Schoharie County

Village celebrating 1917 movie milestone

For 2 nights, site of first known free open-air presentations back in spotlight
Movie fans take their places in front of the Schoharie County Courthouse on Main Street in this undated photo.
Movie fans take their places in front of the Schoharie County Courthouse on Main Street in this undated photo.

One hundred years ago Wednesday, Helena Richie was the toast of Schoharie.

The young woman brought the tragedy, drama and heartbreak of her life to the light gray Schoharie County Courthouse on Main Street.

She never talked about her troubles. People watched her silently endure hardships that came with a drunken husband, a murdered child and a disloyal friend.

RELATED: ‘Helena Richie’ will close Main Street in Schoharie

On Thursday and Saturday, Helena will return to Schoharie. But she’ll only stay a little while — about 11 minutes each night. That’s all the Library of Congress has on “The Awakening of Helena Richie,” a silent movie filmed in 1916.

On June 7, 1917, Schoharie-area residents saw the whole story. The five-reel, 60-minute film began the Schoharie Free Street Movies series, a community event at the courthouse that enlivened Thursday nights during the summer through 1942.

Schoharie historians and film fans are commemorating the centennial of the film series with two parties — and movies that will once again be shown outside. The parties have been planned by the Schoharie County Historical Society, Greenville Drive-In and Schoharie Promotional Association. The “Helena” reel has been loaned to Schoharie by the Library of Congress.

The coming attractions:

— On Thursday, the re-enactment will start on Main Street at 7 p.m. Live period music, historical exhibits, popcorn, ice cream and 5 cent photos will warm up the crowd for the main event. At 9 p.m., the street will be closed to traffic and — like they did for the first movie in 1917 — people in more than a dozen Model T-era vehicles and film fans will watch Ethel Barrymore bring Helena to life on screen. 

Because only the first reel of the film survives, modern movie fans will not be able to weep much for Helena. They will be able to see “A Century Under the Stars,” a brief documentary by movie historian Dwight Grimm. The third part of the 45-minute triple feature will be a portion of “Manslaughter,” a 1930 sound movie that starred Claudette Colbert and was the first “talkie” ever shown during the Schoharie street series, in June 1931.

On Thursday, “Helena” will be played on an original hand-cranked movie projector provided and operated by Chapin Cutler of Boston Light & Sound, from the back of a 1926 Ford one-ton flatbed truck. The film will be shown on a 10 1/2-by-13 1/2-foot screen hung by the original courthouse lampposts — the same posts used in 1917.

There will be sound, too. Music historian Philip Carli will accompany the movie on piano.

— The second part of the celebration will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday with a car show, beverage tastings, antique radio exhibit, film-themed flower show, live swing and jazz bands and food vendors. Helena’s reel and other movies will be the main attractions. A Harold Lloyd comedy, vintage news reels and a smash hit from 1938, Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” will be shown — all outside the Schoharie County Office Building on Main Street. There will be no street closure Saturday.

The hand-cranked projector will not be used Saturday. Movie fans are asked to bring their own lawn chairs both nights.

Grimm, co-owner of the Greenville Drive-In, knew about the anniversary date and brought the information to the Old Stone Fort Museum in 2015. People walking Main Street also knew; a blue-and-yellow metal historical marker in front of the courthouse marks the site as the first known free open-air movie presentations for the 1917 silent and 1931 talking films.

Perry E. Taylor, who was village mayor in 1917, put the movie plan in motion. Local businessmen loved the idea.

“All the merchants in town pooled their money in order to get the projector and rent a movie,” Grimm said. “They got a band … what they hoped it would do would draw people into Schoharie to spend money.”

Some people came in their open-top cars, so Grimm believes Schoharie actually had the first drive-in operation. Other people sat in chairs in front of the screen; some were in balconies on buildings across the street.

Movies were a big deal in 1917.

“They were the mass media of their day,” said Carle J. Kopecky, executive director of the Old Stone Fort Museum. “It was probably the way television was 20 years ago and like the internet and YouTube are today. This was the cutting-edge, popular medium of the day. People went crazy about this.”

The only guy that probably wasn’t crazy about the free movie gag was the owner of Schoharie’s movie theater. But Grimm said this was only a summer series that used second-run movies, was held only Thursday nights, and did not affect big-money movie nights Friday and Saturday.

Kopecky said merchants of 1917 needed people downtown. They were losing business to mail-order houses.

“Just like today, the brick-and-mortar stores were competing with online mail order,” Kopecky said. “They wanted to bring traffic into the stores downtown. By the time of the Great Depression, this was also this great social event that everybody in the community looked forward to. So moving beyond stimulating the economy, it also helped the people’s morale.”

The free event also helped people save money, during a time when personal funds were in short supply. During the Depression years, as many as 5,000 people traveled to Main Street for the movies every Thursday night.

The series ended after the summer of 1942, after about 400 movie Thursdays. Grimm and Kopecky said the 1940 death of Perry Taylor, air-raid rules during World War II and increasing pressure from state officials — who did not like closing the road for several Thursday nights during the summer — were among the reasons why.

By the late 1940s, commercial drive-ins were booming. And that might have made it difficult for the free series to make a comeback.

The first reel of “Helena Richie” will introduce movie fans to the characters. They may not get much of the story, which includes Helena leaving her drunken husband — who has killed their child — and travels to western Pennsylvania with her pal Lloyd.

Once the louse of a husband dies, Lloyd refuses to marry Helena, and Helena has to confess the true nature of their relationship to her minister. The situation forces Helena to give up an adopted child … but she later fights for her rights as a mother.

Ethel Barrymore was 37 when she appeared in the movie. She died June 18, 1959, at age 79.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter.

Categories: Entertainment

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