The Trials and Tribulations of the Public Historian: A Follow-up on Sig Sautelle and a Silent Serial

The Trials and Tribulations of the Public Historian: A Follow-up on Sig Sautelle and a Silent Serial
By Martin Sweeney

In the November 16, 2023, issue of this newspaper, I ran an article on Homer’s circus impresario Sig Sautelle and his interesting connection to the Wharton brothers’ silent film studio in Ithaca, NY. In the article I explained my long-standing curiosity about where in the Town of Homer Sautelle had once had his circus filmed for a comedic serial by Ted and Leo Wharton. I shared with readers my delight in discovering a paragraph in Barbara Tepa Lupack’s book, Silent Serial Sensations: The Wharton Brothers and the Magic of Early Cinema. This paragraph, based on material reported in the September 3 and September 7, 1915, issues of The Ithaca Journal, revealed the Sautelle circus tent and some of the performers were “imported from Homer” for filming at the Wharton Studio in what is now Stewart Park. Thus, I concluded no filming of circus scenes occurred “on location” in Homer but, instead, at the southern end of Cayuga Lake.

Well, my conclusion proved to be incorrect. Ed Raus of Homer, who has done research on the Civil War era, the life of George Brockway, and the career of Sig Sautelle, presented me on November 20, 2023, with a photocopy of a brief article in the Homer Republican newspaper of August 12, 1915. The article was titled “Movie Pictures on the Sig Sautelle Farm.” Lo and behold, the Wharton Brothers of Ithaca did film in Homer after all. This is the article from the Homer newspaper:

The Wharton moving picture film company of Ithaca invaded Homer Tuesday and Wednesday

and operated on the farm of Sig Sautelle on the Scott Road, where they made some films for a photo

play with some of Sig’s tents as a back ground. The scenes taken Tuesday represented a circus and the

photo play actors employed by the Wharton Co. were present enacting parts of the circus scene. A

big tent and some smaller tents had been erected back of the Sautelle farm house and the play to be

depicted by the movies was staged in front of the tents.

One of the Get Rich Quick Wallingford stories telling of the sale of a circus was being produced.

Nine or ten actors including Pearl White and others well known in the “Movie” world took part in the

production….

For the local historian and his readers, it is learned that Sautelle did live on a farm in 1915 and that it was located somewhere on the Scott Road. Ed Raus thinks it may have only been a couple miles outside the Village limits of that day. The late Homer historian R. Curtis Harris did indeed get the facts straight about this event in Homer and that the famous star of the silent film era Pearl White was part of the production. I have learned it is unwise to ever question the accuracy of Harris’ research, but I did not know his source since he did not provide it.

Now, it is of great interest that the article in The Homer Republican goes on to report that “about a dozen local parties…were costumed for the occasion.” This included Village Clerk F. J. Nixon, who “took the part of an acrobat” and G. H. Miller portrayed a clown. “Other Homer men took various parts in the circus crowd,” according to the newspaper. The article concluded by stating “Various scenes were taken and later they will be put together to make up the complete play film.”

This leaves us with the question: Did Sig Sautelle’s Circus participate in filming in Ithaca the next month, September, in 1915? There is no reason to believe the Wharton Studio only filmed in one location. Why should The Ithaca Journal or The Homer Republican be doubted in their reporting? The Wharton Company frequently went out into the environs of Ithaca and beyond to shoot scenes. It is quite possible that scenes were shot in Homer and later in Ithaca. The Wharton brothers were known for using citizens of Ithaca as extras in large crowd scenes, such as attendees at a circus. They were also known for finding ways to “compensate” the locals, such as by putting on a real circus for them after filming, as the Ithaca newspaper reported. And the comedic actor Oliver Hardy portrayed a circus clown in this “day at the circus” event for the locals of Ithaca. Ted and Leo Wharton knew how to maintain good relations with the citizens of Ithaca.

All of this points up the challenge to the historian. Just when you think you have nailed down the facts of an event from the past, another primary source emerges. Among the information provided by Harris, Lupack and Raus lies the truth about Homer’s Sig Sautelle and his connection to the silent film makers in Ithaca. This historian is grateful to these three researchers for helping to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. It takes much collaborative effort by several individuals to tell the story of Homer’s colorful past.


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