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The Biggest Little Fashion City Ithaca & Silent Film Style

Wharton Studio Inc.

Before Hollywood, There was Ithaca:

“The garden spot of the east.” That’s what Theodore Wharton, general director, producer, and writer for Essanay Studios called Ithaca while visiting nearby Ludlowville in 1912. Enchanted by the region, he shot a Cornell v. Penn State football game being played on Percy Field [now Ithaca High School] and his holiday reel became Football Days at Cornell.

The spectacular landscape of Ithaca, the iconic college town, with its effusive waterfalls and lush habitat, was so enticing, Wharton returned the following year with a cast and crew to shoot numerous photoplays for Essanay’s The Hermit of Lonely Gulch.

In 1914 Ted’s brother, Leopold, joined him and the two created Wharton, Inc. using a house on Thurston Avenue as their office and the city, their ad hoc studio. They hired artisans, electricians, and crews from around the Ithaca area. Locals were cast in supporting roles, and as extras, and on any given set one might find cops, businessman, bored housewives, and/or Onondagan Indians from the Syracuse area tribe. Ithacans opened their doors to the brothers, lending them furniture, decorations, and the houses themselves.

The following year the Whartons moved into their newly renovated studio in Renwick Park [now Stewart Park]. The park, with its existing pavilions, a tower [since destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954] and verdant location at the foot of Cayuga Lake, offered both the space to construct sets and the natural scenery they so skillfully wove into their scripts.

Actors Lionel Barrymore, Irene Castle, Pearl White, Oliver Hardy, and Theda Bara would travel on the Black Diamond passenger train from Manhattan to Ithaca and back again in little over 16 hours. It was a welcomed respite from the bustling metropolis.

Ithaca was bewitched by the relatively new art form of filmmaking and the glamour it brought to the rural/urban community, but in 1919, as serials began to make a natural progression toward features, the Whartons lost the Renwick Park studio to creditors. Grossman Pictures and Cayuga Pictures leased the studio soon after, making a movie each, before closing down.

Ted and Leo Wharton made over 700 one- and two-reelers in the five years they set up shop on the shores of Cayuga. It was their ingenuity, their ability to fly by the seat of their pants, that formed the blueprint for what would soon become Hollywood.