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Catching It All

“I went from playing ball, to catching it all … I was the man behind the lens.”  I Shot Broncho Billy, Michael McNevin

Charlie Chaplin with Rollie Totheroh (center) on location in Truckee, California, during filming of "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The entire world is familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin, but only hardcore Chaplin fans know of the man behind the lens, Rollie Totheroh, one of the men most responsible for the Little Tramp’s success. Totheroh, who was born 120 years ago today on November 29, 1890, was a true pioneer in the field of cinematography, and was Chaplin’s principal cameraman for the better part of four decades!

Charlie Chaplin first rose to stardom in 1914 at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. During the year he was at Keystone, Chaplin appeared in 35 films, and went from obscurity to worldwide fame in the process. At the start of 1915, Chaplin went to work for Essanay Studios, which was owned by two men, George K. Spoor and “Broncho” Billy Anderson, one of the first Western stars of silent film. (Their initials, “S and A,” gave their studio its name.) Essanay was based in Chicago, but had a studio in the East Bay area of Northern California, in the town of Niles. Essanay was able to hire Chaplin away from Sennett by giving him a boost in salary to $1250 per week from the $150 per week he was making at Keystone. It was in Niles that Chaplin made such films as The Champion and The Tramp.

Totheroh was a former semi-pro baseball player who had first joined Essanay in 1911 as a “ringer” for the company baseball team. He was quickly put to work acting in some of the four hundred Westerns produced at the studio before moving behind the camera. In those days the work of the cameraman was a grueling one, requiring the steady cranking of the camera with one hand, while focusing the lens with the other. When Chaplin joined Essanay, Totheroh was assigned to be his personal cameraman, and the relationship stuck. They ended up working together until 1952, when Chaplin was exiled from America.

Chaplin was unimpressed with the facilities in Niles and left for greener pastures the following year, taking Totheroh with him. Before leaving Niles, Totheroh got married and had a son named Jack, who in 1915 appeared as a nine-month old female infant in the Broncho Billy film, The Bachelor’s Baby. 92 years later, Jack appeared in the feature, Weekend King. His nine-decade-plus film career is the longest in history, earning Mr. Totheroh a spot in the Guinness Book of Records. Jack is still with us at age 95, living in the Santa Paula area. He and his son David appeared in cameo roles in the 1992 film Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

In Newhall, California, on the weekend of February 5, 2011, Kimi and I will be helping to host the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest to honor the 75th anniversary of the release of his epic silent feature, Modern Times. Chaplin came to the Santa Clarita Valley to capture the last scene of the film nearby. It was the final scene of the entire silent era.

Rollie Totheroh, of course, was behind the lens that day.

Rollie Totheroh's grave in North Hollywood's Vallhalla Cemetery.

For more information about ChaplinFest, check out www.scvchaplinfest.org. You can also friend us on Facebook at “Modern Times” Plaque – Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest.”

BTW, if you would like to hear the phenomenal Michael McNevin perform live, we hope to have him at ChaplinFest. Click here to see a clip of Michael playing Two Feet Ahead of the Train for us in Niles.

“Back to the Future” at 25

The Marty McFly house at 9303 Roslyndale Avenue, Arleta.

I couldn’t just let July slip away without acknowledging the 25th anniversary of the debut of the comedy Back to the Future.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the beloved opening chapter of the time-travel trilogy (and if you’re out there, I would really like to know why that is), the plot follows young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) who accidentally goes back thirty years into the past in a time machine made out of a Delorean. He is aided on his quest to return to the future by his friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), but before he can return he must manuever his parents into a first kiss, or risk never having a future to go back to.

Back to the Future debuted on July 3, 1985. I can’t quite recall why it took me so long, but I didn’t see it until October 26th of that year. I remember the date because in the film, October 26, 1985 is when Marty travels back in time to 1955. It was like I was watching the film in real time.

Back to the Future was filmed in several locations around Southern California, including Universal Studios, Pasadena, Burbank, Whittier, and Puente Hills. I drove by two of the locations today: the Burger King that Marty skateboards past on Victory Boulevard in Burbank, and Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch near my home in Santa Clarita where the Peabody Ranch segment was filmed. 

The street where Doc Brown races his Delorean down (and over) in "Back to the Future."

My family and I visited another of the locations earlier this week in the San Fernando Valley community of Arleta. The house at 9303 Roslyndale Avenue served as the McFly family home. It’s here during the opening minutes of the film where we see the McFly family car being towed away. This is also the place where Marty returns to a transformed house and family at the conclusion of the film. Out front is the tree-lined street where Doc Brown blasts the Delorean off to future sequels.

The setting looks much the same as it did in 1985 – which is what you would expect from a “timeless” classic like Back to the Future.

Finding Amelia Earhart in Southern California

Statue of Amelia Earhart in North Hollywood.

We’ve all heard the story of Amelia Earhart, the great female pilot who set numerous aviation records in the 1920s and 30s who disappeared mysteriously in the South Pacific during a failed attempt to circle the globe. Interest in the famous aviatrix remains high over 70 years after her disappearance, as witnessed by the recent release of the film Amelia, starring Hilary Swank.

While we are still unsure as to her final fate, we do know that when she was on the ground, it was often in Southern California.


Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas and caught the flying bug early while watching an air show in Canada. After relocating to California, she learned to fly at Kinner Field in Long Beach, and was issued the 16th pilot’s license ever given to a woman.

She became the first female passenger to ride in an airplane across the Atlantic in 1928. Although she did no flying on the trip, she still garnered the most acclaim from the world’s press who commented on her physical resemblance to Charles Lindbergh by nicknaming her “Lady Lindy.”  

The trip not only made her famous, but was responsible for bringing Earhart and her future husband George Putnam together. Putnam, who worked for his family’s publishing empire, became her manager and published a book she wrote. They fell in love and were married in February 1931.

Amelia Earhart's home in Toluca Lake. She planned her fateful around-the-world flight under a carob tree in the courtyard.

Putnam later left the publishing business and the couple settled permanently on the West Coast in a house at 10042 Valley Spring Drive in Toluca Lake, near Warner Bros. Studios. Earhart continued to compete in air races and to set numerous distance and altitude records. In May 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, landing in a pasture in Northern Ireland.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart left from Miami with her navigator Fred Noonan on an attempted 29,000-mile trip to circle the globe. The two made numerous stops and had completed the first 22,000 miles of the journey when they left New Guinea aiming for Howland Island in the South Pacific. They never made it.

Several theories have come forward to explain their disappearance, ranging from simply running out of gas and crashing into the ocean, to dying as Japanese prisoners-of-war. Modern science may once-and-for-all settle the mystery of the disappearance of Earhart, who was born 113 years ago this coming Saturday.

New evidence discovered by The International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) suggests that the pair may have actually perished on an uninhabited island 300 miles to the southeast of Howland Island. Researchers are now trying to extract DNA evidence from three pieces of a pocket knife and from what appears to be a broken cosmetics jar discovered on the island to see if they once belonged to the missing flyers.