Lyman Howe – Wilkes-Barre’s 1800s New Media Mogul

By Bob Vornlocker

Lyman Howe is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was a roaming showman, a master from “a forgotten era of traveling exhibition” that entertained audiences who had yet to be graced (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with constant technological stimulation and entertainment.

Howe operated in the pre-Hollywood film industry, when the East Coast—and Wilkes-Barre in particular—was a hot spot for the growing movie business. He brought audiences footage of daily life as well as shots of exotic lands. Some of the more exciting films Howe showed people included a demonstration of a United States military submarine on the open ocean in 1915, and a longer, more finished montage of foreign cities strung together by animated segues called The Wandering Toy.

Although most silent films have been lost because of the nature of nitrate film (it has a good chance of spontaneously erupting into flames) or because no one bothered to preserve them, over 100 silent films were found in an archive in New Zealand in 2010. A 1921film by Lyman Howe called “Lyman Howe’s Ride on a Runaway Train” was found within this treasure trove of film culture history. The Library of Congress is currently working to restore this piece which probably hasn’t been seen for decades.

Judging by content alone, modern audiences might not be as interested in Howe’s work. There is a huge gulf separating what was considered entertainment at the beginning of the 20th century and what we consume for entertainment over 100 years later. Changes in how we conceive of film as an art and advances in capturing motion on film and processing it have taken us beyond the grainy “moving pictures” Howe exhibited. In Howe’s time, moving pictures were an exciting development in technology and entertainment. The novelty of seeing a film, no matter how short or mundane, gave audiences enough entertainment to justify shelling out a few cents.

The path visual media has traveled since the days of Lyman Howe is remarkable, and raises questions about where it can go from here. Today’s films can give us more than a new perspective—they can create stories and worlds of which audiences would have never dreamed. But the idea of novelty as entertainment is still applicable to modern film; a good combination of marketing and special effects can still convince an audience to come see a film. Marketing techniques and mediums have evolved to generate hype long before a film is released. And once audiences are in theater seats, special effects keep their eyes glued to the screen and can keep their minds off a lackluster script—I’m looking at you, Transformers. People can even be convinced to see the same movie twice (Finding Nemo, Titanic) thanks to advances in film technology like 3D.

In his own time, Lyman Howe was on the cutting edge of the new media. His marketing and the American public’s fascination with new technology drew them to his exhibitions, much like a popular movie franchise can generate ticket purchases for sequels declining in quality. Even as the American film industry shifted itself to the west coast, Howe’s company continued to process film in Wilkes-Barre. Compared to feature-length films with intricate plots and stunning cinematography, Howe’s exhibits come off as a bit primitive, but his traveling exhibitions laid the groundwork for film to become a significant part of American entertainment culture.

Our Big Mistake

The ghostly Truth (Belle Bennett) rides through a gate in Flesh and Spirit (1922). The only surviving film of the United States Moving Picture Corporation, it was not produced in Wilkes-Barre as originally thought

By Dale Lockhart

This week has been full of ups and downs for our project. It turns out that we may have been mistaken in thinking that Flesh and Spirit was produced by the United States Motion Picture Corporation in Wilkes-Barre. During a recent group meeting we met up with local historian Charles Petrillo who has coincidentally been researching the same movies made in Wilkes-Barre as we have.

Charles Petrillo met up with us and gave us some astonishing information on the USMPC. It turns out that there were two of them! The United States Moving Picture Corporation also produced films around the same time as the United States Motion Picture Corporation.

It seems that after World War One, the Black Diamond comedies, supported by Paramount, ceased to exist and were replaced by Rainbow Comedies. It seems that without Paramount’s backing the Rainbow comedies were independently produced and released by the United States Motion Picture Corporation.

Charles explained to us that there were thirty eight Rainbow comedies produced between 1918, when the Great War ended, and 1920. However, Flesh and Spirit was not released until 1922 and until now it was thought that the Moving Picture Corporation and the Motion Picture Corporation were actually the same company. Petrillo researched this and found that they are actually completely different companies. The United States Moving Pictures Corporation were a Delaware company. and Petrillo believes their production studio was in the Washington, D.C. or Delaware area. This means that, sadly, Flesh and Spirit was not actually filmed in Wilkes-Barre as first thought.

This isn’t getting us too downhearted though as Petrillo also told us about a foundation that he found out about and helped contribute to, which restored silent American films found in New Zealand. He was able to show us another movie, His Neglected Wife, which was shot and produced in Wilkes-Barre.

The local lawyer-turned-historian then went on to tell us about what eventually happened to the United States Motion Picture Corporation. His research shows that the company went bankrupt in 1920. The studio was used for one movie by another company who leased the studio off the USMPC named, the Serico Production Company. The studio was then seized by the bank and, according to records; the building was razed in 1934.

This knowledge that Charles Petrillo shared with us is invaluable in our project to raise awareness for local silent films and we were amazed that someone else was researching the same topic as us. Although it seems that our main subject movie Flesh and Spirit was made in Delaware rather than North East Pennsylvania we our still more than happy that we keep finding out more and more about the United States Motion Picture Corporation.

Screening of Silent Films Flesh and Spirit, Her Fractured Voice, and His Neglected Wife

Truth Eldridge (Belle Bennett) haunts Donald Wallace (Walter Ringham), a logical scientist who fiercely rejects any notion of spirituality or religion.

For Immediate Release
October 1, 2012

KING’S COLLEGE STUDENTS PARTNER WITH THE LUZERNE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY TO HOST SCREENING OF SILENT FILMS MADE IN WILKES-BARRE AREA

Wilkes-Barre community invited to celebrate the area’s history in true 1920s style.

Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—The roaring twenties are back in style again. Students in the King’s College professional writing program, in collaboration with the Luzerne County Historical Society, today announced plans to host a screening of two silent films made in the Wilkes-Barre area, “Flesh and Spirit” and “Her Fractured Voice,” on Friday, October 26 at 6:00 pm in Burke Auditorium on the King’s Campus.

The event invites community members to return to a movie palace of the “Roaring 20’s.” Guests of all ages are encouraged to arrive in 1920s attire for a costume contest. Admission is free, and complimentary refreshments from the era will be served during the evening. Live musical accompaniment for the films will be provided by Dos Noisemakers.

“Flesh and Spirit” (72 minutes). Directed by Joseph Levering in 1922,“Flesh and Spirit” is a ghost story that features innovative stop-action and double exposure techniques to depict ghostly hauntings. The film features actress Belle Bennett, who later became a Hollywood silent film star in “Stella Dallas.” Bennett plays the sweet, faith-filled, ingénue Truth Eldridge, who is killed in a laboratory accident and returns as a ghost. Also in the cast is Broadway actor Walter Ringham as Donald Wallace, a logical scientist who fiercely rejects any notion of spirituality or religion. Luzerne County Historical Society is one of only a few archives holding copies of this rare silent film.

“Her Fractured Voice” (16 minutes). A locally produced “Black Diamond Comedy” starring Leatrice Joy, who would later star in a number of Hollywood silent films as a flapper, this one-reel comedy features Susie, the “dimpled darling of the dairy,” as an ambitious, untalented singer whose honor is endangered by the attentions of a slick city boarder until a faithful farmhand saves her. Filmed in the Wyoming Valley area, the film offers a glimpse of the old Wilkes-Barre city square.

The students planning the screening are currently participating in a course entitled Writing for New Media with Dr. Noreen O’Connor. The students—Tyler Biscontini, Christopher Cozzilio, James Donnelly, Carmella Gubbioti, Dale Lockhart, Kellie LoGrande, Ashley Mayberry, Ashley Panko, Shannon Rowan, Sarah Scinto, and Robert Vornlocker—have worked with the Luzerne County Historical Society to research and write a Wikipedia entry for the United States Motion Picture Corp, have created a blog called “blackdiamondcomedies.org,” and are promoting the film screening on social media.

Lockhart, a student from Northern Ireland studying at King’s this year through an exchange program, has seen Wilkes-Barre with fresh eyes through the project. “It is interesting to think that Wilkes-Barre was once the equivalent of Hollywood. Some locals may not even know what their city once was,” he said.

The event is supported by a Community-Based Faculty Research Grant that O’Connor received from the Shoval Center for Community Engagement and Learning at King’s College. William Bolan, director of the Shoval Center, said the office is proud to sponsor the research and screening. “Silent films are a forgotten part of this area’s cultural heritage, and we are very pleased to help keep them alive,” he said. “Kudos to Dr. O’Connor, her students, and the LCHS for the work they are doing and for making this public showing a reality.”

“Wilkes-Barre has a colorful and diverse history with many people taking great pride in its colonial and industrial past,” said Tony Brooks, director of the Luzerne County Historical Society.  “Few people also know that Wilkes-Barre had a vibrant film industry.  Between Lyman Howe’s traveling exhibitions of ‘high-class moving pictures’ to the United States Motion Picture Corporation’s ‘Black Diamond Comedies,”’Wilkes-Barre earned its place in the early years of the silent movie craze.”

The Luzerne County Historical Society holds a rare safety film print of “Flesh and Spirit” as well as a DVD of the film. However, O’Connor and Brooks hope that the event will help the society gather more information about the early film industry in this area. “Though the USMPC applied for copyrights for over 50 films, so far in my research I have only been able to locate a few prints. These have been located  in film archives in places as disparate as the Library Congress, the Eastman House, the University of California, Los Angeles, and even New Zealand,” said O’Connor. “I am hopeful that more prints of these films exist and that they can be restored and collected in digital copies at the Luzerne County Historical Archives.”

 About the United States Motion Picture Corporation
The United States Motion Picture Corporation, established in 1915, and had a studio in Forty Fort near the corner of Slocum Street and Wyoming Avenue. The company made a number of successful one-reel “Black Diamond Comedies” in 1916 and 1917, which were distributed by Paramount Pictures.

About the Shoval Center
Dedicated to continuing the social mission of King’s College, the Shoval Center faciliates teaching, research, and volunteer opportunities that advance the needs of the community and the educational mission of King’s College.

About the Luzerne County Historical Society
Established in May 1858, LCHS serves a memory bank for the area, maintaining a collection of documents and information on the history of Luzerne County. Their mission is to preserve and promote the collective history and heritage of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.

About the King’s College Professional Writing Program
The Professional Writing Program, in the King’s College Department of English, encourages students to engage in a variety of theoretical and “real-life” writing experiences, preparing them for a wide range of writing tasks in the professional world.

Event details

  • Screening of Wilkes-Barre silent films “Her Fractured Voice” (1917) and “Flesh and Spirit” (1922)
  • Live musical accompaniment by Dos Noisemakers
  • Friday, October 26 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Burke Auditorium at King’s College
  • Commentary by Tony Brooks of the Luzerne County Historical Society
  • Admission is free; all ages welcome
  • 1920s costume contest and reception after the film showing

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