From the archives: Niles celebrates 100th anniversary (2012)

July 18, 2012

Before William S. Hart, Tom Mix or Buck Jones, before Gary Cooper, Harry Carey, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – there was Gilbert M. Anderson – the world’s first cowboy film star.

Broncho Billy

Broncho Billy, photographed in San Francisco

One hundred years ago this April 1st, Anderson – known on the screen as Broncho Billy – stepped off the train in nearby Niles, a historic district now part of Fremont. Anderson had been searching for a Western home for his Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, which was based in Chicago.

Niles, a picturesque hamlet set in a scenic canyon and surrounded by rolling hills, turned out to be the ideal location in which to film Westerns, an increasingly popular genre in the early Teens.

According to David Kiehn, a film historian and one of the founders of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Niles, Essanay was one of the major motion picture studios in the early years of film. Founded in Chicago in 1907, it produced more than 1000 motion pictures, many of which were short one and two reelers.

Some of the actors who appeared in Essanay films include Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman, Bebe Daniels, Thomas Meighan, Harold Lloyd, Eugene Pallette, Edward Arnold, and Rod La Rocque.

Essanay star Anderson, along with a group of actors and cameramen, left Chicago and its wintry weather in 1908. In search of warmer weather and more authentic backgrounds, they headed west, stopping along the way to make cowboy pictures in Colorado and Texas and then California.

Here in the Golden State, the Essanay group shot movies in Santa Monica, Lakeside, Redlands, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Fairfax, and Los Gatos before settling in Niles in 1912.

A studio was built in Niles, and for the next four years, the Western division of Essanay cranked out more than 300 films – mostly Westerns, but also comedies and dramas. Broncho Billy Anderson was their main star – though film greats like Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery and even Charlie Chaplin all worked for Essanay in Niles. One of Chaplin’s great films – and one of the great films of the silent era, The Tramp (1915), was shot in Niles Canyon.

Essanay Film Manufacturing Company

Essanay Film Manufacturing Company

Anderson created “Broncho Billy,” an archetypal screen character – the cowboy with a strong sense of right and wrong. Sometimes he played a sheriff struggling to maintain law and order, sometimes a rancher fighting hardship, an ordinary cowboy roaming the range – and sometimes he was a gambler, or an outlaw.

Whatever the occupation, Anderson infused Broncho Billy with his winning personality, and it led him to become the first Western star.

Anderson was immensely popular in his day, a superstar in contemporary terms. In 1958, Anderson received a honorary Academy Award as a “motion picture pioneer, for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.”

On Saturday, to commemorate the day Anderson came to town as well as Niles’ heyday as a center of film production, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and its volunteer staff will celebrate with a series of public events and ticketed screenings.

The April 1st events include a train ride through the canyon, a procession of individuals in vintage apparel following a small brass band down the sidewalks of Niles Boulevard, and a reading of a proclamation by City officials. Following these public events, the film museum will screen rare documentary films in their historic Edison Theater.

Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company

Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, by David Kiehn

Showtime for the screenings is 2:30 p.m. The documentary material to be screened includes excerpts from a 1958 filmed interview with Anderson; a 1964 KPIX television program,When the Movies Came from Niles, produced by Ray Hubbard and featuring the voices of Anderson and Bill Cato; Geoffrey Bell’s The Movies Go West (1974), featuring Essanay actor Hal Angus; and a 1998 Arkansas Educational Television Network program, Broncho Billy, the First Reel Cowboy, produced by Dale Carpenter and narrated by Hugh O’Brian. (Anderson was born in Little Rock, Arkansas.)

The April 1st events also kick off a three month celebration of Niles’ history which will includes the “pie fight of the century,” film shoots in Niles Canyon, a special Charlie Chaplin Days weekend, and the museum’s annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Blvd. in Fremont. For more information, call (510) 494-1411 or visit the Museum’s website

If you are interested in local film history, be sure and track down a copy of Geoffrey Bell’s The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen. First published in 1984, it is now out-of-print but worth searching for as an overview of local filmmaking in the early years of motion pictures. For Niles enthusiasts, there is David Kiehn’s superb Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company. Copies of this 2003 title are available at the always interesting you-never-what-you-will find Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum gift shop.


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