Annual Festival to Commemorate 100th Anniversary of Betzwood Studio Founding

by Alana J. Mauger

Academy Award-winning film “The Artist” may have introduced a new generation of viewers to the art of silent films, but Montgomery County Community College has been honoring the genre for more than two decades.

The 2012 Betzwood Silent Film Festival will be held on May 12 at 8 p.m. in the College’s Science Center Theater, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell. Tickets cost $10 general admission and $5 for children under age 10. The films are shown at their original projection speeds with organ accompaniment by Don Kinnier. For information and tickets, visit www.mc3.edu/livelyarts.

In its 23rd year, the Betzwood Silent Film Festival pays homage to films produced at the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio – founded in 1912 by film pioneer Siegmund Lubin – in what is now West Norriton Township, Montgomery County.

Betzwood Film Studio press photo circa 1912.

“When he bought the 340-acre estate, Lubin had a scheme in mind that never really materialized. There were two working farms in the confines of the studio. He wanted to create a colony where the actors and actresses lived and grew their own food,” explains Emeritus Professor of History Joseph Eckhardt, who is the country’s premiere expert on Siegmund Lubin and his Betzwood Studio. “His full vision never came about, but the entire estate was used in the films.”

This year’s festival will honor the centennial anniversary of the studio’s founding by featuring movies that represent the earliest and last films made at Betzwood. Only 30 films and fragments have survived the ravages of time, and the College is fortunate to have copies of 25 of these in its Betzwood Film Archive. The Archive has recently been digitized and is now accessible online to the general public at http://mc3betzwood.wordpress.com.

The College is home to the largest known archive of Betzwood artifacts in the world thanks to Eckhardt, who has been researching the history of the Philadelphia area silent film industry since 1979. He wrote the first biography of Lubin, titled The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin, which details Lubin’s transformation from an immigrant optician into the first successful movie mogul, credited with the first attempt at the “mass marketing” of movies.

Through his extensive research, Eckhardt has acquired access to a variety of Betzwood artifacts beyond films. Most recently, he digitized a manuscript, photo albums and a tape recording that were found at the former Woodstock N.Y. estate of actress Wilna Hervey, known for her starring role as Powerful Katrinka in the Toonerville Trolley series.

“The new materials supplement what we know about the Toonerville films, and we’ll share this information with the audience at our program in May,” said Eckhardt, who is working on a biography of Hervey that follows her career trajectory from silent film actress to Woodstock artist.

Wilna Hervey stars as Powerful Katrinka in a Toonerville Trolley film.

Several years ago, he also acquired several Betzwood Studio set props – including a stagecoach door, scenery supports and overhead light reflectors.

“The props were found in a barn at a Betzwood property, where, at one time, we believe Lubin’s chauffeur lived in the loft. You can see the barn in ‘Breaking Home Ties,’ which is the last film ever made at Betzwood,” he explained.

Eckhardt has generously donated his entire collection of Betzwood artifacts, photos and advertising materials to the College’s Betzwood Film Archive, which is located in a new, climate controlled space in the Brendlinger Library at the Central Campus.

“I’m happy that the artifacts, films and photos are in one place,” said Eckhardt about the donation. “They are safe, protected and cared for by an outstanding archivist. The College is preserving an important part of our regional history.

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