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March 27, 2012 > Niles - movie town USA

Niles - movie town USA

Submitted By Rena Dein

One hundred years ago, Niles, CA was in many ways a sleepy hamlet but also a bustling town with productive businesses and trains cutting a path through its midsection on their way to the big cities across the country. On April 1st, 1912 a man known worldwide on the silver screen as "Broncho Billy," the very first cowboy movie star, made his way off one of those trains with fifty two of his "players" the cast and crew from Chicago-based Essanay film studio and people who joined this merry band on their travels across the country making one and two reel films.

Before Clint Eastwood, before John Wayne, before Gary Cooper, William S. Hart and Tom Mix, there was Gilbert M. Anderson. Born Max Aronson in 1880, in adulthood he changed his name a few times trying out various show business guises - landing on the one that stuck: Gilbert M. Anderson. By 1910 however, people around the globe knew this film pioneer as Broncho Billy, the western hero!

His move to the West began in 1908. His studio which he opened the year before with George K. Spoor (Essanay is "S & A" the first letters of their last names), was based in Chicago, but he needed lots of sunshine to film short films for nickelodeons. Unfortunately, the cold Chicago weather made it difficult to film outside for several months of the year so he packed up his troupe and tried filming in many locations across the country: Colorado - Denver, Golden and Morrison - El Paso, Texas and finally in California. His company traversed the Golden State: Santa Monica, Lakeside, Redlands, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Fairfax, Los Gatos. Finally, he found the perfect spot for a new studio to make westerns - Niles (now Fremont) California. And there a historical film legacy began.

His Essanay stories of the old west were filmed in the real west, and set the pattern for western movies as we know them today. Anderson and his technicians, actors and real cowboys settled in Niles to take advantage of its scenic canyon. A state-of-the-art studio was built and they made over 300 westerns in four years, as well as many comedies with the likes of Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin.

Anderson created and portrayed a screen cowboy named Broncho Billy, the prototypical good/badman with a strong sense of moral right and wrong. Billy was often an outlaw, but he could also be an honorable sheriff struggling to maintain law and order, a crafty gambler with a sympathetic heart, a poor rancher fighting the hardships of western life, or just a plain old cowboy roaming the range. Whatever his occupation, Anderson infused Broncho Billy with a winning personality, and it made him the first western movie star.

For about four years, Anderson and his Essanay co-workers cranked out a huge number of films in Niles, mostly westerns. They were not high art, but were very entertaining. Anderson became a big movie star due to his "Broncho Billy" character. He became very rich. He bought a legitimate theater, began promoting boxers and was running the Niles baseball team. By 1915 he had hired the biggest movie star of them all - Charlie Chaplin.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the studio was closed in 1916. Chaplin left for more money, so Essanay's cash cow was gone. Anderson had done about all he could do with the "Broncho Billy" character in his films and subsequently only filmed a handful of other motion pictures; his time in the spotlight soon faded. Essanay's management wanted to produce longer films in Chicago, not in California but even that studio closed within two years so Spoor could go onto other projects.

To commemorate the heyday of Niles as a movie capitol, on April 1, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and its volunteer cast and crew will re-enact that very important part of our local history with a steam train ride through the canyon, a procession of people in vintage apparel following a small brass band down the sidewalks of Niles Boulevard to the beautiful plaza for a reading of a proclamation by City officials. Following, documentaries will be projected on the big screen at the Edison Theater about how the movies came from Niles and Broncho Billy, the first "reel" cowboy. Specific details of the day are available at

Special Celebration Movie Show
Showtime: 2:30 p.m.

*The Movies Go West (1974, Geoffrey Bell) featuring Essanay actor Hal Angus
*Broncho Billy, the First Reel Cowboy (1998, Arkansas Educational Television Network) Produced by Dale Carpenter, narrated by Hugh O'Brian
*Excerpts from an interview with Gilbert M. Anderson (1958)
*When the Movies Came from Niles (1964, KPIX)
Produced by Ray Hubbard, featuring the voices of Gilbert M Anderson and Bill Cato

$6 Museum Members / $8 Non-members Tickets are selling fast!
Get them through Paypal or at our box office.
Edison Theater 37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont
Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum tours 12noon - 4 p.m.

Essanay 100 year Anniversary
Sunday, April 1
11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Niles Station, Plaza and Edison Theater, Fremont
(510) 494-1411

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