A debate in the Ithaca Journal over that community's commitment to preserving Rod Serling's legacy, and to remembering its own film making past
Remembering Movies, Rod Serling
by E. J. Novak, Guest Columnist
As a 1974 graduate of Ithaca College, I recently moved back to Ithaca after nearly 25 years as a network television writer and producer and magazine editor in New York City.
I served as an instructor of television and radio last year at Ithaca College and am currently working as a writer. My reason for returning to Ithaca is probably not unlike that of other 're-locatees;' to live out my middle age amidst the kinder and gentler atmosphere of my favorite town.
Back in 1973, I wrote, starred in and served as interviewer for the Ithaca College documentary “They Made Movies in Ithaca” with Rod Serling, which attempted to chronicle the story of Ithaca's early silent movie-making period. During that same period, I hosted the classic film series "E.J.'s Flicks" as well as "Sunday," a magazine format show co-hosted by Mr. Serling on the old Ceracche station WCIC-TV, Channel 2.
Upon my return to Ithaca almost three years ago, I was surprised and perplexed to discover just how little remembrance was being paid to the era of Ithaca s movie-making days and, especially, to the legacy of the late Rod Serling, undoubtedly Ithaca’s most famous resident and spokesman.
Aside from a few unheralded presentations by the DeWitt Historical Society and the personal work of the late historian Gretchen Sachse, the importance of Ithaca's film fame has become forgotten. Intact, if not for the tireless efforts of my friend Terry Harbin of the Tompkins County Library who has almost single-handedly spent the last 20 years of his life unearthing and compiling the history and artifacts of Ithaca's silent movie past, this subject would've remained as sorely neglected and buried as most of the films produced here.
It seems odd that there is more interest in these subjects in Binghamton and Syracuse than in the very town they took place in. Perhaps Ithaca's own version of Hollywood's `Walk of Fame' on The Commons, with sidewalk stars commemorating these people might not be a bad idea.
A short while ago, while attending a museum screening by Mr. Harbin of “The Lottery Man,” an Ithaca-produced comedy of 1916, I spotted a young, unknown Oliver Hardy—later of Laurel & Hardy fame—playing a comically rotund female cook in the fixture. Previously unknown to Mr. Harbin or any other film historians worldwide, my discovery of Hardy's work here in Ithaca created great excitement among film collectors and historians alike.
Thanks to the interest of The Ithaca Journal's Joe Wilensky, who reported the discovery in his "Ticket" section of the Journal on Dec. 23, 1999, an important part of Ithaca's past—and of film history in general—was well documented.
But what of the other luminaries and locals who, through their film work, put Ithaca "on the map" as a movie capital more than 90 years ago? And what of the memory of our friend Rod Serling who passed away 25 years ago this coming June? Through the mass syndication of his classic "Twilight Zone" series and the plethora of documentaries turned out on him over the past few years, Rod's fame and importance has grown incredibly, except, it appears, right here in Ithaca.
The city of Binghamton has numerous exhibits and organizations bearing Rod Selling's name and memory and on Feb. 7, WCNY in Syracuse aired a segment on Ithaca's movie making on its new daily magazine series "Upstate Mornings." It seems odd that there is more interest in these subjects in Binghamton and Syracuse than to the very town they took place in!
The great silent serials were shot here in Ithaca, noon Syracuse, and Rod Serling, although having grown up in Binghamton spent his final years living out on the lake and teaching and inspiring hundreds of students like myself in his writing classes at Ithaca College. Rod loved this town and it is important, I think, to return the favor.
I believe that some sort of permanent exhibit commemorating these people and their local work be considered. Not only for Rod Serling but also for the Wharton Brothers who produced their famous silent movie serials here, as well as the future film superstars they of discovered and employed right here in town, actors like Pearl While, Lionel Barrymore, Irene Castle, Warner Oland and of course, Oliver Hardy, writer and director George Sent, and future Oscar-winning MGM cinematographer and local Ithacan Ray June.
Perhaps Ithaca's own version of Hollywood's “Walk of Fame” on The 'Commons, with sidewalk stars commemorating these people might not be a had idea. In a town where trolley tracks to nowhere and an assortment of celestial cemetery tombstones in memory of Carl Sultan can be easily implanted, is it not fitting than these other people, so important to Ithaca's heritage, be honored as well?
While teaching at Ithaca College last year, l was dismayed to learn that the Rod Serling archives, long deposited in the Park Communications building for use by it students, was being moved up to the college's library, out of sight and virtually out of mind.When I asked why this was. being done. a fellow professor told me it was due to "lack of interest.” Let us hope the is not the case. And if it is, let us think of a way to correct the mistake now.
Letter to the Editor
from Gordon C. Webb
Assistant Professor, TV/Radio
Park School of Communications
I’m writing in response to E. J. Novak’s recent guest column in which, among other issues, he lamented the lack of remembrance of the late Rod Serling.
As a faculty member in the Television-Radio Department at Ithaca College, I can assure Mr. Novak that the Rod Serling Archive continues to be a valuable resource for both students and faculty. The materials contained therein, including many of Serling’s original typed manuscripts, are of immense commercial value and needed a more secure home than was possible in the Park Communications building. But, although the Serling material was never intended to be an open collection for use by the public, these resources are neither “out of sight” nor “out of mind.” In fact, as part of the move to the library building, Serling’s original “Twilight Zone” scripts were microfilmed, and the collection now has its own web site.
For years, faculty have been making use of scripts and tapes from the Archive in classes, and the collection is in heavy demand for various kinds of research—such as my own published study of Serling’s work on the screenplay for “Planet of the Apes” (July/August 1998 issue of “Creative Screenwriting” journal). In addition, screenings of “Twilight Zone” and other Serling works from the Archive have been heavily attended over the years—sponsored by student organizations like Alpha Epsilon Rho (the National Broadcasting Society) and the International Radio and Television Society.
The fact that Carol Serling chose Ithaca College to house her husband’s Archives is undoubtedly a reflection of the family’s love of Ithaca and the Finger Lakes area; the fact that tomorrow’s writers, producer and directors have the opportunity to study Rod Serling’s work first hand is a tribute to the memory of one of television’s most respected writers.