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June 8, 2013

Oneonta became a movie set in June 1918

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The Daily Star

---- — In “real life” Oneonta, you’d never have found an automobile plant manager facing a crisis of having his young daughter kidnapped by two disgruntled employees. However, it would make for a good movie plot, and that’s exactly what took place in Oneonta during June 1918.

The Reita Film Co. of New York, under the auspices of the Strand Theatre of Oneonta, was preparing to bring its crew to this city for a filmplay, “A Call to the Colors,” staged and supervised with all local residents. The Strand was once found at the corner of Dietz and Wall streets, in the building where Dr. Polgar’s dental offices are today.

As reported in The Oneonta Star of Monday, May 6, “The management of the Strand has been asked to secure the talent and this will be done by means of a popularity voting contest, which will determine the leading parts. All who do not win will be awarded other parts, so that all entering the contest will appear in the production.”

Voting blanks were provided with every admission to the Strand until May 31. The results were posted in the Strand’s regular newspaper advertisements in the opening days of June. Ten ladies, men and children were each chosen for the cast and were instructed to be at the Strand at 3 p.m. Monday, June 3, to meet with the director and learn about the production of the film.

The cast and crew went right to work that afternoon. As these were silent films, so while there weren’t any lines to memorize, acting skills were required.

“Marked by a rough and tumble free for all fist fight, in which two alleged kidnappers were overcome by one of the most prominent young men of this city,” the Star reported the next day, “a dastardly piece of underhand work was averted yesterday afternoon at the Morgan homestead at Emmons.” This is where the Emmons Farms community is today.

“But it was all in play. Fred Bresee, taking the part of the hero … overheard a plot shortly after he had applied at the local recruiting station for enlistment,” the article continued. This scene was at the “telephone exchange” building on Dietz Street, about two doors south of the Strand. That building is now being refurbished as part of the Bresee Block project. Fred Bresee eventually became part of the management team of the family-owned Bresee’s Oneonta Department Store.

Bresee had the movie name of Gilbert Smith. He was examining his enlistment papers when he overheard the kidnapping plan of two shady characters, played by Charles Buck Jr. and Francis Fahey. They were the auto workers who disliked their employer, whose “palatial home is located in Emmons.”

“Hastily jumping into his automobile, Smith hurried up the state road to the mansion just in time to frustrate the plot and rescue the child after a desperate struggle. The battle was witnessed by his fiance, Miss Polley Wilson, portrayed by Miss Helen Stanley, who is the fond daughter of the automobile manufacturer and sister to the child that was to have been kidnapped.”

Several other scenes were filmed at Emmons and around the city. Traffic on Dietz and Main Streets were blocked while the filming was done. While there was plenty of action in this film it was produced to encourage local young men to enlist in the Army, as World War I was in progress.

Other scenes had Gilbert Smith at the state armory on Academy Street, where he was outfitted with a uniform, and proceeded to home to bid his sisters farewell on the journey to training and the war front in France. Another scene shows a wounded Gilbert being helped by a soldier on the front. He returned home and married Polley, complete with a wedding scene.

Appropriately, “A Call to the Colors” debuted at the Strand Theatre on Tuesday, June 25. Admission was 15 cents and all shows had a packed house. Comments were overheard such as, “I didn’t expect to see such acting with the players pure amateurs who had never done any dramatic work before.” Special praise was given to the leading man and woman, Fred Bresee and Helen Stanley.

The film was brought back by “popular demand” in early July. The advertisement claimed that it was the first filmplay made in Oneonta.

On Monday: Oneonta got much more than it bargained for in a construction project in June 1988.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.