Fr. Kenneth Hunter welcomes viewers to the opening night of the Philo Vance film series at GOHS with a showing of “The Green Murder Case” from 1921. The film features William Powell (of ‘The Thin Man’ fame) during a turning point in his career, as Philo Vance. The film was also the first detective movie to feature audio dialogue as pictures moved away from the silent film era. Paul Jensen, right, a retired professor, was on hand to give a little background on Powell’s career before the start of the film. After reading an article in a Hometown Oneonta article about the local house owned by S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance, Fr. Hunter felt inspired to create the film series to introduce more locals to this famous local author. The next film will be Tuesday, Oct 22, followed by third Oct 29.(Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – This fall, the forgotten detective will come home.
“We’re setting up a Philo Vance film series,” said Rev. Kenneth Hunter, rector, St. James Episcopal Church, who found many Philo Vance films are available on amazon.com.
A three-film series, each with a speaker and a talk-back following the film are planned Tuesday evenings, Oct. 15, 22 and 29.
It’s an extension of a movie group, “Tea and Murder,” he hosts every Wednesday at the church, where viewers have an English tea and watch a classic detective film. “They’re nice, polite murders,” he said. “Miss Marple, Poirot, Nero Wolfe – and then someone mentioned S.S. Van Dyne. I didn’t know the name, but when I looked him up, I said, ‘That’s Philo Vance’!”
As S.S. Van Dyne, Willard Huntington Wright – one of Oneonta’s Huntingtons – may have written the first Philo Vance novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” in the home of his maiden aunts, Bertha and Julia Wright, at 31 River St., while on a two-year recovery from a cocaine addiction.
The River Street birthplace of detective Philo Vance may still be saved.
On Monday, June 10, Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, went through the 31 River St. home where William Huntington Wright – aka S.S. Van Dyne – wrote parts of his debut novel, “A Man of Promise.” Later, while recovering from a cocaine addiction, is believed to have written his first detective novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” a best-seller and the first of a dozen novels featuring dandy detective Philo Vance.
The house, owned by his maiden aunts Bertha and Julia Wright, was sold to the Salvation Army earlier this spring for $90,000. The original intent was to demolish it for a parking lot and, eventually, a new building for expanded programming, including the food pantry.
But when word of the home’s literary history got to Brzozowski, he began researching ways to save it. He arranged a tour with the Salvation Army, who took him around the grounds and through the house.
“Right away, we noticed that the entire house was dry, even though the weekend had been very rainy,” said Brzozowski. “Though obviously, there are other issues.”
At some point, the residence was chopped into apartments, but strangely. “There are two kitchens right beside each other,” said Brzozowski. “There’s one living space on the first floor and two on the second.”
Though no furniture was left, Brzozowski did find some “knick-knacks,” including a 1966 newspaper, a WWII-era canvas pouch in a tin box in the basement and a couple of “really interesting lamps.”
“There could have been stuff there that belonged to the Wright family, but it would be hard to detect,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that the cupola, where legend had it that Wright did all of his writing, wasn’t big enough to accommodate the writer – or anyone.
“It’s maybe three feet from floor to ceiling,” he said. “It’s not like a room. He couldn’t even sit in here.”
There is, however, a garret on the second floor south side of the house. “I could imagine a writer working in there.”
ONEONTA – Hidden behind a row of overgrown trees on River Street is a literary legacy.
As S.S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), wrote 12 novels starring dandy detective Philo Vance – and Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, believes that they were written here.
“We know his novel ‘The Man of Promise’ (196) was partially written in the cupola of 31 River Street,” said Brzozowski. “It’s set in Greenwood, which is based on Oneonta. H.L. Mencken called it ‘the Great American Novel’. We believe he wrote some of the Vance novels here as well.”
The heritage will remain, but the house, neglected for year, is about to succumb to the ravages of time.
The Salvation Army, whose local operation is growing, bought the property in March, first to build a parking lot, then expanding its building.
“We need more room,” said Maj. Sharon Harford, the veteran commander who is retiring at the end of May. “We want to expand our food pantry, and the city is looking to us to create a warming station for the homeless when the temperature drops.”