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March 2, 2004 > Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

In 1912, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson walked along the business district in Niles introducing himself and requested donations for a new movie studio. He found a warm reception and gathered $100 from excited businesses. On a Monday morning, the first day of April of 1912, the population of Niles increased by fifty-two when members of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company arrived by train. During the ensuing four glorious years (1912 - 1916), movie magic reigned in the small town of Niles. Cowboys swaggered down the main street and chased each other through Niles Canyon. Broncho Billy and other cowboys rode to glory and a funny man named Chaplin, with bowler, mustache and cane walked the streets and the canyon under the gaze of bulky movie cameras. The town of Niles glittered with "stars" such as Wallace Beery Sr., Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Marguerite Clayton and other well recognized actors and actresses as well as those behind the camera such as Rollie Totheroh, who became Charlie Chaplin's personal cameraman for over 30 years!

Decades later, at the 1998 Broncho Billy Festival in Niles celebrating the first western movie star, an idea was rekindled that had surfaced intermittently since 1952 (and probably earlier). Hollywood movie director, Charles Reisner suggested a movie museum in Niles. He recalled his early days as an assistant to Charlie Chaplin on a movie called, "The Kid" and the beautiful area that nurtured early silent films and great film personalities. A group, calling themselves the "Niles Essanay Preservation Committee," decided to act. Initially under the auspices of the Niles Main Street Association, and now independent, they concurred that Niles should take its rightful place as an important nursery of film making and home to film pioneers.

Chicago based Essanay Studios, owned by George K. Spoor ("S") and Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson ("A") derived its name from the combination of the owners last name initials. Chicago was not ideal for year round film making and Anderson searched for and found an ideal location to film westerns in the small town (population 1400) of Niles at the head of picturesque Niles Canyon. In 1912, Niles became home to Essanay Film Manufacturing Company but not without the initial test of its residents recounted at the beginning of this article (at approximately the same time, the first movie studio was setting up in Hollywood). The economic boost to the town was obvious to Billy Moore, a saloon owner; August May, president of Niles State Bank; and Luther Rood, editor of the Township Register. But, how would the general population of Niles feel about this? With a lease offer in hand for a barn on 2nd Street to be used as a studio, Anderson made his fateful walk and the result was a date with destiny for Niles.

Bungalows were built along Second Street near "G" and studio construction began early in 1913. By June, the main building was erected and ready for filming. On June 11, 1913, director Lloyd Ingraham (an actor, turned director who subsequently directed such notables as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford) inaugurated the studio with its first production. Other structures followed including a glass-enclosed interior stage, blacksmith shop and a western street exterior set. Each week, at least two fifteen-minute "one reelers" were produced in Niles - 105 "Snakeville" comedies and approximately 140 of the Broncho Billy films. Five Charlie Chaplin films were also produced in Niles.

Overshadowed by Hollywood, memories of the early days of film in Niles have been threatened with extinction. Cinephiles might remember Chaplin in "The Tramp," Broncho Billy westerns and Snakeville comedies, but would they know where these gems were filmed? This was the dilemma faced by the initial museum board composed of Dorothy Bradley, President; Irene Vincent-Perez, Vice President; Bruce Cates, Secretary; Karen Cates, Treasurer; David Kiehn, Historian; Larry Telles, Newsletter Editor and David Hislop, Board Member. Approaching the seventh annual Broncho Billy Film Festival in June, with support from the community and the acquisition of one of the original Essanay cottages at 37374 Second Street in Niles, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Inc. (NESFM) is on its way to realizing the dream of a building to house early film artifacts.

Bruce Cates emphasizes that it is important to "preserve the real history of what happened in Niles. I met David (Kiehn) seven years ago and he was searching for information and entertaining the idea of writing a book about Essanay (Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company has now been published). Dorothy comments that David Kiehn's book "has been extremely well received in major silent film history circles. Niles importance in film history is its place in the "beginnings of an art form" according to Bruce Cates and Dorothy adds that "Essanay was a major studio in its day. There are many wonderful films from the 1910 - 1920 era that are just as relevant today as they were in those days - comedies, social commentaries, etc. These can be a lot of fun and give a lot of enjoyment."

David comments, "I think of Niles as a place or location that Broncho Billy Anderson recognized in 1912 - he filmed in Colorado, Southern California and Northern California for several years before he came to Niles. When he came to Niles, he immediately knew this was the perfect place - the one he had been looking for since 1908. It was a location that captured his imagination and I think there is still a lot of that today." Dorothy and Bruce agree that much of the canyon has remained "pretty much unchanged." David says that the town of Niles was pretty interesting in the days of Essanay and still retains a bit of that aura in the present.

"Broncho Billy was the most popular person in the world in his day," says Bruce and even then, according to Dorothy, there were "merchandising spinoffs." This was the beginning of commercial film success. Essanay closed the Niles studio when Charlie Chaplin decided to move to another film company and Anderson sold his shares of Essanay to Spoor who then decided to abandon the location. On February 16, 1916, a telegram was sent to the Niles Essanay studio ordering the doors to be closed. It was the end of an era in Niles, but the beginnings of legends that are alive and well with the Niles Esssanay Silent Film Museum.

Everyone is welcome to join the celebration of the Niles / Hollywood connection and membership in the film museum is one way to keep in touch. A quarterly newsletter, filled with fascinating facts and information of coming events is just one benefit. Not only are cash donations welcome, but volunteers are needed too - even piano players who want to learn to accompany the silent films!! Plans are ambitious, but with this group, it is easy to bet on the outcome. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will include a reference center to document the history, preserve artifacts of the silent film era and take an active role in teaching and promoting the glory of silent films. It has already collected vintage posters, costumes, films and photographs and wants to display these items for all to enjoy. Monthly movie screenings are scheduled (see below), but the group dreams of the day when a permanent theater, showing movies with musical accompaniment, will be an everyday event.

Some exciting developments are about to be revealed by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum group (a bit premature at time of this issue of TCV). If you want to be part of the action, join the film museum and help Niles reclaim its silent film glory! For more information, visit or call Dorothy Bradley at (510) 796-1940. Memberships are as little as $10 for seniors and students and $25 for individuals.

The following events are scheduled to introduce or reacquaint people with the fun and wonder of the glory days of Essanay in Niles.

Niles Hall
37270 Niles Blvd., Fremont
2 p.m. - 4 p.m.

Sunday, March 14

The Toll Gate with Wm. S. Hart (1920)
The Dumb Bell with Snub Pollard (1922)

Sunday, April 4

Tillie's Punctured Romance with Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler & Mabel Normand directed by Max Sennett (1914)
Moonshine with Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle & Buster Keaton (1918)

June 18 - 20
Brocho Billy film Festival
Time & Place TBD

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