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Post-“Modern Times”

As you may have noticed, “Deadwrite’s Dailies” has been something of a misnomer of late.

I’ve not taken a dirt nap or anything, it’s just that the summer got crazy busy. During the last couple of months, I got deluged finishing up my second book (with co-writer Marc Wanamaker), co-hosting a new local television show, as well as leading tours and teaching classes on film history in the Santa Clarita Valley. On top of it all, Kimi and I started back on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank doing “real jobs.”

That being said, I found myself with a day off today and wanted to use the time to say “hello” and to congratulate everyone for being alive to celebrate the palindromic date of 11/02/2011.

Today, I would like to update everyone on our efforts to memorialize the spot of the final scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” This article was originally posted on August 30, 2010.


Seventy-five years ago today, the Silent Era ended.

The ending came with little fanfare on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce, California. The only people on-site to witness the finale were the stars and crew of the film Modern Times, who were there to film the iconic final scene.

Silent films had been on life-support for nearly a decade by the time that Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest of the Silent Era clowns, chose to make Modern Times – a film about the dehumanizing effects of big business on workers. Sound first appeared in a Hollywood feature in 1926’s Don Juan, which had a backing orchestra and sound effects synced to the film. Talkies debuted a year later with The Jazz Singer, and the days of the silent film were officially numbered.

The change was a traumatic one for Hollywood, and hundreds of careers ended abruptly. Chaplin had built a tremendously successful career with a pantomime character called The Little Tramp and was in no hurry to have him talk. By 1935, he was the last person in Hollywood with the resources to ignore the transition to sound, but he realized the time had at last come to have the character speak.

Modern Times is a transitional film in that almost all of the dialogue is silent, yet there are occasional spoken voices and sound effects. The Little Tramp remains silent for most of the film, but when it comes time for him to talk, Chaplin actually has him sing.

On August 30, 1935, when the cast and crew shot the final scene where Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard walk off into the sunset, (figuratively at least, the scene was set at dawn) they must have sensed they were at the end of an era; it was unlikely that even the great Charlie Chaplin could pull off another silent film. What remained to be seen was whether or not the Little Tramp character would continue.

The answer was no. Chaplin felt the magic of the character disappeared once his voice was heard and chose to retire him.

(A similar character did appear in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, but the Tramp was transformed into a European Jewish barber for this film. After that, the character never again appeared on screen.)

Modern Times was Chaplin’s biggest gamble and turned out to be one of his greatest successes. Recently, the American Film Institute voted it onto its top 100 American Films list at #81.

I am currently working with Los Angeles County and Santa Clarita city officials to erect a commemorative plaque at the site of the final scene next February to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the film’s release.

Stay tuned for updates on our progress!


THIS JUST IN: In February 2011 Kimi and I helped create and host the first annual ChaplinFest in Newhall, California. During that festival, Tippi Hedren and Leonard Maltin helped us unveil a beautiful black marble monument commemorating the final scene of “Modern Times.” The monument was created by the wonderful couple of Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, California. These kind and patient people believed so strongly in our project that they created the monument for us without asking for a dime up front. I am very happy to report that after several months of fundraising, the Sotelos are now paid in full! We thank everyone who contributed to this worthy cause. (We will still need to raise funds for the base and other associated costs.)

The next phase of the project calls for us to get the monument placed at the site of the final scene (which looks much the same today as it did in 1935). We are hoping to place it during the week of August 30, 2012, the 77th anniversary of the filming of the scene. We’ll keep you in the loop on how our plans progress.

BLEEP-less – How I learned to stop worrying and love GOLIATH

Every time I look out my bedroom window, I see the gracefully twisting metal tracks of Six Flags Magic Mountain ten miles across the valley.

I wanted to go to the theme park in Valencia, California since I saw it in the film KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park when I was in high school. As a proud lieutenant in the KISS Army at the time, stationed in faraway corn-country Indiana, I wanted to be where Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter once strutted. (I liked the film then, but seeing it again late at night a few years later furthered me along the path of becoming an ex-KISS fan.)

I used to be fairly fearless getting on amusement park rides. Nothing the ride creators ever came up with seemed to overly impress me, and I would exit the latest superlative-laced thrill ride thinking “is that the best you’ve got?”

But something happened about a decade ago when I went on GOLIATH at Magic Mountain. I got scared. I mean REALLY scared.

That first drop did me damage – not physically (I hope) – but psychologically. It reminded me immediately of what I had learned two decades earlier during a dare-induced single skydive session and then somehow forgot – I really don’t like to fall.

GOLIATH’s towering first drop of 255’ at 85 miles per hour (at that time the highest and fastest in the world) cured me of my previous love of thrill rides. I swore I would never ride it again. And I never did. Had been, had done.

That was years before moving to our current home with the unobstructed view of GOLIATH.

If I’m guilty of avoiding certain things, it’s usually because of disinterest or lack of time, rarely out of fear. GOLIATH was an exception. Normally it wouldn’t have mattered much, but because of our location, every trip to the back yard forced me to face my steel-tracked demon head on. It was like being deathly afraid of spiders yet being forced to camp out on the set of Arachnophobia.

So, how exactly did I find myself strapped into the second car of the GOLIATH ride last weekend?

My stepson worked the past few months selling concessions at the park. He had to put in his notice to attend camp this summer, so before he lost his free access, he took me to Magic Mountain for a day of pseudo-pop/stepson bonding.

I decided the first thing I would do entering the park would be to man up and ride GOLIATH, knowing that if I failed to face the towering orange dragon right away, its proximity would cast an ominous shadow over our whole day.

So there we were.

The line was mercifully short (which was both good and bad). Ahead of us, a little girl who was celebrating her sixth birthday got on smiling ear-to-ear. That only made me feel worse.

I was doing okay until the bar came down. I experienced what I can only call a mini-panic attack and tried to get someone’s attention to let me off. But it was too late. That train had (literally) left the station and we were soon chugging up the incline to the top of the first hill. The HILL.

Actually, the real reason he took me was to get the pleasure of hearing me scream like a little girl. I didn’t disappoint. When we topped the incline and began our gravity-induced fall to earth, I screamed like an entire kindergarten of little girls.

But I lived. I almost hyperventilated, but I lived. And you know what? I loved it! (Enough to ride it a second time at the end of our incredible day.)

My day at Magic Mountain reminded me of something that I know intellectually, but sometimes fail to practice – that our fears will inevitably grow to irrational proportions if not dealt with directly.

I also learned from the way I involuntarily behaved at the start of the ride that I would never act nobly if I were ever lined up in front of a firing squad.

Not only would I demand a blindfold, but also a large sedative as a last meal.

(Six Flags Magic Mountain just celebrated its 40th anniversary over the Memorial Day weekend. At the end of this month Green Lantern will debut, giving the park its 18th roller coaster, more coasters than anywhere else on earth.)

The Tor Tour (Revisited)

(I originally published this last Halloween, but since today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Tor Johnson, I thought I would dust it off and present it again.)

A “tor” is an ancient word meaning “a large pile of rocks.”

6’4” 400-pound Swedish-born actor Tor Johnson (1903 – May 12, 1971) was a man who looked like he’d been carved out of a large pile of rocks. Johnson became a Z-film fan favorite in Ed Wood “classics” like Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Johnson was born Tor Johansson in Sweden on October 19, 1903, just three days before the birth of Curly Howard, another famous screen personality with a shaved head. He was barnstorming the wrestling circuit as “The Super-Swedish Angel” when he first got the attention of Hollywood in 1933 in bit roles where he usually appeared as a wrestler or circus strongman.

Johnson’s acting resume didn’t always elicit giggles. He shared the screen with several of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Eddie Cantor, Abbott & Costello, and W.C. Fields. He was featured in several A-List productions, including Shadow of the Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton, State of the Union with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Road To Rio with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour.

But it was an appearance in a no-budget production for which Johnson is best remembered. In 1959, Johnson played a zombie, alongside Bela Lugosi and Vampira, in cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s magnum-opus of schlock, Plan Nine From Outer Space – a film widely regarded as the worst ever made (It isn’t. That distinction goes to another of Tor’s films, The Beast of Yucca Flats.)

Since Halloween is coming up in a few days, and Tor’s face was the model for one of the biggest-selling Halloween masks of all time, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief tour of some of Tor’s old “haunts.”

Plan Nine From Outer Space

The interiors for Plan Nine were filmed in a warehouse in Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard just east of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Tor’s home, at 15129 Lakeside Street in the San Fernando Valley city of Sylmar, was used as Bela Lugosi’s house in the film. Also found in Sylmar is the San Fernando Pioneer Cemetery where Lugosi, now as a vampire-zombie, comes back to life.

The Beast of Yucca Flats

This film was made in the Santa Clarita Valley before the Los Angeles metropolitan area had discovered it. It is hard to know for sure, but it looks to have been filmed near the Mystery Mesa area off of Vasquez Canyon Road in Canyon Country.

Eternal Valley Cemetery

Tor was laid to rest in plot 177 of Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery after his death in 1971. His stone reads, “Beloved Husband, Father and Grandfather.” This was true. Johnson was said to be a kind man whose “gentle giant” nature contrasted sharply to the monsters he played on film.

It seems this pile of rocks hid a heart of pure gold.

The Restaurant at the End of Los Angeles, Part Two

Finding familiar things in unfamiliar places can sometimes be a bit unsettling. I was reminded of this a few years ago when my wife and I were watching television in our hotel room outside the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. We were packing our bags for a day-hike when an image of the Halfway House Café, a restaurant we frequent only a couple of miles from our Canyon Country home, appeared on the screen.

We certainly didn’t need to travel to the Yucatan Peninsula to see the restaurant on the tube. For the past several decades it has appeared in literally dozens of films and television episodes shown all over the world. So many, in fact, that even a casual film or TV fan would be hard-pressed not to have glimpsed it on screen.

Yesterday I listed some of the most famous movie and television appearances the café has made over the years. It has also been featured in several well known commercials, music videos, and photo shoots.

A famous 1991 Pepsi commercial featuring Cindy Crawford stepping out of a red Lamborghini wearing a white tank top and denim cut-offs was filmed here. It was later voted by a group of advertising judges appointed by Forbes Magazine to be the “steamiest television ad of all time.” She returned a couple of years later, this time in an SUV with her two sons inside, to film a Diet Pepsi commercial that poked fun at the previous one. (An autographed photo of Crawford, along with a Pepsi can, graces one wall.)

Steamier still were photo spreads done here for Carmen Electra, as well as for the recently-deceased Farrah Fawcett, who posed inside for a Playboy layout.

During the past couple of years, commercials for Suzuki, Miller Lite, and American Express have been made here.

“They brought the director here all the way from Brazil to make an American Express commercial that was only shown in Europe,” laughs owner Bob Lima, who was also originally from Brazil.

The staff of Halfway, many of whom have been working here for years, each has a favorite movie star encounter.

“Jack Black was the best,” says Moore. “He brought his own masseuse who ended up giving all of the waitresses a massage.”

“Cindy Crawford was great too,” adds Lima.

Sometimes they even get into the act.

We once saw a former waitresses on screen serving John Goodman meatloaf during a scene for an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The restaurant is open seven days a week, which is about as often as you can find it on television.

Even in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Restaurant at the End of Los Angeles, Part One

Earlier this week, my wife Kimi and I led a large group from Orange County on a day-long tour of the filming sites around the Santa Clarita Valley (something we’ll be doing again later this month for Cowboy Festival).

Along the way, we showed off famous filming spots like Vasquez Rocks where literally thousands of Westerns hit the screen, several film ranches, the homes of William S. Hart and Harry Carey, and the Charlie Chaplin Modern Times sites I’ve written about in the past.

For lunch we stopped at the Halfway House Cafe.

As the coach pulled up to the restaurant, I watched the recognizable signs of déjà vu appear on the faces of the tourists. They couldn’t quite place exactly when or where, but in their minds they had been to this spot dozens of times before.

“I absolutely love this place, and so do a lot of producers. I actually turn down a lot of filming requests because there are so many,” says owner Bob Lima.

Until recently, Lima, whose number must be on speed-dial for every location scout in Hollywood, would actually close the restaurant for one day a week to accommodate the large volume of filming requests. Since then, he keeps the restaurant open seven days a week and now only closes for special films. Occasionally, filming still takes place after the business day is over.

Just a sampling of recent television shows that have used the café include Heroes, Melrose Place, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Numbers, CSI, ER, Angel, Hyperion Bay, The King of Queens, Sons of Anarchy, Diagnosis Murder, and Monk.

On the big screen, Halfway has appeared in Space Cowboys, Spartan, Lost In America, Georgia Rule, Heartbreak Ridge, All About Steve, and Every Which Way But Loose.

It was here that Kerri Russell made pies in the 2007 film Waitress, and this was also the place where Tim Robbins tells Jack Black how to steal the magic pick in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.

The restaurant has seen a steady stream of stars pass through its doors over the years. Gene Autry is thought to have been the first filmmaker to use the setting in the 1930s.

It is also rumored to have been featured in a couple of episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone in the 1950s (A segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie was also filmed here). Clint Eastwood, Helen Hunt, Andy Griffith, Eddie Murphy, Val Kilmer, Lindsay Lohan, and Sandra Bullock are among the more recent stars to film here.

Halfway House Café is probably the most unassuming movie star in the entire thirty-mile zone. The café, which got its name from being situated halfway between Los Angeles and Palmdale, first got its start as a trading post in 1906 and has been a restaurant off-and-on since 1931.

In 1993 it closed after being damaged in a flood. Lima purchased the property a year later, and after a major cleanup, opened it again in 1995. It has been in continuous operation ever since.

Halfway House’s menu of hearty meat-and-potatoes-type fare makes the restaurant as popular with its customers as it is with filmmakers.

“We have customers who are over seventy-years-old who first came here when they were fifteen,” says Lima. “Sometimes I get in trouble with them when I have to close the restaurant to let the film guys in,” he adds.

The restaurant’s location continues to draw a steady stream of filmmakers who need a rustic southwestern rural “biker bar” setting that is close to Hollywood. The café is located at 15564 Sierra Highway, a couple of sparsely-populated miles north of the Santa Clarita city limits.

“This is where the city basically ends. After that, there isn’t much until you reach Palmdale,” says Sally Moore, who has managed the restaurant since 1999.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area has no official northern boundary, but if it did, this would be the place.

(We’ll continue our visit to Halfway House tomorrow.)

Wanted Dead or Alive: Tiburcio Vasquez, Part Two

The Santa Clarita Valley had all the color of the early west – the cowboys, Indians, range wars, gunfights, oil wildcatters, gold panners, as well as the saloons, temperance leagues, stagecoaches, cattle, railroads, earthquakes, and floods. It also had its share of bad guys, including the legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez.

Today we showcase the second and final part of the story of Vasquez, as told by Dr. Alan Pollack, the President of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.


By April, 1874, Vasquez emerged from his hideouts to take up residence at the Rancho La Brea home of Georgias Caralambo, better known as Greek George, a former driver for Edward Beale’s camel corps in the 1850’s. Modern historians think that the ranch was located in present-day West Hollywood, near the intersection of Fountain Avenue and Kings Road.

It was here that Vasquez’s penchant for women ended his outlawing days.

After one final robbery at the Repetto Ranch in May, 1874 in modern-day Monterey Park, Vasquez was chased by a sheriff’s posse up the Arroyo Seco into the San Gabriel Mountains. He crossed over the mountains and possibly camped out again at Vasquez Rocks before returning through Lyon’s Station to the ranch of Greek George.

Vasquez made the fatal error of remaining at Greek George’s ranch to continue a liaison with a señorita after his friends had urged him to flee to Mexico. Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse had gotten word of his whereabouts and relayed the information to Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland. On May 13, Rowland sent a posse led by Under-Sheriff Albert Johnson to capture Vasquez at Greek George’s ranch.

The posse hid out and observed the ranch from Nichol’s Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. The next day, they apprehended a wagon driven by two Mexicans and forced them to drive to the house occupied by Vasquez. They surrounded the house just as a woman opened the door and shouted a warning to him. The ever wily Vasquez leaped out a kitchen window but was shot several times by posse members and was finally captured. He was brought to a Los Angeles jail where he spent the next nine days. He was an instant celebrity, with throngs of reporters and women clamoring to see him.

Vasquez was charged with the murder of Leander Davidson at Tres Pinos and was brought to San Jose to stand trial. Vasquez denied ever killing anyone, but his testimony was contrary to that of eyewitnesses from Tres Pinos and his own gang member Abdon Leiva (possibly in retaliation for the affair Vasquez had with his wife).

His celebrity status continued in San Jose, especially among the Spanish population who treated him as a hero. The trial took place in January, 1875, and Vasquez was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

As would be the fates of Jesse James and Billy the Kid after him, Tiburcio Vasquez met his untimely end on March 19, 1875, when he was hanged in San Jose.

His final word was reported to be “pronto.

(You won’t find any bandits at Vasquez Rocks these days, but you may run across the occasional bug-eyed monster.)

Wanted Dead or Alive: Tiburcio Vasquez, Part One

One of the things that I love most about the Santa Clarita Valley is its double-layered Old West heritage – double-layered because it was not only the place where the events most associated with the Old West took place, but where those same happenings were later portrayed to the rest of the world in thousands of westerns shot since the beginning of cinema.

One of the sites in the valley seen in hundreds of westerns and science fiction films over the years is Vasquez Rocks, named after the outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, who was said to have used its other-worldly landscape as a hideout.

The first part of the story of Vasquez, who met his end at the bottom of a hangman’s rope during this week in 1875, is today told by the President of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, Dr. Alan Pollack.


While he never gained the same level of fame during the 1870s as bad guys Jesse James and Billy the Kid, California had its own legendary outlaw during the same era in Tiburcio Vasquez.

Vasquez was born in 1835 and grew up during California’s romantic Spanish Rancho period, and like most Mexican Californios, felt that his culture was being increasingly marginalized by the rapid influx of Americans from the East during and after the California Gold Rush.

Vasquez began his life of crime after being accused of stabbing and murdering Monterey County Constable William Hardmount during a fandango in 1854. In the early days of his career he stole cattle and horses, and robbed freight wagons and stagecoaches before spending most of the 1860’s in and out of San Quentin prison, from which he was finally released in 1870.

Vasquez was just getting started.

In August, 1873, Vasquez led a gang of eight men into Tres Pinos, (modern day Paicines, south of Hollister, California) taking over the town and killing three men in the process. After Tres Pinos, Vasquez became a most-wanted outlaw with a posse chasing him all over the state.

Vasquez had a fatal flaw which eventually ended his career … he was a womanizer.

After Tres Pinos, he had fled to a ranch at Lake Elizabeth near the Antelope Valley. There he had a tryst with the wife of Abdon Leiva, one of his own gang members. After Leiva caught the illicit couple together, he angrily quit the gang and turned himself in to William Jenkins, who brought him down to Lyon’s Station in Newhall and turned him over to Los Angeles officers. Leiva would eventually testify against Vasquez at his murder trial in San Jose.

Vasquez committed another infamous robbery, sacking the town of Kingston in Fresno County in December, 1873. The following month, California Governor Newton Booth offered an award for the capture of Vasquez to the tune of $2000 dead, or $3000 alive (the amounts were subsequently increased to $6000 and $8000).

During the next few months, Vasquez would elude capture as he was chased by Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland and Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse. He robbed a stagecoach at the Coyote Holes stage station on the road between the Cerro Gordo silver mines in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. He then headed south, eventually ending up in Soledad Canyon where he hid out in a strange geologic formation that today bears his name – Vasquez Rocks.

Tomorrow, Alan will complete the story of Tiburcio Vasquez’s criminal career.

Remembering Buster

Forty-five years ago today, the laughter was silenced.

I’ve been writing a lot about Charlie Chaplin lately since my wife Kimi and I are helping host ChaplinFest, which begins on Friday evening in Newhall, California.

But today, I would like to focus our attention on Buster Keaton, another of the silent era’s comedic titans, who was a friend and rival of Chaplin.

Porkpie topped, stone-faced Keaton was a master of physical comedy, technical innovation, and the use of visual effects in his films.

Born Joseph Keaton into a vaudeville family in 1895, young Buster claimed to have gotten his nickname from magician Harry Houdini who was part of the troupe.

Buster entered his parents’ act at the age of three, and remained a performer for the rest of his life. Despite having only one day of formal education, he had the mind of a mechanical engineer, and possessed a lifelong fascination with machines.

Buster made his film debut in 1917 with his friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York, and later claimed to have taken the movie camera apart on the set that day, learning how films were created. He would use his new knowledge in later films to create innovative visual effects.

Before long, Keaton had his own studio in Hollywood (which he acquired from its former occupant, Charlie Chaplin). During the 1920s, Keaton was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, ranking alongside Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in terms of popularity. He made several silent masterpieces during the decade, including 1927’s Civil War comedy The General (which just happens to be my all-time favorite film).

Chaplin and Keaton had a great deal of respect for each other, and Keaton actually appeared in Chaplin’s film Limelight in 1952.

And like Chaplin, Keaton also filmed around Newhall.

In 1921, Keaton made a film called The Paleface, where he escaped from Indians across a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall. Beale’s Cut was a 90-foot man-made slit carved though a mountain which aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until bypassed in 1910. Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 to film a scene in Seven Chances.

ChaplinFest will be held at the William S. Hart Regional Park in Newhall, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star. Ironically, William S. Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party.

In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years

Keaton has an additional area tie as well – his mother Myra is buried nearby in Glen Haven Cemetery in a canyon just north of Sylmar. (This cemetery is also the final resting place of Anne Cornwall, who played Buster’s girlfriend in his 1927 film College.)

Buster is buried in Burbank’s Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery just steps away from the grave of Stan Laurel, another former Chaplin friend and rival.

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.

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.