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March 1, 2005 > The Celebration of an Era

The Celebration of an Era

Edison Theater in Niles provides Old-time Entertainment

by Susana Nuñez

In the days of the untamable Broncho Billy and the beloved comedic legend Charlie Chaplin, a night at the movies was much more than a spontaneous outing. The theater experience was an event. Since "movies" were fairly new, the public was entranced by the idea of a story portrayed onscreen, not onstage as in past Vaudeville entertainment. It was an exciting time in cinema. As audiences watched, history's first film stars were born.

Today's movie theaters are nothing like the early days of film and the introduction of "talkies." The light-hearted, slapstick quality of silent comedy is gone as well as the melodramatic intensity of the era's tragedies and love stories...or so we thought. What if there was a place to step into the past and experience early 20th century cinema? Such a place does exist, and it lies deep in the heart of Broncho Billy and Charlie Chaplin's early film locations.

Growing up in the present cinematic age, this young reporter noted the drastic differences between the silent film and today's films on her first visit to the Edison Theater. The first lesson- body language. Exaggerated facial expressions and movements were vital in this era when actors wore their emotions on their sleeves to communicate with the audience. In the 1926 Hal Roach Studios short film, "Be Your Age," starring Charley Chase, we see Charley go from cloud nine to the pits in the twitch of a mustache and the furrow of a brow. I quickly learned that in silent films, there is no such thing as being discreet.

In an era when playing it cool was illustrated by an exaggerated swagger and the swing of a pocket watch, it might be difficult for someone accustomed to today's films to open up to such a different experience. Call them corny or antiquated, these films were the product of creative minds at work. My experience at the newly revamped Edison Theater in Niles is worthy of another trip or two, or more.

Before the audience watched "Be Your Age" and the night's feature film, 1914s "Brute Island" [McVeagh of the Sea], we enjoyed a 1928 Felix the Cat cartoon entitled "Comicalamities." In this classic short, Felix embarks on a mission to help a female cat become beautiful. We watched as Felix borrowed an eraser from his artist creator to erase his female friend's face and draw a new one. He then travels far and wide to find a tulip she daintily wears as a dress with a strand of pearls he seizes after fighting off angry oysters. After presenting her with a fur coat as the finishing touch, his attempt at wooing her is met with a disdainful reply since a woman of her movie-star status would never be seen with the likes of him! Some things never change.

Wihout the efforts of the dedicated group of 10 individuals that make up the board of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, audience members may have never have had the chance to enjoy the charming silent film experience. One of only three silent film theaters in the United States, the Edison Theater operated from 1913 to 1923. Although half of the theater was destroyed in the 1930s, the Essanay group has worked since last March to restore this treasure of film history. Adorned with Charlie Chaplin paintings and displays of original costumes used in past films, visitors are allowed to take a close look into this era.

"We want to be a source of education; we want to give audiences historical information and answer any questions the public may have," said treasurer Karen Cates.
With the 8th Annual Silent Film Festival scheduled for June 24 through 26 and busy Saturdays ahead of them, the board hopes to continue showing films year 'round. Among the films lined up for the future are "The Mark of Zorro" and an All Chaplin Night. The possibility of a Nickelodeon show, which features a mix of live Vaudeville and films, is in the works as well. The silent film experience is one an audience of any age can enjoy, and for a $5 admission, a good time is a guarantee.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
37395 Niles Blvd., Fremont
(510) 494-1411

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