History in the Backyard

The former USMPC site, as seen from the second floor of my home. A daycare and a pizza restaurant now sit on the site.

By Kellie LoGrande

History can be found anywhere, even in one’s own backyard. Run-down buildings, remains of landmarks, forgotten paths, and plots of land often have a story. All you need to do is find those forgotten things, and then maybe you can find the story behind them. The history of the United States Motion Picture Corporation runs through my hometown of Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, from filming locations to the site of the studio itself. In fact, the location of the now-demolished studio, located on the corner of Wyoming Avenue and Slocum Street, is adjacent to my backyard.

I’d never known what used to be there; one building had been a convenience store, then a Little Ceasar’s, and now a local pizza restaurant. A daycare sits directly behind it. There are few indicators of what could have been there before, if any; some of the garages look as if they could have been industrial, though I do not know when they were built. The stores and apartments nearby seem old, especially when you look at the unpainted brick. I’d known this town was very old. I had always attributed the age of the buildings to that alone, and did not wonder anymore.

usmpc-studio-forty-fort

The United States Motion Picture Corporation studio, built in 1915, was located in Forty Fort near Slocum Street.

I hadn’t wondered for a long time, until I began to get involved with the history of the United States Motion Picture Corporation. That’s when I had found out that a major movie studio used to be where the convenience store–Little Ceasar’s–pizza restaurant and the daycare were now. I also found out that the USMPC filmed there, around the area of their studio.

As we watched His Neglected Wife — which features a railroad — for the first time, Charles Petrillo said to us, “We believe the railroad was on the corner of Murray Street and Slocum Street.” I knew exactly where that was. Furthermore, I knew that there was not one railroad there, but two: one which had been used until about a decade ago, and another which had clearly never been used for a very long time. The oldest railroad barely remains, obscured by growth; it seems to have been swallowed by the ground. I came upon it by accident one day, while taking a walk. A large tree had been growing between the rails, indicating that the railroad had not been used for a very, very long time. Should you walk down Slocum Street, next to a storage center, look on the ground; from the sidewalk, you can see the planks of the railroad, barely visible among the grass.

An old railroad. This could have been the railroad seen in His Neglected Wife.

Black Diamond in Wilkes-Barre

By Tyler Biscontini

The United States Motion Picture Corporation (USMPC) was one of the first silent film producers in the nation. More importantly to this post, it was located here in Wilkes-Barre and Forty Fort. Most people who live in this area don’t seem to realize that it was. To be honest, there are reasons for that. The legacy hasn’t been preserved as much as many would have liked.

Black Diamond comedies–one of which, Her Fractured Voice, was screened at King’s College on October 26, 2012–were produced mostly within our loc

al area by the USMPC and were distributed by Paramount Pictures. In fact, if you live, work, or go to school in Wilkes-Barre, you’ve probably walked past what was once the location of the Black Diamond headquarters and studio. Sadly, the building where much of their business was conducted work has since been demolished, but it was on Public Square, and used to stand where the Luzerne County Bank building is today.

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Many of the relics of this era seem to have met the same fate. The filming studios for the USMPC, once located off Slocum Street in Forty Fort, were razed long ago as well. The Public Square fountain and streetcars that appear in Her Fractured Voice were replaced after hurricane Agnes in the 1970s, and the Sterling Hotel, which appears in another USMPC production entitled His Neglected Wife, is now condemned and slated for the wrecking ball this year.  And while there’s at least one tantalizing structure in Wilkes-Barre with a Paramount Pictures logo embedded into the brick, this has nothing to do with the USMPC.

However, one particular building still stands. Lyman Howe was a major player in the local silent film industry, and his house still stands in Wilkes-Barre. It still looks the part of a Hollywood Mogul’s house, too. Stone lions guard the sidewalk leading up to building, and white pillars guard support the roof overhanging the main entranceway. Large, rounded windows give life to the expansive whitewashed walls. In short, if you’re looking to see a slice of this era in person, head to 30 Riverside Drive, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

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Silent Film versus Talkies

By Shannon Rowan

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Like most college students my age, I had never seen a silent film prior to watching Flesh and Spirit for the film screening.  When I learned that we would be watching and screening a silent film, I didn’t know what to expect.  I had always just considered silent films to be boring and outdated, with very cheesy acting.  After watching one silent film, I realized that were actually more interesting and enjoyable than I had always thought.  It was a much different experience than watching a regular Hollywood blockbuster from today.

Since the silent film seemed to actually be interesting, I decided to try to view some other silent films as well to see if they still held any appeal. I watched some old silent films starring Charlie Chaplin. I was surprised by how funny the movies were. They tended to use a more exaggerated style of acting that makes the plot as easy to follow as it would if the characters were speaking and had spoken lines. The actors and actresses are very skilled at portraying their emotions through body language and facial expressions. It is incredible how much they were able to communicate without saying a single word. Also, it was much easier than I had anticipated to be able to follow the plot and enjoy the movie.

After I learned that silent films used to be accompanied by live music, I was curious to see how that would change my silent film experience. During our screening of Her Fractured Voice, His Neglected Wife, and  Flesh and Spirit, music was provided by “Dos Noisemakers.” With the musical accompaniment, the silent films were much easier to follow.  It was very similar to a soundtrack for a movie or television show: the music would pick up during action scenes and slow down to draw out suspense.  I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to give silent films a chance and to appreciate a lost art of acting.  I now have a new and very surprising appreciation for the lost art of silent films.

The Sterling Hotel

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The United States Motion Picture Corporation film His Neglected Wife, produced about 1918, is set at Wilkes-Barre’s Hotel Sterling.

As I walked down North River Street with friends on the day that I first arrived in Wilkes-Barre, I came across a massive decrepit building. I looked up and thought to myself, “How someone could let such an amazing building become so worn is astonishing.” I enquired about what the building was and on finding out that it was the “famous Hotel Sterling,” I wondered if it was another victim of the recent recession that had hit most of the western world pretty hard.

Coming from a modern European city like Belfast, I am not used to seeing old fashioned hotels like the Sterling. Most of the hotels in urban Belfast are built with a modern feel. But when I look at the Sterling, even in today’s condition, it looks like it was a classy establishment, the kind of hotel where the staff would be proud to tell people that they work there, a place where the guests would know that they were living in luxury. The whole place oozes class.

After my first day explorations, though, I forgot all about the hotel and went about my business as a study abroad student. It wasn’t until Dr. Noreen O’Connor showed us the silent film His Neglected Wife that I thought about the old building again.

The hotel plays a big part in His Neglected Wife, a one-reel comedy that was filmed in Wilkes-Barre about 1918. In the film, the leading lady runs away from her husband, who tended to favour his career over her needs, and finds herself escaping to the Hotel Sterling.

After watching His Neglected Wife I decided to look into the hotel a little bit more. I didn’t have to look far in order to find out some information about one of Wilkes-Barre’s famous landmarks. A quick internet search helped me discover how well-thought-of the Sterling was in the local community. There were protest pages and others just showing support for the historical building. The people of the city realize how important the hotel was during the twentieth century. People look at the building with a sense of pride and it’s obvious that a lot of people would snap it up in a heartbeat and rebuild it to its former glory if they had the money to.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, money just isn’t readily available for historical restorations on such a massive scale. The Sterling now seems to have been condemned to be demolished despite the local protests. Groups have tried to encourage investors to take over the burden of reinventing the hotel and it nearly happened just a few years ago when the non-profit organisation CityVest planned to restore the original Sterling building and reopen to the public. However the plan fell through once it became clear how much of a mammoth task they faced. After it became clear that their restoration was impossible the group decided that the best option for the building would be to demolish it.

More research showed that the hotel was used by lots of famous politicians over the years. The most famous of the hotel’s guests has to President John F Kennedy, who stayed there during the early 1960’s. This is very impressive to someone from Northern Ireland because JFK is perhaps the most famous modern day (to an extent) president and throughout Europe most people are aware of his presidential tenure and of course his tragic fate.

It seems now though that the Hotel Sterling has been condemned to a similar fate as that of the late President Kennedy. It is expected to be demolished in the near future and then it will be alive only in the memories of those who stayed there or the people of Wilkes-Barre. It will however be written into the history books as one of the city’s famous landmarks and going by the general consensus around the King’s College campus and even the city as a whole, the day that the Hotel Sterling is knocked down will be the end of an era and the look of the Susquehanna River front will be changed forever.

Wilkes-Barre or Hollywood?

By Christopher Cozillio

bridget's blunder ad with paramount

The second Paramount Black Diamond Comedy, filmed in Wilkes-Barre by the United States Motion Picture Corporation, features recognizable landmarks including the Luzerne County courthouse.

When I first began the silent film portion of my Writing for New Media course, my mind instantly went to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  After taking a film course my senior year of high school, I took an extreme interest in film.  We briefly touched on silent films, So I did not have extensive knowledge on the topic, but I had a base.  I was immediately fascinated by them.  When Dr. O’Connor announced that we would be studying silent films, and also putting on an event involving them, I was very excited.

The thing that amazed me most about the course material was the fact that our very own Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was a hot bed for films and motion pictures in the early1900’s.   Although I love this city dearly, I was astonished at the thought of Wilkes-Barre being a breeding ground of fame and stardom.  Picturing Wilkes-Barre as “Hollywood-esque” was difficult for me to wrap my head around.  Many stars, such as Leatrice Joy from “Her Fractured Voice,” went on to Hollywood after her tenure in Wilkes-Barre.  Clearly, the industry exploded in size and moved west to Hollywood—exploded to a size that Wilkes-Barre could no longer house.  However, it is a fascinating part of our city’s culture that is, in my opinion, not widely or commonly known in our area.

I decided to put my opinion to the test.  I wanted to see just how big of a secret this was to our city’s current community.  I began by conducting interviews on the campus of King’s College.  Since most students have not resided in Wilkes-Barre their whole lives, I decided I would also venture into the heart of Wilkes-Barre, Public Square, as well.

I posed the question to all three students from King’s the same way.  “Do you know if Wilkes-Barre has a history of being a part of films/motion pictures?”  All three students seemed baffled by my inquiry.  When I then explained how prevalent it was in Wilkes-Barre, the students were shocked.  One student replied with, “Yeah…okay bud,” and walked away.  However, to my surprise, each student was from a surrounding city of Wilkes-Barre.  If they didn’t know, how would a student that hails from New Jersey or New York know?

It was time to broaden my search.  I thought that at least one individual would have had an idea, but I was surely mistaken.  “That must have been a long long time ago,” said one citizen.  “I knew this downtown area was bustling back in the day, but I had no idea about the film aspect.  That’s pretty cool.”  Out of the seven civilians that I approached, that was the closest I got to a person who knew of Wilkes-Barre’s past.

It turns out that I was not in the minority when I was surprised at the news of Wilkes-Barre’s film background.  Hopefully, this will change—it is too good to keep a secret.  I am glad my class, Dr. O’Connor, and Tony Brooks are doing our part to spread the word.  Hopefully we, along with inspiring others, can shed some light on this aspect of our city’s history.

Are words really better than silence?

Advertisements for Paramount Pictures’ early silent film comedy stars, Fatty Arbuckle and Leatrice Joy

By Ashley Mayberry

Like most 20 year olds today, I have never been exposed to silent films. I have only ever seen films with dialogue and I did not have a particular interest in silent films. Also, silent films seem to have been forgotten because of the how advanced movies are today. This semester I am taking two media courses which have opened my eyes to the world of silent films.

Silent films are able to draw viewers in without a script. They use music, facial expressions, interactions with other characters, and humor to make it a story worth watching. Films from this era have the ability to wow audiences without words, which is something today’s films lack.

While watching more silent films than I ever have before, I have also been wondering what the films I watch today would be like if they were silent. Silent films are silent, so I can follow the story line by merely seeing the film, not hearing it. In some of my favorite movies of today I do not think they would be the same without sound.

All of today’s movies are centered on dialogue. In fact, a lot of people quote humorous lines from movies. You have probably fit a line from a movie into your everyday conversation as a sort of comic relief. These quotes make people laugh because the movie they are coming from is funny. I believe that audiences find today’s comedies entertaining mostly because of what the characters are saying, not the events of the actual movie.

To test this theory I decided to watch a popular movie from this era with the sound muted. I chose Mean Girls because it is a fairly popular film from our time that most people can summarize. Also, the plot is fairly basic, so most viewers have no trouble following it. I admit that this is one of my favorite movies and I do happen to quote the movie from time to time.

After my experiment, I have concluded that this movie is fairly dull with no dialogue. The reason that this movie has received such high ratings is simply because the dialogue is humorous. Without the banter, jokes, and quirky phrases this movie is nothing special. Actually, the plot itself is ultimately boring. A new girl does not fit in, she becomes popular, becomes unpopular, and then she turns into a good person. This is not exactly the most stimulating comedy.

For example, in one particular scene the main characters are at a party. The girls are dressed up in a crowded room, talking to each other, and holding drinks. It does not sound interesting in the slightest when the sound is off. However, this scene is actually funny because of what the characters are saying. Gretchen, played by Lacey Chabert, is trying to explain to Karen, played by Amanda Seyfried, the concept of cousins because Karen likes a boy who is her first cousin. Karen backs herself up by saying, “So, you have your cousins, and then you have your first cousins, and then you have your second cousins…” Obviously this scene is funny because the character sounds like an airhead.

Lucille Ball’s physical comedic style of the 1950s would have fit into the silent era

If this film did happen to be a silent film, this particular scene would have been much more comical with a more animated actress, such as Lucille Ball. She could have walked up to the boy and acted out a flirtatious encounter by talking to him, laughing, and touching his arm. Her friend would then come over and dramatically drag her away to have a serious conversation with her. Then Lucille would give a confused look, shrug her shoulders, and shake her head. The viewer would still get the impersonation that Lucille should not be flirting with this boy because of something her friend told her. Even without words, the viewer will still understand the basic point of the scene.

The point I am trying to make is that most films today rely on sound to impress audiences. If you mute the sound, you are simply watching a character go through meaningless motions. The dialogue is what makes the movies noteworthy because, without sound, the characters are basically standing around. My opinion is that even though actors in silent films had a more difficult time relaying a story, they still did a better job than actors of today because they were able to tell a story through physical movements instead of words.

Moving Picture World

By Bob Vornlocker

As of this past August, millions of people have access to old media through the pixels of new technology.

The Media History Digital Library and DOMITOR (“the international society for the study of early cinema”) have released a comprehensive digital collection of Moving Picture World, a film industry trade publication that reported on the important developments and releases in the growing movie business.

The years between 1907 and 1919 saw a transition of public media consumption to what we would consider a traditional film medium: the theater. Now that digital editions of the first 12 years of Moving Picture World are available online for free, researchers can begin to piece together a more complete account of what was going on in the film business as movies gained a cultural foothold.

The collection holds 12 years of information that should be incredibly valuable to film scholars, a category of academia that suffers greatly from a lack of primary sources suitable for scholarship. Historians and film critics alike should be excited by this work because it creates a definitive base upon which to rest our modern understanding of film history and how film theory has developed since the turn of the 20th century.

In its comprehensive coverage of everything film, Moving Picture World is almost an early-20th century, more professional Variety magazine. The 70,000 pages released hold film reviews, profiles of actors and directors, details of technological improvements, and ads for films that will allow readers to look back in advertising history.

Blogs and social networks serve many of the functions that Moving Picture World did in its time. However, they also allow people to interact with their media landscape on a greater scale; free blogs allow amateur and professional critics alike to practice their craft, aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes provide a rough gauge of how good a film is, and social networks like Twitter point people towards exciting social developments (like broken box office records, or an actress’ failed marriage).

The full-text search engine that is provided for perusing Moving Picture World will allow for greater interaction with the document. People will be able to pinpoint specific snippets of information that they want to consume and skip over the rest, as opposed to flipping through pages and passively consuming the advertising messages. On the other hand, these advertisements give a glimpse into old marketing, and so could also be valuable to scholars of communications. In a way, the efforts of DOMITOR and the Media History Digital Library have retro-fitted Moving Picture World to create a historical new media source out of an “old media” publication.

Links:

mediahistoryproject.org/2012/08/06/the-complete-moving-picture-world-1907-1919

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