Thursday, April 5, 2012

Phil attends the 100th Anniversary celebration of Broncho Billy & the Essanay Studios coming to Niles-April 1, 2012

It's hard to believe that it's been 100 years since film history was made in Niles, California! What's that you say? You've never heard of Niles? Well then, before I begin this review, let me rewind time and take you on a brief history ride.

In 1903, a young theatre actor named Gilbert M. Anderson acted in the first movie western called THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Based on the huge success of the film, Anderson went on to appear in several other films for other film companies. A couple of years later he ended up in Chicago where he met George Spoor, a business man who owned several nickelodeon theatres. Soon the two formed a partnership and thus the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was born. The name Essanay is the first letter of the last name of these men: "S" for Spoor and "A" for Anderson. Spoor would make dramas and comedies in Chicago while Anderson traveled out west making westerns. Anderson would act in a film series as the character Broncho Billy, thus becoming the first western superstar. He traveled around making his films while looking for the ideal area to settle down at. He found what he was looking for in the town of Niles, just 36 miles south of San Francisco. With the perfect weather, a town full of real cowboys, and the scenic Niles Canyon, Anderson knew he found his home. So on April 1, 1912, he along with 52 employees arrived in Niles, and thus film history was made. Between 1912-1916, the Essanay studios made over 350 films here at their state of the art movie studio as well as on location throughout the area. For about three months in 1915, it was also the home for an up and coming comedian named Charlie Chaplin. By 1916, there were problems forming between Spoor and Anderson, which resulted with Anderson selling his share of the company to Spoor. In February of that same year, Spoor shut down the western branch of the Essanay Studios. Even though Anderson and his crew were only in Niles for four years, their impact on the film world still resonates, which leads to today's celebration!

Gilbert M. Anderson as Broncho Billy.
There was plenty for silent film fans to do. There was the Sunol Train ride through Niles Canyon (which I highly recommend you do sometime soon because it's a lot of fun!), a cool costume contest, a parade and a big presentation in the town square. But the cool stuff was at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, where they were having a look back on the life of Gilbert Anderson and of the Essanay Studios.

The first thing shown was BRONCHO BILLY, THE FIRST REEL COWBOY, a PBS made documentary made in 1998 for Arkansas Education Television. This half hour doc chronicled the life of Anderson; from his birth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to co-founding the Esssanay Film Company with George Spoor. Also when visiting Pine Bluff, there is a large mural dedicated to its favorite son, so make sure you check it out! Also appearing in the documentary was the museum's own historian David Kiehn. His book BRONCHO BILLY AND THE ESSANAY FILM COMAPNY is required reading for all you silent film buffs so make sure you get one. If you purchase a copy at the museum you can get your copy singed by David himself!

Up next the museum showed about twenty minutes of an interview that Anderson conducted back in the late 1950's. It was for a British television show, which the interview ran for an hour. Now as a film buff, I would love to see the episode in its entirely, but these brief selections were a real treat to see.

Then it was intermission time, but the show continues with:

THE MOVIES GO WEST: a 1974 short film hosted by former Essanay actor Hal Angus, who was well in his 80's when he appeared in the film. Angus took us back in time when movies were still being made in Niles while recalling some great information about not only Anderson, but of the Essanay studios and all the fun they had making these silent film classics. We even got to see the old Essanay barn (their first studio in Niles before the state of the art studio was built) before it was condemned and torn down. The old barn door was saved and now it's part of a museum exhibit somewhere.

The last film shown was WHEN THE MOVIES CAME FROM NILES from 1964. This hour long film was narrated by Bill Cato: a real life cowboy and actor who worked at the Essanay studio and was also Broncho Billy's occasional riding double. We hear Cato recalling how much fun it was making these films for the studio and how mush pride they had making them. We also hear the voice of Anderson as well. All in all, this was an amazing film to see and hope to see it again soon!

Now you might think that the celebration is all over, but guess what? The party isn't over yet folks! Remember the museum is open from 12pm-4pm every Saturday and Sunday. And let's not forget the Saturday night silent film screenings starting at 7:30pm (doors open at 7pm). So if you haven't yet, head on down to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and be part of film history! To learn more about the museum and to view their film schedule, visit their website at

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show!

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