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June 25, 2013 > Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

By Rena Kiehn

An amazing weekend is in store for film lovers in the Bay Area - twelve hours of cinematic treasures in the historic Fremont district of Niles. The "Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival" is a three day and night spectacle of film, special guests, presentations, and parties running June 28 - 30.

While the films are technically silent, they are accompanied by expressive actors, title cards, and wonderful professional piano accompaniment. Great comedic actors such as Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Chic Sale will be sure to make you laugh out loud with the crowd! Enjoy silent shorts from 1913 made right here in Niles as well as a brand-new production, filmed in 2013!

This year is a double centennial celebration. One hundred years ago, the western division of Chicago-based Essanay film studio set up shop in this once-sleepy hamlet, filming one- and two-reel "Snakeville" comedies and Broncho Billy westerns; superstar Charlie Chaplin was still a couple years away from leaving his mark in Niles. In June of 1913, the Essanay studio building opened its doors on Main Street (now known as Niles Boulevard). Those doors closed by mid-1916 and the building dismantled in the 1930s. However, before closing, 350 movies had been made in less than four years!

The second significant 1913 happening in Niles was the opening of the Edison Theater by the MacRae family in November. Films of the Essanay studio and its competitors were shown seven days a week in this popular theater, one of the first to open in southern Alameda County. Now home of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, there are free tours of the building on Saturdays and Sundays where you can also see movie posters, costumes, and other artifacts of the era; silent films are shown every Saturday night accompanied by live piano (except July 20).

Just this year, a new silent film has been made in Niles. What started out as a 15-minute "wouldn't it be neat to make this film?" turned into a two-reel, half hour "epic" by Niles standards. It features local folk dressed in century-old style clothing, a train robbery, a horse and buggy, a 1908 Cadillac, a real movie star and even a stage coach! David Kiehn, local historian and film projectionist at the silent film museum, was the chief writer and director of the project. Sprague Anderson, a cinematographer who has worked on films with George Roy Hill and the last two "Star Wars" films, co-wrote the script and cranked the 90-year-old movie camera using real 35mm film. The "rough cut" will be shown at the opening and closing programs of the film festival weekend. Originally known as the "The Canyon," the film is now entitled "Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret."

Film Festival Schedule:

Friday, June 28:
5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.: Meet-and-Greet reception at the Fremont Bank building on Niles Boulevard with special musical guest, Janet Klein. Klein is a ukulele chanteuse who has been dishing out obscure, naughty, and lovely tunes from the '20s and '30s since the 1990s.

8 p.m.: "Show People" (1928). Marion Davies plays a hick from Georgia who crashes Hollywood with help from William Haines in this silent comedy. Guest shots from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Elinor Glynn, are a hoot. Bruce Loeb on piano. (Museum members $10, non-members $12)

Saturday, June 29:
11 a.m.: Theater expert and author Gary Lee Parks will present photos and stories about classic and well-known Bay Area movie theaters. (Free)

12:30 p.m.: Screening of "The Adventures of Prince Achmed," a majestic shadow puppet presentation from 1926 along with other animated shorts presented by Professor Russell Merritt, a well-known Bay Area animation historian. Judy Rosenberg on piano. (Museum members $8, non-members $10)

3:30 p.m.: Films made in Niles by the Essanay Studio and one from Hollywood: "The Making of Broncho Billy," "Broncho Billy's Gun-Play," "Broncho Billy and the Sheriff's Kid," "Broncho Billy's Gratefulness," and "The Sheriff's Wife." Films feature our "local heroes" including G. M. Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Fred Church, Evelyn Selbie, Victor Potel, Josephine Rector, Arthur Mackley, and True Boardman. David Drazin on piano. (Museum members $10, non-members $12)

7:30 p.m.: "His Nibs" (1921). Charles "Chic" Sales takes on multiple roles as the characters populating the Slippery Elm Picture Palace, with Colleen Moore as "The Girl." Preceded by "Sophie's Hero" (1913, Niles Essanay) starring Margaret Joslin and Augustus Carney. Jon Mirsalis on piano. (Museum members $10, non-members $12)

Sunday, June 30:
11:30 a.m.: Walking Tour of Niles. Important landmarks will be discussed and stories shared along with little known facts about this interesting district. Meet at the museum and bring your camera. Come dressed western for extra fun! (Free)

1 p.m.: "Stunt Love" (2011, Closer Productions). J. P. McGowan and Helen Holmes are the subjects of this recent documentary about a silent era husband and wife team and their daring exploits. The film will be followed by film clips and a discussion by Robert S. Birchard, author of biographies on Tom Mix and Cecil B. DeMille, and Diana Serra Cary, former child actress known as Baby Peggy, about stunt people and the physical fortitude and maneuvers they mastered. Greg Pane on piano. (Museum members $8, non-members $10)

4 p.m.: Buster Keaton dazzles onscreen as a film projectionist turned detective in "Sherlock, Jr." A reprise of "Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret" and a presentation by historian John Bengtson on the locations where "Sherlock, Jr." was filmed in Southern California will precede the feature. David Drazin on piano. (Museum members $8, non-members $10)

For tickets and more information, visit If you have questions, e-mail or leave a message at (510) 494-1411 (e-mail much preferred).

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival
June 28 - 30
Friday, June 28: beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 29: beginning at 11:00 a.m.
Sunday, June 30: beginning at 11:30 a.m.
Edison Theater and Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont
(510) 494-1411

Tickets: $8 - $12

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