November 9, 2004 > Niles Residents of 1983 Remember the Silent Movie Days
Niles Residents of 1983 Remember the Silent Movie Days
Residents of Niles during the reign of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company between 1912 and 1916 recalled a variety of experiences with the actors and their activities. These memories may not all be accurate, but they certainly are interesting.
Tom Elliot shod the 27 head of horses owned by the Essanay company. He averaged a horse a day. There was a team of buckskins that led the stage and another two that pulled the buckboard. Tom repaired the buggy that would get broken sometimes in the staged runaways. He also helped build the Essanay cottages on Second Street. The first pictures were all filmed outdoors; the first stage was a platform outside Johnnie Oliver's barn. The stage carpenters brought out scenes as they were needed. The company also filmed up the canyon and neighboring hillsides both north and south of Niles Canyon.
One favorite story was that of the film company asking to use a private home for a chase scene. The owners agreed and went outside. Charlie Chaplin was supposed to chase an actor in the front door and come out the back. He dashed in all right but he did not sneak out the back as expected. They went in to see what had happened. There was Charlie Chaplin and the other actor busy eating the owner's lunch!
The Essanay crew paid one mother five dollars to use her wicker baby buggy. Whether the baby was in it we don't know. They did pay neighborhood kids a dollar each to walk behind. Other kids said they were paid with a box of candy. Tony Costa remembers schoolchildren being paid as extras, lining up at Darrow's Ice Cream Parlor afterwards to be paid in ice cream cones.
One woman watched the crew film a scene where handsome Bill Cato, Broncho Billy Anderson's second and a prize-winning horse wrangler, rides up the stairs of a two story courthouse and appears to go inside. The whole scene was staged with a false front. Another resident watched Anderson drive a wagon up and over a train track. A while later, a train came by and they filmed that also. When the scene appeared on the screen, it looked as if the train barely missed Anderson's wagon. Acting had its real dangers even in silent films. One time the stage turned over and the team ran away. One actor jumped off a wagon to fall into the creek, but missed the water and hit the hard ground instead.
Soldier Elder dropped and broke a borrowed Havilland china serving platter at the Elliot home. It was replaced, but they could not get one with the gold edge to match the set. Leo White and an English fellow slept in the Elliott tank house which had been made into a guesthouse after the 1906 earthquake, when housing was at a premium. One of the cameramen photographed a backyard because it had an interesting looking cellar door. The owners did not explain it was their underground wine cellar.
The town baker, Pete Verzic, recalled that he made pies for the studio. They wanted pies that would stick so berry and custard pies were favored to throw at Snakeville slapstick comedians Ben Turpin, Victor Potel and Slim Summerville. Many folks recalled the horseshoe prints at the ramped entrance to the double doors of the Essanay Studio. A writer noted in 1953 that the "set of horseshoe prints were the only visible relic of Essanay." Another writer reported that Charlie Chaplin used to ride over to the depot on a white burro painted with spots and entertain passengers. Another recalled that she liked to watch Chaplin get wet and the struggle to comb his hair.
People liked Ben Turpin and his famous crossed eyes. The kids claimed he had a cross-eyed dog and even a car with crossed headlights. One man remembered Ben Turpin tying a horse up at the rail and entering a saloon. Another story, or perhaps tall tale, had a teamster driving a wagon down the canyon when a mob of cowboys sprang from the brush in a burst of gunfire and leaped from their horses onto the train. The passengers were horrified as no one told them it was just a movie. One lady said she used to watch Texas George train his big gray horse in the yard. He trained him to stand and balance on his hind legs. She often saw Ben Turpin because he helped with the church benefits. She also watched the Essanay Indians at their baseball games and knew the players.
Ida Moise recalled the Essanay photographers took pictures at their school, then facing School Street; as well as at Oliver's barn, Old Town, the railroad and the staged robbery scenes. There were horses and buggies all over the place. Dances were held in the studio. Ben Turpin often came over to her family's house. She recalled an actor being in the house and shooting her mother's lamp. Anna Brogg remembered playing with Margaret Todd, whose mother was Margaret Joslin Todd. Mrs. Brogg did laundry for some of the actors and the Brogg children delivered the clean washing. Leon Solon, the first motorcycle cop, often had occasion to talk to Wallace Beery about speeding and raising a great dust with his powerful Mercer auto. Beery once paid his bail with ten twenty dollar gold pieces.
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company left Niles in 1916. The town survived the loss of the pioneer movie industry, but the company was certainly missed. Residents agreed that Niles was a quieter and less exciting place after the actors, actresses, cowboys and cameras moved south. Some of Niles young women had married members of the crew. A couple of Niles men had become part of the company and some of them left as well. It is not documented where the horses went. Certainly the town missed the effects of the payroll, and the children missed the delight and fear of cowboys dashing down Main Street.