moviemaking happened in Ithaca.
"So this building is an important artifact from an era when moviemaking was both an emerging art form and an emerging industry," said Diana Riesman with the Wharton Studio Museum.
The Wharton brothers leased land in what is now Stewart Park and started making movies.
"Technologically, they did special effects in the camera right and there was no precedent for this. They were inventors in a way, figured things out. They created like ghost images in one of their movies and they shot little miniatures," said Riesman.
There’s at least one remnant leftover of the silent era.
"The ceiling, you see these metal tracks, which we believe are scenery tracks, because films were silent at the time, there was no ‘quiet on the set’ needed. So they could shoot multiple scenes from different films of the same time," said Riesman.
Riesman says the Whartons’ movie making brought in actors like Pearl White, Irene Castle and Lionel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s great-uncle.
"The world is a little bit still celebrity obsessed. And I think back then, too, there was just a fascination with what was being done in the park," said Riesman.
Ultimately, silent filmmaking in Ithaca was short-lived.
"So pretty much after 1921, all filmmaking, definitely in this building, production ceased," said Riesman.
The legacy lives on at the Tompkins County History Center.
"People would expect film to be happening out on the West Coast, they would be expecting it to happen in California, and it was happening, but it was happening here and it was happening first," said Peggy Coleman with Visit Ithaca.
"Ensuring a long life for this historic building is really at the heart of what we're doing," said Riesman.
The Wharton Studio is currently being used by the Department of Public Works. There are plans to renovate the building so half of it will be a museum and café overlooking Cayuga Lake.