When you hear the name "Broncho Billy" around here, a lot of people think of the parlors that bear the name. So who is Broncho Billy? (And yes, it was originally spelled with an "h.") He's actually a fictional character played by Gilbert M. Anderson, who starred in a series of 148 silent Western movies that were shot just down the road in Niles, now a district of Fremont.
Anderson is also the “A” in “S and A,” for Spoor and Anderson, founders of Chicago’s Essanay Studios, which opened its western studio in the little hillside town next door to Union City in 1907, reports historian and author David Kiehn (Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company) on the Niles Film Museum website.
While George Kirke Spoor, the “S,” stayed in Chicago and ran the company like a factory, Anderson traveled the western United States by train with a film crew. The Western Pacific Railroad route through Niles Canyon was perfect for filming Westerns. Anderson also wrote, produced, directed and edited most of his films.
The iconic Charlie Chaplin, made 14 short comedies for Essanay in 1915, at both the Chicago and Niles studios. He also did a cameo appearance in one of the Broncho Billy westerns. According to the official Chaplin website, Chaplin came to Essanay for the "unprecedented salary" of $1,250 per week, plus a $10,000 signing bonus. Before that, the average film cost $800 to make and brought in as much as $15,000. Chaplin films produced $125,000 in revenue – big bucks for 1915.
The Edison Theatre that survives in Niles is a “working person's” movie theater, as David Kiehn described it at a Saturday night show my wife and I attended. It was not built in the more splendid Art Deco style that became popular at the beginning of the Jazz Age. It's rather plain, as you will see if you go to the show. You might want to take your own cushions for the wooden folding seats.
This coming Saturday, March 26, the feature film is a comedy, The Hottentot (1922, Thos. H. Ince Corp.) starring Douglas MacLean and Madge Bellamy. IMDB lists it as a story of mistaken identity and horse racing. Also on the bill are two shorts: the slapstick comedy A Safe Investment (1915, Vitagraph), starring Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, and Bad Boy (1925, Hal Roach), starring comedian Charley Chase. Jon Mirsalis provides the music on a Kurzweil keyboard.
Tickets are $5 at the door and $5.50 online. See the Niles Film Museum website for details.
Saturday night movies begin at 7 p.m.
Just so you know—when you go to a silent movie, it isn’t silent. Someone plays piano during the films, expertly matching the music to the action. At the Edison Theatre, those players include Judy Rosenberg, Fredrick Hodges and Greg Pane.
When you think about technology, perspective tends to get lost. When you go to the Edison Theatre and watch a silent movie produced nearly a century ago—and see it just as theatre goers did when film technology was brand new—the missing perspective returns with all of its original appeal and emotion. That’s entertainment.