The Biggest Little Movie City

Take a stroll through Ithaca's cinematic past in this Then and Now tour of its movie palace sites with a bonus early silent movie studio!

The Biggest Little Movie City

Ithaca, New York 14850, United States

Created By: Ithaca Heritage

Tour Information

In the mid-1910s, Ithaca could well have been called the Biggest Little Movie City. The Wharton, Inc. Studios cranked out silent serial moving pictures at Renwick Park (now Stewart Park). An avid movie-going public made weekly visits to The Star, Lyceum, and other “movie palaces” to follow the serial exploits of their marquee idols.

In these early decades of film, moviegoing was a special event. “Atmospheric theatres” of the 1920s like Ithaca’s State Theatre used design details to enhance the experience. The aesthetic of the movie palaces especially attracted women, who made up the majority of moviegoers by 1920.

College students from Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music (now Ithaca College) were movie-mad as well. By the 1940s and 1950s, Cornell students whimsically renamed some of Ithaca’s movie theaters based on their proximity to campus; the Strand was the “Near-Near” or “Near,” the State was the “Near Far,” the Temple was the “Far Near,” and the Ithaca was the “Far Far.”

Near the end of the movie palace era, by 1940 Ithaca had seven movie theaters with a combined total of about 6,000 seats for a population of less than 20,000.

Although several of Ithaca’s original movie theaters no longer stand, this tour explores this fascinating building type in our city. It also highlights the vitality of several existing theaters where we hope to see you at the movies!

This tour accompanies and was adapted from "Biggest Little Movie City: Ithaca's Theaters Then and Now," a multimedia exhibit in the Atrium at the Tompkins Center for History and Culture, curated by the Wharton Studio Museum and Historic Ithaca. The exhibit runs through May 7, 2022.

The exhibit's Presenting Sponsor is the Canopy by Hilton Ithaca Downtown. Co-sponsors are The Strand Cafe, The State Theatre of Ithaca, Cornell Cinema, and the Finger Lakes Film Trail. The exhibit's Media Sponsor is Cinemapolis.


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What You'll See on the Tour

Local architect Henry Hinckley designed this impressive building as an automobile showroom and shop that opened in 1915. A decade later owners hired noted theater architect Victor Rigaumont to convert the building into a theatre with an int... Read more
Founded by Lynne Cohen and Rich Szanyi in 1986, Cinemapolis began as a single-screen theater in the basement of Center Ithaca on the Commons. The first film screened was Akira Kurosawa's Ran. By 1988, Lynne and Rich had expanded to add a s... Read more
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In its earliest days as the Lyceum Opera House, this grand theater hosted live stage productions starring such famed actors as Sarah Bernhardt, John Barrymore, and Lillian Russell. The Lyceum was the brain-child of violinist Max Gutstadt, ... Read more
To celebrate its opening in 1941, the 600-seat Ithaca Theater screened “Moon Over Miami,” starring Betty Grable and Don Ameche. A wedge-shaped marquee projecting from the theater’s tinted block façade announced the film. Green neon t... Read more
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The Star Theatre had a brief but shining reign as a movie palace. Below a marquee and elegant, arched windows framed by classical pilasters, three entrances welcomed theater patrons to the 1,135-seat venue. The Star opened as a vaudeville t... Read more
Ithaca’s first purpose-built movie palace, the 1,300-seat Crescent Theatre boasted a wide metal awning and an impressive oval marquee. An artist specializing in theater interiors decorated the theater’s classically inspired interior. A ... Read more
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The Strand’s neo-Tudor, Collegiate Gothic style was a nod to the college town’s large student population. Cornell students nicknamed it the "Near-Near" for its proximity to campus. A narrow brick and limestone facade opened to a neoclas... Read more
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The Temple opened in December 1928, one week after the opening of the State Theatre. Sandwiched between the old Ithaca High School (now the Dewitt Mall) and the Star Theatre, the deep, narrow red brick building had 840 seats to entertain mo... Read more
Cornell Cinema was established in 1970 as a university film society but has evolved into a regional exhibition program with a national reputation, open to the general public. It has made Willard Straight Hall's University Theatre its home s... Read more
Some 100 years ago this “biggest little city” of Ithaca was a bustling movie-making town, home to the Wharton, Inc. Studios.  Filmmaker Theodore Wharton–known as Ted–came to Ithaca in 1912, sent by the Chicago-based Essanay Film Co... Read more

 

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