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Lessons from moviemakers, Carver and Trudeau

November 16, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

It just so happens that the laboratory at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where science and agriculture pioneer George Washington Carver taught was remarkably similar, on the inside, to the one Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau used right here on Saranac Lake's Church Street.

The two labs were of the same era. The Saranac Laboratory was built in 1894. Two years later, Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington hired Mr. Carver to lead the then-15-year-old school's Agriculture Department.

Visitors to Mr. Carver's birthplace in Diamond, Mo., and middle-schoolers around the U.S. will soon get to see a film about him, including re-enactments of parts of his life. They probably won't know it unless they read the credits carefully, but that film will have scenes shot in Saranac Lake, at the carefully restored Saranac Laboratory Museum.

Article Photos

This photograph of George Washington Carver was taken around 1910, when he was in his 40s — the same age as was portrayed in film scenes shot in Saranac Lake.

These scenes were shot Wednesday by a crew of about 10 people with a truckload of gear. Mr. Carver is played by a professional actor while local students were outfitted to play his students.

This is cool for Saranac Lakers, but it makes one wonder what the benefits of it will be, beyond having the crew come and spend its money at local hotels, restaurants, etc. We bet few of the film's viewers will read the credits, so this isn't exactly a tourism driver, right?

Or is it?

On a business level, it was good to have movie people tell us that Saranac Lake - not just the lab - is a beautiful representation of an American village of 100 years ago. They said it could be valuable as a film location.

This kind of thing is already happening in the Adirondacks:

-In March, a crew filmed actor Paul Giamatti on the streets of Tupper Lake for "Lucky Dog," planned for release next year.

-In September 2011, scenes were shot in Vermontville for "The Place Beyond the Pines," a star-studded drama that's been praised by critics and is set to hit theaters in March.

-Around the same time, British boy band One Direction shot part of a music video in Paul Smiths and on the train between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

-In summer 2010, filming began in Lake Placid for "Dancehall," a version of the village's Lady of the Lake tale. Unfortunately, that project is stalled due to money problems.

-"Recreator," a campy sci-fi thriller, was shot in Tupper Lake in 2009 and released in 2011.

-"Mineville," released in 2010 and featuring William Sadler and Paul Sorvino, was filmed in Essex County.

-"Frozen River" was set and filmed in 2007 just outside the Adirondack Blue Line, along the North Country's U.S.-Canada border. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for two Oscars.

All this prompted a trio of Lake Placid movie types to start Adirondack Mogul, a local production and publishing house, earlier this year. T.J. Brearton, Dave Press and Sunny Rozakis have helped with past film productions in this area, and now they are poised to provide filmmakers with crews, caterers, carpenters and whatever else they need.

"Visually, the Adirondacks has just a lot of stunning vistas, just a lot to offer," Brearton told the Enterprise in September. "Plus, there's just a lot of friendly people that are happy to accommodate. It's pretty simple: There's not a lot of permits; there's not a lot of red tape."

It seems there's money to be made in this locally, especially if the U.S. economy improves, prompting more movie investment.

Therefore, the 12-year-old Lake Placid Film Forum is a gem, primarily because it gets movie industry people up here. That'll help when, down the road, they start talking about locations.

But that isn't how the George Washington Carver filmmakers found Saranac Lake. They were just searching the Internet for laboratories that looked like the one at Tuskegee, which no longer exists. Thankfully, ours came up. We must also be grateful that Historic Saranac Lake did such a good job of restoring it.

The upshot is that one more crew of moviemaking professionals will leave here satisfied. Hopefully they'll spread the good word about our area.

There are other takeaways from this laboratory filming as well. First, it reminds us that Saranac Lake was one of the few places in the country where cutting-edge science was being done in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That's always worth reinforcing, especially with the community now pitching itself as an emerging cluster of biomedical research and biotech manufacturing.

It also prompts us to think about Dr. Trudeau and Mr. Carver as contemporaries, working at the top levels of their respective fields. They sent huge ripples through the world, breaking the barriers of scientists still not sold on germ theory and farmers still wedded to King Cotton.

What's especially exciting about both men is their sense of mission - their zeal to apply their findings directly to help others, not waiting for others to do so.

The boll weevil had decimated the South's cotton fields shortly before Mr. Carver came to Tuskegee. Mr. Carver loaded the fruits of his experimental work onto his "Jesup wagon" (named for a Tuskegee donor) and traveled the countryside, teaching crop rotation and diversification to poor, black farmers who were sometimes still working the land they had worked as slaves. Thanks to him, these people got first dibs on the future of agriculture and a sense that they could improve their prospects. He recommended they grow alternate crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes; meanwhile, he was hard at work in his lab, inventing new uses for those crops and reaching out nationally to promote them. He became famous and used this not to enrich himself but to help his cause, developing crop-based fuels with Henry Ford and successfully pushing for a federal tariff on foreign peanuts.

From the beginning of his career, he had devoted himself to using science and education to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder. He had come from there, having been born into slavery and discriminated against, but he know knowledge could transform people.

Dr. Trudeau was one of many victims of the tuberculosis epidemic that came from New York City pollution. He came to the Adirondacks to die, but he lived, stayed and paid forward the gift of his life by saving countless other people from the disease. He did so as a scientist - learning from and improving on the advances of European biologists - as a physician and as an administrator, starting the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium and becoming this village's first mayor. He established Saranac Lake, which previously wasn't much of anything, as a place of healing, and TB patients flocked here to "take the cure." Unlike the upper-class health resorts in Europe, this place was largely for middle-class patients.

These men were great not just because of what they accomplished but because of why they did it: to help their less-fortunate neighbors. That's a lesson for all of us.



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