Going Ithaca; or, A Hardy Welcome

Traveling through Upstate New York on a weekend in summer without having called ahead for reservations is like entering a lottery with money you owe to a loan shark with particularly keen nostrils. It is a heck of a gamble. While not the Vegas type and averse to mixed metaphors, I prefer vacationing without a safety net; but to the one driving and hoping for a bedpost instead of yet another signpost pointing to some rural spot barely traceable on the map it can be rather a pain in the hard-pressed posterior.

“There’s no room to be had in Ithaca,” we were warned one stormy evening by the proprietor of a second-hand bookstore in Dryden, a little town in the Finger Lakes District. That was Saturday, 21 June, which happened to fall on the second day of this year’s Ithaca Festival, the weekend Ithacans set aside to celebrate themselves and, by so doing, apparently draw considerable crowds to augment their population so as to justify every overpriced motel bed in town. We had experienced difficulties with accommodations (make that impossibilities) on the previous night up in Saratoga Springs, where even the bedbugs were lining up for the tiniest of places to flop due to some rock concert of which we, who would much rather listen to a piano being tuned by Florence Foster Jenkins, were altogether, though not, as it turned out, altogether blissfully unaware.

Well, there was a room to be had in Ithaca. And not just a room, but a view, as well. That view, at some remove from the rather fancifully named Meadow Court Inn, was up in the balcony of the old State Theatre . We were being treated, free of charge, to a screening of a silent movie shot on location in Ithaca, which, as Aaron Pichel informed us in his extensive notes on the film we were about to see, was a center of motion picture production during the early days of narrative filmmaking. Directed by the brothers Leopold and Theodore Wharton, The Lottery Man (1916) features a young Oliver Hardy (shown above) in the role of Maggie Murphy, a cheerful maid who ditches a chance at riches for the fellow servant she loves.

The audience at the old State Theatre was largely local. We could tell by their cheers. They recognized buildings and streets (pointed out to us in the program) and expressed themselves appreciative of this off-Hollywood production in the mounting of which several long since departed townspeople had been actively involved both behind and in front of the camera.

Based on a Broadway stage success of the same title and starring two of the original cast members of the 1909-10 production, The Lottery Man is a clever little farce that tells the story of an impecunious but resourceful college student who offers himself as prize to any woman daring or desperate enough to purchase a dollar ticket, only to realize that he has fallen in love and is jeopardizing a chance at matrimonial happiness by attempting such a money-raising stunt. Among the luckless and disgruntled ticket holders shown in a climactic crowd scene were quite a few poorly disguised males, which brought to mind the recent policy changes in the State of New York owing to which the state of matrimony no longer demands that an Oliver in search of a husband either pose as Olivia or propose to one instead.

The little known and seldom shown Lottery Man, which, as of this writing, has yet to receive five votes on the Internet Movie Database, was ably accompanied that night by the jovial Philip Carli (pictured), one of a rare but according to him far from threatened breed of entertainers. The fact that we number among our friends a silent movie composer/accompanist who wrote a radio play-turned-television drama about Laurel and Hardy added further significance to this unexpected outing at the end of a long drive along the Mohawk and down Cayuga Lake. Sure, the moviegoing experience might have been enhanced by the presence of a projector (the film was screened digitally); but I, for one, was glad to have been part of this special event at a night on which we could have hoped for nothing more than a roof over our chowderheads.

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