June 8, 1915: Times cartoonist Edmund Waller “Ted” Gale lampoons Charlie Chaplin at Essanay.
Now a small section of Fremont, California, Niles, California was once the western home of the Essanay Silent Film company. Founded in Chicago by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. (Broncho Billy) Anderson in 1907, Essanay produced comedies and dramas at its 1333-1345 N. Argyle Street studio starring the likes of Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman, Henry Walthall, Max Linder, and Anderson.
Anderson, who had originally played in the 1903 film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, created the character of Broncho Billy, one of the first great western film heroes. He moved part of the company to Southern California in 1912 to film cowboy pictures, traveling to small towns between San Diego and Los Angeles before moving on to Santa Barbara and San Rafael. The company made its way to Niles in April. The small Niles Canyon, with its winding road, small river, and train tracks, offered perfect locations for western chase and rescue scenes.
Essanay built a plant on Niles Boulevard to turn out Broncho Billy films as well as Snakeville Comedies starring the like of Victor Potel, Margaret Joslyn, Harry Todd, and Gus Carney. Anderson bought land near the studio and built bungalows to provide employee housing. Employees such as Ben Turpin, Potel, and cameraman Rollie Totheroh would live in these homes over the years. Totheroh had originally come to town as a player for Essanay’s baseball team, but soon graduated to cameraman.
Essanay lured Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett in 1914 to make films. After shooting a few in Chicago, Chaplin tired of the cold weather and moved his filming to Niles. It was here in 1915 that he filmed THE TRAMP, which further defined his tramp character, as it showed him walking dejectedly into Niles Canyon at the conclusion of the picture. Chaplin’s big salary caused financial headaches for the company, causing Spoor to shut down the Niles branch in 1916, and in 1918, he and Anderson merged their company into George Kleine’s V-L-S-E (Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, Essanay).
Anderson would move to Los Angeles and continue acting until his death in 1971. He won an honorary Academy Award in 1957 “for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.”
By the 1930s, the Essanay plant was torn down. The bungalows remained. Over the years, articles and books contained mentions of Niles and Essanay, but in 2003, David Kiehn published the first true history of the company with his excellent “Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company,” which contains over 200 photos of the studio and its employees.
About the same time, residents had banded together to form a Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, housed in the town’s original 1913 Edison Theatre. They show silent films every Saturday night in the theatre, which also houses a museum dedicated to Essanay. Many original posters, cameras, costumes, and photographs are displayed. An adjacent space houses the excellent museum store. The Museum was featured in a 2010 “60 Minutes” piece on Kiehn’s documentation of the 1906 Mills Brothers film down Market Street in San Francisco, which will be repeated in July. Kiehn and the Museum were also featured in the Google doodle for Chaplin’s birthday in April, which was filmed at the nearby Niles train station and included a small photo of Kiehn on the newspaper.
The last weekend of June, the Museum hosts the Niles Essanay Silent Film Festival. This year’s festival focused on Sennett comedies introduced by author Brent Walker and historian Richard Roberts, a Gloria Swanson film introduced by author Bob Birchard, Helen Holmes and Helen Gardner railroad films introduced by author Larry Telles and Holmes’ granddaughter, and a Baby Peggy feature introduced by the star herself, Diana Sera Cary. Next year’s festival will highlight the company’s arrival in Niles.