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Though it is not well-remembered now, Ithaca was once an integral part of the early motion picture industry. Brothers Leopold and Theodore Wharton established a motion picture studio on the shore of Cayuga Lake after attending a Cornell football game and being charmed by the area's natural beauty. From 1914 to 1919, the brothers filmed roughly 100 motion pictures in and around Ithaca, bringing some of the biggest stars of the day to the city. The original building still stands in Stewart Park, where it is used for storage and restrooms. As of this writing, the recently-formed Wharton Studio Museum has plans to restore the building.

  • Wharton Studio
  • The Wharton Studio building as it appeared in 2016; there are plans underway to revitalize the building.
  • Leopold and Theodore Wharton
In 1912, Theodore Wharton was visiting relatives in upstate New York when he attended a Cornell football game. While there, he filmed parts of the game and soon fell in love with the stunning natural beauty surrounding Ithaca. He convinced his brother Leopold to come back to Ithaca with him, and in 1915, the brothers established Wharton, Inc., a production company located in Renwick Park, which is present-day Stewart Park.

The brothers filmed approximately 100 short and long films in and around Ithaca. The area's famous gorges featured in some films, while Lake Cayuga was a stand-in for the Atlantic Ocean in others. Most of the movies filmed by the Wharton brothers were action-adventure films or comedies, and they featured some of the leading stars of the day. Oliver Hardy, Irene Castle, and Lionel Barrymore all filmed movies in the Ithaca area and were temporary fixtures in the city's bars and restaurants. Many locals--particularly students from Cornell and Ithaca College--served as extras or supplied props. Glamorous premiers were a regular occurrence at the State Theater. For a time, Ithaca was the epicenter of America's burgeoning motion picture industry.

All of the films produced by the Whartons in Ithaca were silent. Among the serials produced there were Beatrice Fairfax, The Mysteries of Myra, and The Romance of Elaine. Feature films included A Romance of the Air, The Lottery Man, and The Great White Trail. Many of the films produced in Ithaca were financed by William Randolph Hearst.

The Wharton brothers continued making films until 1919, when they ran into financial difficulties and the studio was lost to creditors. Leopold moved to San Antonio and Theodore moved to Hollywood, where he made additional films. But the brothers never worked together again, and Ithaca's role in early motion picture history was largely forgotten outside the city itself. 

In 2009, the Ithaca Motion Picture Project was established to create a museum dedicated to Ithaca's role in film history. In 2013, the organization became the Wharton Studio Museum, which will have exhibit space in the Tompkins Center for History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in 2019 on Ithaca Commons. At present, the Wharton Studio Museum is working to renovate and restore the original Wharton building into the Wharton Studio Museum and Park Center. 

Wharton Studio History. Wharton Studio Museum. . Accessed January 06, 2019.

Culotta, Bella. Ithaca: Hollywood of the East. IHS Tattler. June 01, 2016. Accessed January 06, 2019.

Wilson, Chloe. Silent No Longer. The Ithacan. September 28, 2011. Accessed January 07, 2019.