Tag Archives: essanay studios

Yesterday in Niles

We turned off Mission Boulevard, passed under a train bridge, rounded a corner – and went a century back in time.

That’s what it feels like going to Niles.

Niles is a 4,000-person small town, completely enveloped by the quarter-million residents of Fremont in Northern California’s East Bay.

The town appears to be hermetically-sealed in a 1910s-era time bubble, with its main street fronted by a row of antique stores that bring out droves of bargain-hunters every weekend.

We only intended to stay long enough to say a quick hello to our good friend Michael McNevin, who is a Niles resident and its chief cheerleader. He is also the greatest musician you’ve never heard of.

We met up for breakfast at “The Nile,” which is decorated in an interesting mixture of ancient Egypt and old railroad town, where we sat in chairs named “Stinky,” “Fuzz,” and “Sweet Lips.”

Down the street from the restaurant a newly-restored train station rests alongside the final stretch of the transcontinental railroad. The day before, the station was seen by millions of online browsers, who saw a short film that was made there by Google to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s birthday.

It was an appropriate place to honor the great silent film comedian, because Chaplin made a handful of films in Niles in 1915. Although he didn’t particularly like Niles – this is still Charlie’s town.

We discovered Niles a few years ago, thanks to our love of silent films.

Almost a century ago, two men, George Spoor, (the moneyman), and “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the first silent cowboy star), got together and created Essanay Studios in Niles (named after S & A, their initials). They signed the papers that created the studio near where Stinky, Fuzz, and Sweet Lips sit today.

Niles was the place where Chaplin went to make movies (as well as a lot more money), after spending his first year in films at Hollywood’s Keystone Studios.

We had intended to depart after breakfast, but Niles has a way of diverting you in the nicest possible way, by the nicest people. Before we could leave town, Michael hooked us up with some complementary tickets on the Niles Canyon Railway which runs along the creek in the scenic canyon between Niles and the tiny village of Sunol. Just because.

During our 15-minute stop at Sunol, we walked across the street to a saloon called Bosco’s Bones and Brew, which was named after a dog who was legally elected mayor a few years ago.

We didn’t have time to sit for a beer, but the female bartender – showing Northern-California coolness – filled us a sample for free by setting a glass under a life-sized model of the late pooch and lifting his hind leg.

We rode the train back to Niles, spent a couple of hours browsing through the antique shops, and dropped in on the Essanay Museum to say hello to some friends who we hadn’t seen since they attended our ChaplinFest in February.

We again tried to leave town, but at 7 PM we found ourselves listening to Michael and his friend Patrick McClellan play a concert. Instead of headlining Madison Square Garden, where musicians of their talent should be featured, they performed at Michael’s Mudpuddle Music Shop on Main Street, where the walls are covered with Etch-a-sketch art which Michael creates as visual representations of his story songs.

The 225 square-feet of floor space was packed with wine-swigging friends. We sat by the door, which was a spot where Chaplin once stood for a picture in 1915. All the while, Clancy, the beautiful black lab who is Michael’s constant companion, moved from person-to-person, staying until the love played out, then proceeding on to the next round of pets and scratches.

The main act for the evening was a pair of enormously talented folk singers from Texas named Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. We explained to them ahead of time that we would probably have to leave early, as we had a long drive ahead of us.

After their first song, we were hooked, and at our pre-determined time of departure we were powerless to pull ourselves away and ended up staying for the entire two-hour show.

Nearly nine hours after we planned to motor on down the road, we finally left Niles behind. As we headed for the freeway, we passed the spot in Niles Canyon where Chaplin walked off into the sunset at the conclusion of The Tramp, ending his stay in Niles.

Unlike Chaplin, we love Niles, and will be back.

And once again, we’ll undoubtedly stay longer than we plan to.

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The First Cowboy Star

He wasn’t from the West and he couldn’t ride a horse, but this didn’t stop Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson from becoming cinema’s first western cowboy hero.

Anderson, born Max Aronson, entered the world on this date in 1880. He was born to a Jewish family in Arkansas and had he been a more successful cotton broker, would most likely have remained there. Instead, he migrated to New York where he became a contract player for Vitagraph Studios.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter cast Anderson in his landmark 11-minute western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally meant to play one of the robbers, having lied his way into a tryout by claiming that he was “born in the saddle.” But after falling off his horse he was given other duties, playing three non-riding roles in the film. One of these parts was as a passenger who gets shot in the back, making Anderson one of the very first cinematic murder victims.

The phenomenal success of The Great Train Robbery spurred Anderson to learn to ride and to create his own western films. (The film would launch other cinematic careers as well: the Warner brothers started their empire by exhibiting the The Great Train Robbery throughout mining camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

He partnered with moneyman George Spoor to create Essanay Studios, which was named from the “S and A” initials of Spoor and Anderson. Essanay set up shop in Chicago, but Anderson took a production team to California to shoot westerns based around a character named Broncho Billy that he had read about in a magazine. Anderson would star in over 375 Broncho Billy films between 1908 and 1915, making him the first cowboy western star.

In 1912, Anderson set up his own branch of Essanay in the East Bay town of Niles, California (today a district of Fremont). Essanay cranked out hundreds of westerns and Snakeville comedies there over the next few years.

Anderson was able to pull off a coup in 1914 when he hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone Studios to make films for Essanay in Chicago and Niles. The arrangement only lasted a year, and was an unpleasant one for all the parties concerned, especially Spoor, who bristled at Chaplin’s eye-bulging salary of $1250 per week.

In spite of this, Chaplin was able to make his first true classic in Niles called The Tramp, wherein his already established little tramp character was seen as more sympathetic and less frenetic than from his earlier Keystone films.

When Chaplin left Essanay for greener pastures, he took the fortunes of the studio with him. Soon afterwards, the Niles studio was boarded up, and Anderson sold his remaining interest in the company as well as his Broncho Billy character to Spoor.

Anderson produced films for the next 40 years and was awarded a special Academy Award in 1957 honoring his work as a motion picture pioneer.

Broncho Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero who began his career without knowing how to ride a horse, died in 1971.

(In case you’re wondering, Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980) wasn’t based on Anderson, although Burt Reynolds’s character in Nickelodeon (1976) does share some similarities with Broncho Billy.)

 


From Niles to Newhallywood

The ending of "The Tramp" in 1915.

At the conclusion of the Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp (1915), Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, heartbroken after losing the girl, shuffles off alone down a winding dirt road.

The situation was much different twenty-one years later in the final scene from Modern Times when Chaplin retired the iconic character.

Charlie Chaplin was an English music hall performer in his early twenties when discovered by Mack Sennett and brought to Hollywood to star in the “flickers.” During his first year in the business in 1914, Chaplin made 35 films at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale, and rose from complete obscurity to become the most recognized man in the world.

Chaplin was only earning $175 per week at Keystone and got lured away to Essanay Studios the following year with the offer of a 700% raise (to $1250 per week) plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

Essanay Studios was named after the initials “S & A” of its two main partners, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was based in Chicago but Broncho Billy, who was one of early cinema’s first cowboy stars, later came west to set up a second facility in the town of Niles, California to shoot Westerns.

After signing with Essanay, Chaplin first filmed in Chicago before coming to Niles. He wasn’t impressed with the town when he got there. The East Bay village was far too rural for the young man who had only ever lived in the big cities of London and Los Angeles.

Chaplin would only stay in Niles long enough to make a handful of films, but one of them, The Tramp, is today considered to be his first masterpiece.

In the film, Charlie stars in the role of his “little tramp” character, which he had created for Keystone. Sennett’s frenetic filming schedule had prevented him from developing the character fully, relying mostly on slapstick to get a laugh. At Essanay, Chaplin was able to add pathos to the character, making him more sympathetic.

At the end of The Tramp, Chaplin has been rejected by his lady (played by Edna Purviance) and walks off through the Niles Canyon alone. Dejected at first, he then shrugs his shoulders, picks up his pace, and hustles off in search of his next adventure.

When Chaplin decided to retire the character at the end of Modern Times in 1936, he came to the Santa Clarita Valley, which was known to early filmmakers as Newhallywood. In Modern Times, Chaplin paid homage to the final scene of The Tramp with a twist. He again walks off, but this time the road is straight and paved, and most importantly … he’s got his girl at his side. The Little Tramp’s days of facing the world alone have ended.

Chaplin and his works will be honored at the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest on February 4 and 5 in Newhall, California, with films, lectures, book signings, and the dedication of a monument honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times.

Some citizens of Niles will be on-hand to represent their town that day, including musician Michael McNevin.

The Little Tramp and his girl at the conclusion of "Modern Times" (1936).

To learn more about ChaplinFest, click here.

To learn more about Niles, click here.


The Tramp’s Lady

Chaplin's favorite leading lady, Edna Purviance.

In 1915, when Charlie Chaplin went searching for a leading lady to co-star in his film A Night Out, he reviewed all the available actresses he could find in San Francisco but couldn’t settle on one.

A colleague at Essanay Studios in nearby Niles, California, where Chaplin was filming at the time, told him about an uncommonly pretty girl he had seen in a café in the city. After tracking her down, Chaplin found that his colleague was correct. He later wrote that the woman he discovered was “more than pretty. She was beautiful.”

The woman was Edna Purviance, a 20-year-old who had recently moved to San Francisco from her native Nevada. She was working as a stenographer and had no prior acting experience. In spite of this, Chaplin chose to put her on-screen where he felt her presence would prove “decorative.”

More than simply eye-candy, Purviance proved to possess impeccable comic timing, and would become Chaplin’s leading lady on-screen and off for the next eight years. They would make a handful of films together in Niles over the next year before the pair headed to Hollywood where they made another 30 films together.

By 1923, Purviance’s relationship with Chaplin had cooled and Edna had become a steady drinker. She began gaining weight which made her look matronly, ending her status as a leading lady.

The final nail on the coffin of her film career was hammered that same year when she was involved in a Hollywood scandal involving Mabel Normand, another former Chaplin co-star. The two were attending a New Year’s Eve party in the company of a rich oilman when the millionaire’s chauffeur shot his employer with a gun. Although the women were never charged, the scandal made the two unemployable.

After her retirement from the screen, Purviance met and married Jack Squire, an airline pilot, and lived happily with him until his death in 1945.

Purviance would live for another 13 years, dying from cancer during this week in 1958 at age 62.

Chaplin and Purviance remained close throughout her life, and as a show of gratitude to his favorite leading lady, he kept her on his studio’s payroll until her death.

We will be showing the Chaplin-Purviance film The Pilgrim at ChaplinFest in Newhall on February 5, 2011.


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.