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March 7, 2006 > Silents are golden

Silents are golden

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

by Linda Stone

In April 1912 the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company came to Niles turning it into a major film production center. The studio was headed by Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson who decided to create a new movie studio out West where he and his partner George K. Spoor could film western movies. In this location, productions could use the natural scenery of Niles Canyon instead of painted backdrops of a film company based in Chicago, Ill. The name Essanay was derived from the letters "S" and "A" for Spoor and Anderson.

Upon arrival in Niles, Anderson approached the townsfolk for donations to help raise funds for a studio. He was well received by the excited businesses. A studio consisting of a leased barn on 2nd Street and 10 bungalows on 2nd Street near G Street were built. Filming began in June 1913.

Anderson began his career with Thomas Edison’s film production company and eventually worked his way up to producer and director. He became a legendary screen star playing a cowboy hero making nearly 157 films, mostly shot in Niles. He also made hundreds of shorts at locations throughout the Bay Area, including Marin and Los Gatos. His simple self-effacing style set a tone for generations of movie cowboys. He also wrote, produced, directed and edited most of his films.

During the four years that the studio operated, the small town of Niles was treated to the sight of cowboys swaggering down the main street. Film stars like Wallace Beery Sr., Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Marguerite Clayton and of course Charlie Chaplin with his bowler, mustache and cane, could be seen filming around town and mingling with the locals.

Among the most notable movies shot in Niles is "The Tramp" starring Charlie Chaplin with his bow-legged walk, gentleman’s derby, twirling cane, baggy trousers and oversized shoes. Chaplin had been working with Keystone Movie Company, co-founded by Mack Sennett, but was lured away by Essanay’s Anderson and Spoor who offered him $1,220 per week; other actors at Essanay were making between $50 and $150 a week.

Although Chaplin stayed in Niles for only three months, his legacy has lived on and his image can be seen throughout the town. He made five movies for Essanay until his salary demands became too high and he moved to another film company. As a result 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.

Remnants from the studio remain today. “All ten bungalows built for Essanay cast and crew people still exist in Niles. They are private residences now,” said David Kiehn, author and film historian for Essanay Film Museum. In fact, downtown Niles has remained almost the same as it was during the Essanay era, a little more than five blocks long dotted with hotels, restaurants and bars.

It was the end of an era in Niles, but the beginning of legends that are alive and well within the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

“I was surprised to learn how successful the Essanay studio in Niles was. Even though it operated for only four years, it made a huge impact on the community, bringing recognition to the town, making millions of dollars for the studio, employing over a hundred people (many of whom went on to long careers in Hollywood) and these films were shown all over the world. Charlie Chaplin was an important part of the story, but there was much more to it than him,” said Kiehn.

Essanay Film museum is operated in the original theatre. “The Edison Theater was built in 1913, and was the first one designed and built as such in Washington Township” said Kiehn. “It operated until 1923, when a larger theater was built next door. The bigger theater burnt down in 1959. We are in the original”

In 1998 Charles Reisner, a Hollywood movie director rekindled the idea of making a movie museum in Niles. A group formed and called themselves the Niles Essanay Preservation Committee to ensure that this early era would be recognized for its pioneering contribution to film.

The museum acquires and preserves artifacts and the film history of Niles. They also show silent and early era films each weekend in the Edison Theatre complete with the traditional piano player.

Silent films entertained the world until the coming of sound films in the late 1920s and they are still relevant today- comedies and social commentaries and the like. These films are a distinct art form with their own qualities.

“The museum makes a point of providing live music for all of its silent film programs; music is part of the show, as it was from the start. Usually we have piano accompaniment. We’ve also had piano and violin. Once we had piano, viola, violin and cello, and are planning to do it again.”

Although there are other silent film theatres who show these types of movies like Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the Castro Theater and Balboa Theater both in San Francisco, the Niles Edison Theater is the only place in the U.S. that shows silent movies at least once a week throughout the year.

Audiences from all around the world come to the theater. “We do an informal poll at our Saturday showings. People visiting from Europe, Australia and all over the U. S. have been in our audience. People regularly come from San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose,” said Kiehn who has been interested in silent films since he was 10 years old.

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.

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum includes 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 displays these items for all to enjoy.

You can see the projection room where early films that were basically nitro based bombs that regularly flared up, making projectionist a dangerous job. The original tin lined projection booth features original projection and editing equipment and includes an escape hatch!

“The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is proud of the support it’s received from the community, said Kiehn, “and everyone who visits us seems to be impressed by what they see at the museum. We believe even greater things are in store here in the future, and we look forward to sharing them with the public.”

Kiehn feels that silent comedies are especially fun because some of the best comedians in the world worked in that era, and thinks that it was a medium particularly suited to comedy.

Today Niles celebrates this era with their annual Broncho Billy Festival. This year will be the 9th annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, June 23 through 25.

Every Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. movies are shown in the original Edison Theater featuring 1900 era comedies, westerns, and dramas with actors such as Broncho Billy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix, and many more.

The theater has popcorn, candy, water, sodas, and ice cream for around on dollar. Be sure to save your ticket because its number may be called at the raffle held during intermission where several small prizes are given away.

Below is a listing of this month’s movie program.

Saturday, March 11 with Greg Pane–piano
Short Subject Night
America’s Innocent Yesterdays (1890s)
The Rounders (1914) Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle
The Grocery Clerk (1920) Larry Semon
I Do (1921) Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis
Putting Pants on Philip (1927) Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy

Saturday, March 18 with Judy Rosenberg – piano
Campus Knights (1929) Raymond McKee, Marie Quillan
With shorts: Eats Are West (1925) Felix the Cat
Hogan Out West (1914) Charlie Murray
Gentlemen of Nerve (1914) Charlie Chaplin

Saturday, March 25 with Jon Mirsalis – piano
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
37417 Niles Blvd, Fremont
(510) 494-1411 (leave message)
Suggested donation: $5

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