SARANAC LAKE - Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau's historic Church Street laboratory came back to life Wednesday as the set for a film about another scientist who was a Trudeau contemporary, albeit in a very different field.
Signature Communications of Maryland is using the Saranac Laboratory, where Trudeau conducted his tuberculosis research, as the backdrop for several scenes in a National Park Service film it's producing about George Washington Carver, the prominent African-American scientist and inventor best known for the many uses he devised for the peanut. Titled "Struggle and Triumph: The Legacy of George Washington Carver," the 25-minute film will be the centerpiece video for visitors to the George Washington Carver National Memorial, located at Carver's birthplace in Diamond, Mo. An educational video about Carver for middle school students is also being produced.
John Allen, the company's owner and the film's producer, took a break from filming Wednesday morning to explain to the Enterprise why his crew picked the Saranac Laboratory. He explained that Carver conducted much of his agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute, which is now Tuskegee University, in Alabama.
A film crew from Maryland-based Signature Communications prepares to shoot scenes for a film about George Washington Carver in Historic Saranac Lake’s Trudeau Laboratory on Church Street Wednesday. The actor in the white suit playing Carver is Altorro Black. Standing to his left is the film’s producer, John Allen.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"His goal was to, as he put it, help the man farthest down, help the poor blacks in the South who were still living virtually as though they were slaves," Allen said. "Carver tried to make breakthroughs in understanding how they could plant better crops and not just be a slave to cotton. He did a huge amount of lab research, and the reason we're here is we've been searching around the country to find a laboratory that would be the same time period as the lab he worked at in Tuskegee."
Carver came to Tuskegee in 1896 at the invitation of institute founder Booker T. Washington and worked there as a teacher and researcher until he died in 1943. That's almost identical to the timeline for Trudeau's work at his Church Street laboratory, which was built in 1894 and remained in use until 1964, when research work was moved to the new Trudeau Institute campus. The lab was purchased by Historic Saranac Lake in 1998 and restored as a museum and history center.
"It was built almost exactly at the same time frame that Carver moved to Tuskegee," Allen said. "It has these brick, ceramic walls that are identical to historic photos we've seen of Carver working in his lab. A lot of the equipment is here. There's a chemical hood in there that protects the researcher from fumes. It physically is very much like the photos we have of Carver's lab. It's the only one we've been able to find."
Judi Flowers, the film's costume designer, who lives in Virginia, said the laboratory and the village are the perfect setting for the film.
"This is such a picturesque, Americana kind of turn-of-the-century town," she said. "Driving through here is like a standing set. On a major film, like in the big leagues, they'd build all this. There would be no rooms behind it, but it would look just like this."
As Flowers spoke, the crew was setting up for scenes it planned to shoot in the lab featuring Carver interacting with a group of students. A track was laid around the center laboratory table, allowing a camera on a dolly to move through the lab. In the basement of the building, the actor playing Carver, Altorro Black, was getting into costume. A group of African-American students from North Country Community College and Lake Placid High School, who were recruited to play Carver's students, arrived later in the day.
Amy Catania, Historic Saranac Lake's executive director, called it an exciting opportunity and a unique experience for her organization to be a part of.
"It's a bigger production than I had expected," she said. "I had been in touch with John the past few weeks, helping to pull it together. I wasn't aware until he sent me a sheet summarizing how many people were actually going to show up today. And the amount of equipment that's here is exciting."
In addition to the footage from Saranac Lake, the film will also feature scenes of Carver's early life, when he was born into slavery in Missouri during the Civil War, and scenes in Washington, D.C., where Carver testified before Congress. Historic photos and old films of Carver will also be used, Allen said.
One of the biggest challenges for Black is that Carver had a very unusual voice, Allen said.
"He spoke at a very high-pitched voice, and if you heard him without seeing him, you'd swear it's a woman," he said. "Our actor's been working on that, and we'll see how we do. It's going to be tricky with middle school students, who will probably giggle about it."
Allen said the film focuses on Carver's legacy and the things he did that are still relevant today. He says one of the myths he's trying to break is that Carver was just "the peanut man."
"He was so much more than that," Allen said. "Even though he used the peanut and wrote a book about 105 uses for the peanut, he was really working to improve the dietary condition of the blacks he was trying to help out, and to help them with crops that would be more salable and useful."
While there might seem to be few connections between Carver and Trudeau, Catania said they both were key players in what was an exciting time in science in the United States.
"What Trudeau was doing here was breakthrough science," she said. "It's exciting to think Carver was also leading a laboratory at the same time. When John sent me the pictures of Carver working in his lab, it was just amazing to see a very similar space, a busy lab like a lot of the pictures we have of here, and yet everybody is African-American."
Allen said he expects the production will be finished in the summer. He said Historic Saranac Lake will get a credit and a copy of the film.