The Lost Treasure of Ithaca’s Wharton Brothers Film Studio

By Chris

These summer nights are a perfect time for an outdoor horror film at the Finger Lakes Drive-in. Recent research for the Cayuga Waterfront Trail has unearthed a chilling treasure from Ithaca’s silent film era suitable for our summer nights.
Tompkins County is already famous as the last residence of Rod Serling, “Twilight Zone” creator and Ithaca College professor. Mr. Serling grew up in Elmira and lived with his family near Interlaken between 1970 until his death in 1975 during which time he taught film at the IC Department of Communication. He also displayed an interest in Ithaca’s silent films, even as his own psychological and haunting programs were creating television’s Golden Age. In 1975 he narrated the short IC film “They Made Movies in Ithaca”, telling the story of the Wharton Brothers.
The Wharton Motion Picture Studio was one of the first in the US operating from 1913 to 1919 and filming across Ithaca’s Stewart Park. The Wharton films featured directors who would go west to create “The Little Rascals” and “Tarzan” and stars such as Pearl White, Irene Castle, Oliver Hardy, and Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather).
The Whartons filmed dozens of dramas and comedies and one horror film “the Mysteries of Myra”. Myra was written by a famous psychic, Hereward Carrington, and billed as “science versus supernatural”. The serial film featured a strong heroine beset by dark occult forces including an animated golden statue called the “Thought Monster” and the hooded Grand Master of the Dark Order and his evil-handed followers.
Though the plot of Myra was more sensational than serious drama the film made a big contribution to the film industry. Myra introduced the science fiction film to audiences as well as special effect and mood lighting techniques. Double exposure of the film showed moving figures within a crystal ball and statues turning into dancing demons. Red tinting of the film created a ghastly mood for the ceremonial scenes of the “Black Order”.
Sadly, only the script and scattered images of the Ithaca-made Myra have survived. According to local historians the Ithaca City Fire-Marshall took the highly flammable nitrate film out of their new park’s Bathhouse Pavilion and rowed it out to the drop-off in Cayuga Lake and sunk it forever. The only scraps of film remaining are stored at the British Film Archive in London. However, promotional and other still photos of Myra are preserved by silent film aficionados like Terry Harbin and can be seen in the photo collection of the History Center.
Our research sparked our investigations of the former grounds of the studio crossed by the City’s new proposed Phase 3 of the trail. A quick look at the early 20th-century Sanborn Fire-Insurance Company Maps including Renwick Park (former name of Stewart Park) showed numerous screen stages, props sheds, and a remarkable ultra-fireproof film developing and cutting room encircling the primary studio. The studio was the former Renwick Amusement Park dance pavilion built at the turn-of-the-century and survives relatively intact today, including a few old lavaliere lights hanging from the ceiling, as a storage house and restrooms for the park. But a remarkable characteristic of the area is that it may be the one and only remaining major silent film studio left in the US that hasn’t been consumed by development. The park was purchased by the City in 1922 and many of the studio support structures were torn down to ground level to open up the park. But since that time little to no development has occurred across the grounds except for some parking lots and road improvements.

The question remains whether there are still traces of the studio below the green grass of Stewart Park and if so what incredible stories and treasures might they contain? There is amazing potential for sub-surface features of the Wharton Studio. Consider the possibility of a filled in or cemented over cellar within the former film-room filled with lost reels of our early American stars preserved like young Tutankhamen ready to be cast back into the public eye on the silver screen.
Thanks for reading. For comments or questions email me at Chris@HAZExplorations.com

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