Hollywood’s Roots in New York’s Finger Lakes: 100 Years of “Talkies”


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The Case Research Lab © 2008 Kristian S. Reynolds

History comes to life in Cayuga County in Auburn, NY, the place where the “Roaring ‘20s” found their roar.

Pronounced ka-yu-ga, Cayuga County is known for its historical significance. Although Cayuga County has a population of just under 80,000, significant historical figures have called the region home. In the heart of New York, the small-but-mighty city of Auburn has been at the center of U.S. history, shaping revolutions of all kinds. That’s why the city goes by the name History’s Hometown.

2022 marks the 100th year of sound on film, a historic anniversary and cause for celebration! Our suggestion to make the most of this milestone celebration is to visit the very laboratory where this marvel, the “talkies,” were invented!

In 1922, scientists in a private laboratory in an Auburn backyard, The Case Research Laboratory, ushered in a technology revolution. The goal was to bring sound to the film industry to create talking pictures, also known as “sound cinema” or “talkies.”

The story of Theodore Case is a drama worthy of its own Hollywood picture. The gentleman scientist was a lover of fast cars, boats, and planes, throwing extravagant parties in his mansions while inventing in the 1920s. His life was one of powerful friendships, betrayals, legal wars over patent ownership, and an early retirement built on his shaping of the entertainment industry. But while his name may have been forgotten by Hollywood, it certainly was not forgotten by Auburn residents.

While attending Yale University, Theodore (Ted) Case explored his love of science by transmitting light and sound reproduction, developing a method of photographing sound waves. His passion for inventing would lead him on a journey to creating early synchronized sound films.

© IMaureen-McEvers

Thomas Edison had already given up on his failed attempts to make sound films. The film industry had no interest in the available technology until Theodore Case recorded the word “hello” on a film strip with perfect clarity and synchronization. The device he created would become known as the Movietone system, and the movie and news industries would never be the same again.

Case partnered with William Fox of Fox Film, known today as 20th Century Fox, to create the Fox-Case Movitetone, and the story of partnership and working together is as important as the astounding history that has been here in Auburn.

Visitors can discover this story at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art, where you can explore the Case Research Laboratory itself. Immerse yourself in history and explore the film industry’s early days at the dawn of the Talkie Era. Go back in time exactly 100 years to check out one of the first sound cameras ever made and see what the brilliant minds of the Finger Lakes were creating a century ago!

From Theodore Case and William Fox to Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Emily Howland, history lives on in
Cayuga County. Today, partnerships between organizations, historic sites, and tourism partners band together to preserve the physical sites and accurately tell the stories of those historical figures and events.

Photo © Courtesy of Cayuga County
Photo © Courtesy of Cayuga County

While on-site at the Case Research Laboratory, visit the Cayuga Museum of History and Art to get a glimpse into the past of medical oddities and instruments of the in-mansion doctor’s office of the 1850s, Tiffany Glass, and beautifully curated exhibits. Currently on exhibit is “Proof Positive,” which takes visitors through the history, the process, and the impact of wine, beer, and cider in Cayuga County, especially during the Temperance movement and Prohibition, highlighting the rebirth of the industry through legislation and the current economic impact.

Another can’t-miss exhibit is “Auburn in Harriet Tubman’s Time,” which features Tubman’s devotion to the Black community of Auburn and the timeline of significant events from the 1860s to beyond 1900.

While many people know Harriet Tubman as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, few know the rest of her story. In Cayuga County, you can follow in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman and experience her history in a whole new way by visiting the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park.

Tubman’s friends and relatives described her as an “ordinary woman who did extraordinary things.” She loved nature, had a knack for business, and was deeply spiritual. “In God’s Voice: A Celebration of the Spirituality of Harriet Tubman,” by local artist Vanessa Johnson, focuses on Harriet Tubman’s spirituality and faith, exhibiting quilts and fiber artworks to share how Tubman used nature to guide her path as she freed enslaved people and her faith in the allies, both Black and white, who supported her rescues. Check out this exhibit at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, NY.

Pay your respects to Harriet Tubman, Theodore Case, and his family at Fort Hill Cemetery right here in Auburn. There are many notable figures laid to rest here, such as Frances Seward and family, Doctor Sylvester Willard, and Martha Coffin Wright. A must stop while in the area.

Follow the Finger Lakes Film Trail to truly round out the experience. Find sites in Rochester and Ithaca where prolific film writers wrote, directors filmed, and inventors invented! For more information and events put on by the trail, visit tourcayuga.com.

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Cayuga County was formed on March 8, 1799 and is well known for its historical significance.  Millard Fillmore the 13th President of the United States, William H. Seward, Harriet Tubman and Ted Case who pioneered talking movies all called Cayuga County home.  


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