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Was the Kahin Center Home to a Cinema Hub?

Kahin center old picture

 

By Emiko Stock, PhD candidate in anthropology

On a foggy day in Ithaca...

...I sat at my Kahin Center desk overlooking Cayuga Lake. The fog and a strong, solid, and enduring procrastination over a certain dissertation writing led me just one more time into daydreaming. My eyes refused to leave that corner of Stewart Park I could almost see from my office. Back in the mid-1910s when Ithaca was (briefly) a hub of movie-making, the inventive film directors, the Wharton Brothers, set up their studios right on the edge of Cayuga lake, right in that corner of Stewart Park. Crowds of curious procrastinators and movie buffs—with whom I instantly feel a connection—crashed the movie sets: love stories between spies, action packed scenes with trolleys falling down the gorges, mermaids lying by the lake, ghostly sorcerers and haunting magic tricks all unfolded before their eyes. If Stewart Park was the hub of shooting magic onto celluloid strips, if Cornell’s Goldwin Smith Hall was once converted into a stage, if the Ithaca Commons’ townhouses were hosting stars, then our very own Kahin Center must have played a role, somehow, in the Ithaca movie era, right? Or so I hoped.

I started to investigate this possibility. The Treman house—now SEAP’s very own Kahin Center—was owned by the Treman family, a line of local businessmen and politicians often doubling as Cornellians. One of them, Robert E. Treman, married the then famous movie star Irene Castle. I loved the idea that our very own offices in Kahin may have been the center of a certain cinemania. My curiosity led me to explore the Rare Manuscripts collection in the Kroch Library: press clippings from last century, black-and-white glossy photographs with that soft key light illuminating just the right side of the face, in just the right way, and the movie actress Irene Castle all over. I could picture her walking down the Kahin stairs in one of her self-designed dresses—be it a kimono-like garb or a long gown of white silk crepe fluffing the air. I imagined tea-time at the Tremans’, very proper and settled, until “the ever lovely Irene,” tall and willowy, invades the moment with dancing moves on the dinner table now used by SEAP grad students to cozy up with weekly speakers. I could see her gentleman monkey pet, Virginia, crashing the balcony and stealing smokes. I sensed she may have commuted between New York City and Ithaca, balancing career and love-life as so many of us continue to do today.

In the midst of my imaginings, one of the librarians arrived with more materials, a trolley full of boxes of archives: the Treman family papers, the Ithaca movie industry archives, and pretty much everything and anything tagged “Irene Castle.” No need for gift wrap: I felt like a kid at a birthday party. Now officially deep into writing refusal, I spent hours perusing 1920s news headlines and letters, smiled at a few “travels in the Middle East” scrapbooks, and unfolded delicate papers I feared might crumble if I did not handle them like rare silk. Piece by piece, a puzzle-like image of the past emerged.

Irene was a dancer, an actress, quite an athlete—catching pneumonia after risking her own stunts in a cold Cayuga lake jump—a fashionista renown as the best-dressed woman in America, and a trend-setter famous for inventing the bobbed haircut so in taste at the time. She was an animal lover who later set up shelters for abandoned pets (she did love monkeys, and she adopted quite a few of them as companions or as luxurious full collars). She arrived in Ithaca in 1916 with twenty trunks, fifteen hat boxes, two servants, and a monkey.

Irene Castle’s main Ithaca achievement was starring in Patria: a serial like those that were so popular in that era.Movie goers would line up in front of theaters to catch the last installment of silent yet beating intrigues rolling to the sound of the live piano—movies that blended romance and adventure, pantomime and patriotism. Expectant viewers would hold their breath with the studios’ schedule of episodes. Some studios abandoned the serial after a few weeks of screenings, some went bankrupt halfway through, and still others like the Wharton Brothers had great success with Patria, bringing in loads of fans week after week for as long as 15 episodes. Combining Japanese exotica with fears of a Mexican invasion of the U.S.—a serial like nothing out today—Patria was so vehement that then President Woodrow Wilson had to step in to censor it.

Because most installments of Patria were shot in Ithaca, I hoped that the striking backdrop of the painted bamboo forest I saw in one photograph in the Kroch collection would be somewhere down in the Kahin Center archives, hidden behind the lines of SEAP dissertations. I clutched that photograph of the bamboo backdrop until the librarian reminded me it was closing time, and yet so many boxes went unexplored. Tempted by a scheme that would involve breaking into Kroch Library after hours, I reluctantly returned to my Kahin office, to a computer open to a hopelessly blank page entitled “Chapter 1.”

Cinema was not all that Irene would find in Ithaca. She also found love. In trying to sell her car, Irene found a buyer who ended up being a local young athletic businessman and hunter named Robert E. Treman. Treman . . . the Treman house . . . finally, it all circled back to the owner of the Kahin Center. I pictured Irene and Bob hosting the meanest parties in that stone-walled house, shedding a very different light on our weekly Gatty lectures that take place in the bright, ornate conference room.

First things first—sorry to break your heart reader—love didn’t last between Irene and Bob. “We were in a stormy marriage from the first,” confided Irene in one of the lengthy interviews reported in the frail archived newspapers that I shuffled through. I felt disappointed that Ithaca never grew to truly love her as an actress, as the majority of the quiet town was shocked by her effervescence. In 1923, four years after their wedding, Irene and Robert set off to Paris, not for a honeymoon, but for a quick and easy divorce, to the favor of Irene. Beyond the financial litigations, Bob had invested her money in unsuccessful business endeavors: the press clips report an “incompatibility of temperament,” Treman’s “desertion of home,” or “serious insults.”

Digging deeper into these archives, I faced more disappointment: learning that there was nothing to be found in the whole lot of boxes connecting Irene to the Kahin house. Reading defeat all over my face, a librarian suggested I dig into the Treman house papers, but when I do, all I find are blueprints from the architect’s study and a few glossy portraits of the pristine building taken on what looks like a shiny summer afternoon. No Irene hanging on the porch, no documentation of a stolen kiss from Robert E. in the backyard.

The Treman house—SEAP’s Kahin home—was never a movie hub. It was never Irene’s home. It was not even Bob’s house, since it was his father, Robert H. Treman—not our Robert E.—who built it and inhabited it. I had imagined Irene fluffing down the Kahin stairs, but she never actually lived in this building, probably never partied on the terrace, certainly never hid a backdrop down in the archives, and even more likely may have never set foot in the house. I wanted to find evidence of a few family reunions and visits, perhaps with Irene, but the Treman family papers do not hold any trace of Irene stopping by the house, no family pictures, no birthday invitation card with a clown.

The Kahin Center, then, was never the movie house my daydreaming led me to imagine. I should stop calling on Irene’s advice for my haircut. I should abandon the hopes of encountering her gauzy crepe ghost as I walk down the stairs late at night. I should realize the little beast in front of me on my way home is not her monkey, Virginia, but a skunk (yet to be named Virgil). I should simply go back to my desk, write my dissertation, and ban the daydreaming. Or should I? Perhaps the more complete story lies in photos, documents, and movie artifacts absent from the Kroch Library archives—in archives never to be found so that we can imagine our own stories.

 

To read the print version of this article and other Bulletin stories, please visit: SEAP SPRING 2017 BULLETIN

 

For more information on the Ithaca Movies Era:

•  https://whartonstudiomuseum.org

•  http://www.ithacamademovies.com

•  Colleen M. Kaplin, Take Two: A Guide to Ithaca’s Movie Making Past (Ithaca, NY: Isidore Stephanus Sons, 1987).

•  Aaron Pichel, Ithaca Silent Movies: The Forgotten History (Ithaca, NY: Imagination Graphics, 2009).

•  Irene Castle Treman’s papers in the Rare Manuscripts Collection, Kroch Library, Cornell.

•  Like the “Wharton Studio Museum” facebook page and stay tuned for a motion picture museum in Stewart Park.

•  Check out the Cornell Cinema and Ithaca Cinemapolis for their regular Silent Movies Festivals.