Sig Sautelle and a Silent Serial

by Martin Sweeney

For some time now I have been a member of the Association of Public Historians of New York State. This organization hosts informative regional gatherings and an annual conference. This year I attended the conference held on September 18, 19, and 20 in Ithaca, NY. The keynote speaker was Diana Riesman, the Director of the nascent Wharton Studio Museum in Stewart Park at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. Her topic was the time Ted and Leo Wharton made Ithaca the “Hollywood of the East.” In early 1915, the Wharton brothers acquired a former amusement park with lake frontage in Ithaca. It was known then as Renwick Park (now Stewart Park), and the Whartons used the property for creating short serials and full-length motion pictures in the silent film era. It was a time when stars like Pearl White made their residence in Ithaca and used no stunt doubles in Ithaca’s gorges when making the early (and literal) “cliffhangers.” For one scene, the company actually ran a trolley car with a dummy onboard through the guardrail of the Stewart Avenue bridge and into the gorge below. The shot was a success, which was critical because there would be no chance to shoot the realistic scene again.

Now what does this have to do with the history of Homer, you may ask. A few years ago, I did some research on Homer’s great circus impresario “Sig Sautelle” (Sept. 22, 1848 – June 21, 1928), whose real name was George Satterly. Starting in 1900, some of Sautelle’s performers and animals took up headquarters for the winter months at three red-painted, octagon-shaped buildings and other structures at the south end of Main Street. The hotel where the Town Hall now stands was acquired by Sautelle to house his employees, while their children attended the academy on the Green. “Sig” was a popular and generous businessman of the community, known for his big cigar, a diamond pin in his lapel, and ventriloquism skills he had learned while a drummer boy during the Civil War. As part of my research, I came across an article by Homer’s late, great historian R. Curtis Harris. The subject was “Sig Sautelle: A Circus and an Era,” published in The Crooked Lake Review in October of 1995. At the end of the piece, Harris wrote that at the culmination of Sig Sautelle’s entertainment career in 1915 he and his ailing wife, Ida Belle, took up residence on a small farm outside of Homer. It was the same time, according to Harris, that the Wharton Moving Picture Company of Ithaca came to Homer to film a segment for a serial with the famous actress Pearl White. Extras were the many circus performers who still made Homer their home. It must have given Sig much pleasure over three days to relive the glory of his old Circus, even if it was reenacted only for the camera. My curiosity was aroused. If the Wharton Brothers came to Homer to film Sautelle’s Circus, where did this occur? I figured it must have been on some farmer’s field just outside the village. But where? How could I find out?

My opportunity to pose the question came at the end of Diana Reisman’s engaging talk at the historians’ conference in Ithaca in October. I went up and introduced myself and asked if she was aware of any filming done by the Wharton Studio in Homer. Off hand, nothing came to her mind, but she found it intriguing. On the last day of the conference, I took the guided walking tour of Stewart Park conducted by Reisman. I learned the building being used by Ithaca’s Department of Public Works was once the Whartons’  studio where they filmed interior shots. I also learned that the building had been used as the bathhouse in the 1950s when my parents would take my brother and me for summertime picnics and swimming in the lake. Swimming is no longer permitted there, but the carrousel I had enjoyed as a child is still in operation. I expressed pleasure at what had been preserved from my youth and the memories evoked. I made it clear that I hoped the efforts being made to turn the former film studio into a museum and café overlooking the lake would be a success. Riesman expressed an interest in learning more about the history of Homer, a village she had driven through a few times but confessed she knew little about. To reciprocate for the tour she had given, I offered a walking tour of Homer’s Historic District.

On a beautiful, sunny October 19th, dressed in 19th century garb, I strolled down Main Street with Reisman and a member of her Board of Directors, showing off Homer’s fine architecture and regaling them with the stories of interesting persons of the past. After concluding with coffee and pastries at the Exchange Bakery, Reisman thanked me for the tour. She strongly endorsed the idea of erecting a tribute in bronze to Homer’s three connections to President Lincoln, expressed interest in developing a connection with Ithaca for heritage tourism, and handed me a book for my personal collection. The book was Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema (Cornell University Press, 2022). The author is Barbara Tepa Lupack of Rochester, NY. Lupack gives an amazing, well-researched account of the history of films made by Ted and Leo Wharton in the early 1900s in Ithaca and its environs.

The first thing I did with my copy was turn to the Index to see if the name of Sautelle appeared. I did not find anything, but I began to read this history of the Wharton Studio and found it to be most engrossing. I hit the unexpected jackpot on the evening of November 2. I was reading the chapter on “Establishing Roots in Renwick Park,” where on page 122 Lupack describes the use made of locals as extras in the making of one of the popular, comedic Wallingford two-reel serials. Here is what I discovered:

Prior to the shooting of the scenes featuring the Sig Sawtelle [last name misspelled]

Circus that had been imported from nearby Homer and set up on the parkgrounds,

The Ithaca Journal announced, [The Whartons] will need large numbers of people….

After the scenes were completed, the extras and the locals were rewarded by an

actual day at the circus, with “Cupid” (Oliver) Hardy performing as a clown and

leading men Burr McIntosh and Max Figman participating in the event.


This was a Eureka! moment. I had stumbled upon the connection between Homer’s Sautelle and Ithaca’s Wharton Brothers! The film company had not come to Homer in 1915, but Sautelle’s tent and performers had been brought to what is now Stewart Park to be filmed for a comedic serial. And the added fact was that the cast of the serial included Oliver Hardy, whom some will recall as going on in the “talking films” to star with the comedic actor Stan Laurel. This was all according to the September 3rd and 7th issues of the Ithaca newspaper.

Now consider this. What if I had not attended the historians’ conference in Ithaca? What if I had not made the acquaintance through two walking tours of the Director of the proposed Wharton Studio Museum? What if the Director had not gifted me with Lupack’s marvelous history of the silent film era in Ithaca? I would still be wondering about the location of the filming of the circus owned by Homer’s Sig Sautelle. I need wonder no longer; the dots have been connected.

Again, I can answer people’s question “Where do you find the information you write about?” I tell them, “It finds me.” And it is such a joy when that happens. It would be a joy, too, if the Wharton Studio in Ithaca could be preserved and repurposed as a museum and that Sig Sautelle’s only remaining octagonal “Circus House” at the south end of Homer village could be preserved and utilized and included on heritage tours. Who knows? Maybe it will. As has been said, “God works in mysterious ways.” Don’t you agree?

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