By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin November 1, 2009 at 5:12AM
As long as I’ve been attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival I’ve been promising myself to visit the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum...and this year I finally got there. It’s an easy drive over the Bay Bridge to Fremont, California and the charming village of Niles, which looks much as it did when G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson discovered it in the teens and decided to build a studio there. Dedicated volunteers have restored the theater on Niles Boulevard that once showed silent films and turned it into a wonderful museum, filled with evocative memorabilia and early filmmaking equipment. It’s also a working theater where silent films are screened every Saturday, and tour groups are welcomed.
The day I visited the museum, along with some friends, a fourth grade class had just been shown Charlie Chaplin’s The Champion (1915). Not only did they respond to the scrappy, funny film, but they expressed a proper sense of wonder that a palm tree visible in one scene was still growing right across the street, and a corner of the studio was still identifiable outside. My friends and I were given a—
—“backstage” tour as well and marveled at the original 1913 projection booth, which looks remarkably intact, even though it has been upgraded for fire codes and structural soundness. The community of Niles is quite charming overall and well worth a visit. There are many antique shops to browse and several dining establishments that proudly herald their past; next time I go there I’m definitely trying Bronco Billy’s Pizza! To learn more about the Museum, and support it by joining its membership roster, go to www.nilesfilmmuseum.org or telephone 510-494-1411. Sincere thanks to Dorothy Bradley, David Kiehn, Sprague Anderson, my old friend Sam Gill, and everyone who made our trip to Niles so enjoyable.
Here’s the way the Niles Studio looked when Bronco Billy constructed it in 1912; it was only a working studio until 1916, but a lot of history was made during those years, especially when Charlie Chaplin arrived on the scene. The building structure is gone but the perimeter is easily defined as you walk around; in fact, a new fire house has been built on one corner. Other surrounding landmarks remain remarkably intact after more than ninety years.
This hillside marker has been replaced several times over the years, but it proudly proclaims Niles as a community all its own, even though its mailing address is the larger city of Fremont. Niles is nestled between two railroad lines—one now run as a hobby by train enthusiasts, with a Sunday run to Sunol and back—so it never could expand beyond a certain point.
Unlike most nickelodeon theaters, the one on Niles Boulevard had a long entryway lobby, which now welcomes visitors to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and offers a generous sampling of books, DVDs, and memorabilia for sale.
Here is the theater itself, where silent films, including locally-produced Essanay reels, are screened every Sunday, usually in 35mm prints with live piano accompaniment. Oscar-winning sound artist Ben Burtt recently performed live sound effects accompaniment for a showing of Wings, while Frederick Hodges performed the score.
A three-sheet poster of Essanay’s co-founder Bronco Billy Anderson looks down at today’s attendees from the theater wall.
A handful of original seats from the Nickelodeon are used for display purposes and feature props that remind visitors of the famous people who once worked in Niles.
Here is the projection booth, equipped with modern machinery but surrounded by history.
And here is a vintage projector that still works. Niles historian David Kiehn told me he’s actually hand-cranked films for his audiences from time to time. Talk about authenticity!
Here is some of the housing that Bronco Billy Anderson constructed for his workers and actors. This entire block dates back to that period when Essanay set down roots in Niles.
This small but charming house, just steps away from the museum, was where Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady Edna Purviance lived when she worked at Niles in 1915. Just imagine!
It isn’t crystal clear, but that’s Edna and Charlie in a group of Essanay folks standing in front of that very house in Niles Boulevard.
And here’s the pièce de resistance: a short drive into Niles Canyon brings you to this historic spot where Charlie Chaplin shuffled away from the camera for the poignant finale of his Essanay two-reeler The Tramp in 1915. The road is paved now, and cars whiz by, but it’s readily identifiable—and incalculably exciting to behold for any Chaplin fan. This, to me, is hallowed ground.