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May 28, 2013 > Hollywood in Fremont

Hollywood in Fremont

By Jessica Noel Flohr

One hundred years ago, Hollywood came to Niles by way of Chicago. George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson traveled west to California from Illinois in search of the ideal location for their production group, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. In June of 1913, production began on the first movie to be filmed in the new Niles studio. Eighteen months later, the Essanay Film Company found a gem when a young, up-and-coming actor joined their team - Charles Spencer Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin became one of the most memorable figures of Essanay's studios, and memorabilia of his days spent in Niles can be seen all over the historic district.

Chaplin was born in 1889 in London, England. He had a difficult childhood and was often left to care for his mentally ill mother. He lived in poverty and went twice to a workhouse as a young child. His parents were entertainers, so it's no wonder that Chaplin chose the entertainment industry as his own career path. At the age of 14, he left behind formal schooling for the theatre. By the age of 23, he was on his way to becoming a world-famous entertainer.

A tour with a vaudeville group brought Chaplin to America. The New York Motion Picture Company (NYMPC) caught wind of Chaplin's performances and thought he would do well on film. He signed on with Keystone Studios, owned by NYMPC, in 1913. At the end of 1914, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company lured Chaplin away with a much higher salary than he earned with Keystone. He made one film at the Chicago based studio before transferring to their Niles location.

In 1915, Chaplin's fame skyrocketed. He had developed a unique character, the Tramp, epitomized by baggy pants, big shoes, a tight coat, a small bowler hat and a tiny mustache. This "bumbling vagrant" was the star of many silent films throughout the early 1900s. Chaplin clung to the silent film format long after films with sound eclipsed the older style.

As Chaplin grew in fame, his desire for a more lucrative salary grew as well. He wanted $10,000 per week as well as a $150,000 signing bonus. Essanay declined and Chaplin moved on. The loss of Chaplin and competition from film companies making full-length films made it hard for the company to make a profit. In February 1916, the Niles studio was shut down.

The former Essanay studio has since become the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Each summer, the museum remembers Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy, the two men who brought Hollywood to Niles. This June, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Niles Main Street Association are hosting a two-day celebration "Charlie Chaplin Days." One and two reel shorts filmed in Niles in 1915 will be shown on both Saturday and Sunday with tickets available for a suggested donation of 50 cents. A silent film screening of "Shoulder Arms" with piano accompaniment will be held Saturday night only with tickets available for a suggested donation of $5. Tickets can be purchased in advance through the museum's website. Chaplin fans can compete in a look-alike contest Sunday afternoon with a chance to win a prize, and attendees can enjoy penny carnival games and art exhibits featuring Chaplin at the Fremont Art Association Gallery and throughout Niles.

For more information call (510) 494-1411 or visit

Charlie Chaplin Days
Saturday and Sunday, June 1 and 2
11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Downtown Niles, Fremont
(510) 494-1411
Tickets: 50 cents - $5

Film Schedule (both days):
11:30 a.m.: "A Night Out"
12:30 p.m.: "The Champion"
1:15 p.m.: "In the Park"
1:30 p.m.: "The Movies Go West" Documentary
2:30 p.m.: "A Jitney Elopement"
3:30 p.m.: "The Tramp"

Saturday, June 1 only:
4 p.m.: "When the Movies Came from Niles" Documentary
7:30 p.m.: "Shoulder Arms" with shorts "Making a Living," "A Night at the Show," and "Easy Street"

Sunday, June 2 only:
2 p.m.: Look-alike Contest

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