A new documentary about Nikola Tesla’s experimental work at Wardenclyffe, his Long Island laboratory that still stands in Shoreham, got its world premiere on Oct. 4 at the Grand Ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, where the visionary inventor spent his last days.
Called Tower to the People, this feature-length film directed by the award-winning filmmaker Joseph Sikorski capped off a night devoted to the great Serbian-American immigrant, which featured a special performance by piano virtuoso Marina Arsenijevic, an Emmy-nominated Serbian-American composer, whose music was used in the documentary’s soundtrack.
Also onstage before the film screening was Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, a nonprofit she and other Long Islanders formed many years ago when the prospect of preserving Tesla’s lab looked like a pipe dream. The property’s owner, Agfa Corp., which had bought Wardenclyffe from Peerless Photo and wound up spending untold millions of dollars cleaning up the contaminated site, was asking $1.6 million—and developers were interested in subdividing it.
But the dream has now become reality, as the film showed the daunting effort the group took to acquire the site, aided in no small measure by Matthew Inman, whose bluntly worded fundraising appeal on his popular website “The Oatmeal,” called “Operation Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum,” helped raise more than a million dollars in a remarkably short time.
Featured in the film are interviews with Inman, celebrity magician Penn Jillette, and author Jack Hitt, to name a few, plus rare images of the inventor and restored photos from the archives of the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, where Wardenclyffe’s blueprints were found. One of the highlights of the evening was the unveiling of a model tower, done to scale, at the back of the ballroom. The original stood 187 feet tall in Shoreham and was visible by people across the Sound in Connecticut.
At Tesla’s peak before World War I, he had the support of J.P. Morgan, who financed the lab that was designed by acclaimed American architect Stanford White. During its construction, Tesla would come out by train from Manhattan to oversee the work, and his lunch would be sent to Wardenclyffe from the Waldorf-Astoria, where Tesla was staying thanks to his close friendship with John Jacob Astor. But as Sikorski movingly chronicled in the film, Tesla’s hopes to supply free electricity wirelessly to the people of the world came to a crashing halt, once Morgan withdrew his support. All Tesla wanted was another $150,000. Instead, he got nothing and later the tower was sold for scrap.
Sikorski and his friends finished Tower to the People on credit cards and a laptop. He’d spent the seed money for the feature film he and his producers have been hoping to complete, called Fragments From Olympus: The Vision of Nikola Tesla, to help the Tesla Science Center reach its goal. Sikorski’s trailer and screenplay for that project have won awards at film festivals.
On premiere night, the show was sold out and the New Yorker Hotel had to cram rows of seats in the back of the ballroom and up on the balcony. In attendance were indie-director Jim Jarmusch and artist Rob Wilson, as well as the consul general of the Republic of Serbia. Sikorski told the Press that Serbia’s biggest newspaper, VESTI Today, made it front-page news.
On Nov. 30 Sikorski will host the Canadian premiere of Tower to the People at a special event in Toronto sponsored by Tesla Magazine.
“As for what’s next, we hope to attract enough attention to attain distribution, specifically broadcast television, and perhaps small theatrical release,” Sikorski told the Press. “At the same time we will focus on getting Fragments funded.”