In the early 20th century, Ithaca was the center of the silent film industry: a Hollywood of its time. Glamorous actresses, producers, and directors roamed the streets of downtown Ithaca. People traveled miles to attend premieres at the State Theater. Stewart Park was known as Renwick Park, which housed Wharton, Inc., a successful film studio owned by brothers Leopold and Theodore Wharton. They established their interest in the area at a Cornell football game, falling in love with Ithaca’s picturesque setting. The duo set up their film studio in 1914, which thrived until 1919 when the Whartons faced financial troubles and parted ways, never to work together again. Their films were shot all over Ithaca. Automobiles and trolley cars were thrown into Fall Creek Gorge and Taughannock Falls and Cayuga Lake represented the Atlantic Ocean in scenes portraying events such as German submarine attacks. The Wharton brothers brought in movie stars, magicans, and entertainers on overnight trains from New York City. Others, such as actors Pearl White, Irene Castle, and Harry Fox (for whom Foxtrot was named), resided permanently in Ithaca.
The Lottery Man was one feature created by Ithaca Studios. It stars Oliver Harding as a young man who creates a lottery with his hand in marriage as the winner’s prize. The film depicts his adventures in Ithaca with romance scenes created in Wharton Studios.
Beatrice Fairfax was a Wharton Brothers film series produced in 1916. It was inspired by a newspaper advice columnist, played by Grace Darling. In each episode, she worked with her co-reporter to solve the problems sent in to her by her readers. The series has remained popular, even 100 years later, and was made into a DVD collection series in 2004.
Historians and the film community have been trying to preserve the history of our silent film industry for decades. The Ithaca Motion Picture Project was founded last year in an attempt to create an historic monument of cultural and educational learning for the community and visitors out of Wharton Studios. The vision was to create a mock studio in which interactive learning and silent-film viewings could take place. While the project has not raised the money necessary to restore the monument, the Ithaca Silent Film Event occurs every year during the Ithaca Festival. There, crowds gather to watch silent films created in Ithaca, enjoying Ithaca’s past fame as the “Hollywood of the East.”