Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Another Silent Film Recorded in Part in Pelham In 1912:

There was a time before the advent of Hollywood that the region around Pelham was the center of the world of movie production.  Production studios that created silent films distributed throughout the world existed on City Island and in New Rochelle.  Consequently, silent movie scenes often were filmed in and around Pelham.  I have written about such silent films before.  See:

Fri., Jun. 30, 2006:  Is There New Evidence of a Previously Unknown Thanhouser Company Silent Film That Was Filmed, in Part, in Pelham in 1911?

Mon., Feb. 24, 2014:  Mack, the Movie Star Traffic Cop of Pelham Manor, 1916-1928 (Noting that Mack (John McCormack), the Smiling Traffic Cop of Pelham Manor, became famous merely from directing traffic at the intersection after he landed a minor role in a silent film released in theaters nationwide in October, 1921. The Goldwyn Pictures Corporation film was "The Invisible Power" directed by Frank Lloyd and starring House Peters, Irene Rich and DeWitt Jennings).

In 1912, Thanhouse Company, filmed a one-reel 900 foot silent drama entitled "Conductor No. 786."  The film was released, according to the magazine The Billboard, on August 23, 1912.  Thanhouser was formed in the fall of 1909 and began its operations in an empty skating rink located in New Rochelle.

The story told in the movie centered on an elderly trolley car conductor (Conductor No. 786).  The conductor's son was a successful major league baseball player who met a "woman with some money and no sense" and became engaged.  The conductor's son feared that if his soon-to-be-bride discovered his father's blue collar occupation, she would leave him.  The son begged his father to give up his job, but the old conductor loved his job and those with whom he worked so much that he simply could not bring himself to do it, despite his love for his son.  Behind his father's back, the son approached the Superintendent of the trolley line and convinced him to fire his father.  The Superintendent reluctantly agreed to fire the old conductor and tells him his services are no longer necessary.  The conductor's fellow employees learn of the situation and storm the meeting to make clear that they would not tolerate any such firing of their friend.  The conductor stands by as his friends assail the Superintendent and tears of gratitude roll down the face of the conductor.  The Superintendent is so moved that he reverses course and tells the conductor to take out his trolley car on its usual route.

Advertisement for Showing of Conductor No. 786
on September 11, 1912, About Two Weeks After
Thanhouser Company Released the Silent Film.
[Advertisement], Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot [Bryan, TX),
Sep. 11, 1912, p. 3, cols. 3-4.

With Thanhouser Company located in New Rochelle at the time, one might expect that many of the scenes in Conductor No. 786 would have been filmed in and around nearby Pelham.  Indeed, there is at least one newspaper article indicating that at least one scene was filmed on Pelhamdale Avenue.  

With the film centered around a trolley conductor, one of the trolley lines near the Thanhouser studio was the one operated by the Westchester Electric Railway Company that ran from the Pelhamville Station along Wolfs Lane to Colonial Avenue where it turned toward New Rochelle and traveled to Pelhamdale onto which it turned and, at the time, ran along Pelhamdale to the Pelham Manor Depot at the end of the Esplanade.  Significantly, this line was the line on which Fontaine Fox rode in 1909 when he was inspired by the rickety trolley and its idiosyncratic conductor to create his famous comic strip, "Toonerville Folks."

Conductor No. 786 was filmed barely three years after Fontaine Fox took the fateful ride on the Pelham Manor Trolley along Pelhamdale Avenue that inspired his runaway comic strip "Toonerville Folks" that ran for nearly fifty years.  Research has not yet revealed whether a print of the film Conductor No. 786 still exists, although many of the Thanhouser films do still exist.  However, it would be extremely significant if a copy of the film could be located because it possibly would show the very trolley ridden by Fontaine Fox on August 8, 1909 when he was inspired to create his comic strip.  At a minimum it would be expected to show one very much like the trolley ridden by Fox that fateful day.  

Below is the text of a newspaper article that appeared in the August 21, 1912 issue of The Evening Standard published in New Rochelle.  It describes the filming of the movie and notes that a portion was filmed on "Pelham Dale Avenue."  Following the text of that article is the text of a very brief newspaper entry reflecting a screening of the movie by employees of the Westchester Electric Railway Company on Glen Island in 1912.

"William B. Wheeler, superintendent of the Westchester Electric Railway Company, will take a day off tomorrow, something unusual for him. They had war maneuvers in Connecticut last week, but Wheeler and his trolleymen are to take Glen Island by storm. He posed for superintendent in Thanhouser's 900 foot reel, Conductor No. 786, which will be run off at the island. The story is thus told: "The old conductor has a son who is a big league ball player and wins a woman with some money and no sense. The groom fears to have the bride learn the father's occupation. Unable to persuade his father to give up the job he loves, the son persuaded the superintendent of the road to do him the favor of discharging his own parent. If you love me, said the son to the superintendent, fire father. But the superintendent has a hard job doing it. He really tells the old man that his services are no longer needed, but all of father's old friends on the line get together and see the superintendent about it. While the indignation meeting is going on in the railroad men's office, the old conductor stands meekly by with tears in his eyes. This latter circumstance settles the superintendent. He orders the veteran to take out his car as usual. He was between so many fires that he just didn't know how to move. "'Just like Wheeler.' all the boys will say when they see it. The Westchester Railway Superintendent and 20 of the road's employees posed for the reel at the Westchester car barn, Pelham Dale Avenue and Wilkes Lane...."

"William B. Wheeler, the genial superintendent of the trolley company, reflects new lustre.  Mr. Wheeler recently posed for 'superintendent' in the Thanhouser's 900-foot reel, 'Conductor No. 786,' which was run off at Glen Island on Thursday when the trolleymen held their big picnic."

Source:  [Untitled], New Rochelle Pioneer, Aug. 24, 1912, p. 5, col. 7.  

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