Today is the birthday of Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (Maxwell Henry Aronson, 1880-1971). Raised in Arkansas and St. Louis he moved to New York City in 1898 to try his luck in vaudeville.
Five years later he was prominently cast in Edwin S. Porter’s seminal film The Great Train Robbery. Bit by the bug, he began writing, directing, producing and starring in his own westerns, becoming America’s first western star.
In 1907 he partnered with George Spoor to found Essanay Studios (“S” for Spoor; “A” for Anderson), which released not only Broncho Billy westerns, but some of America’s earliest comedies, many of them well pre-dating Mack Sennett’s Keystone.
Ben Turpin was already making comedies for Essanay within months of its founding.
Augustus Carney started at the studio at 1910, first in the Hank and Lank series, then becoming America’s first full blown native comedy phenomenon Alkali Ike in the “Snakeville” series of comedy westerns.
In 1915, Essanay scored its hugest coup when they hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone. Today it is what the studio is best known for. Chaplin remained with the studio for a year before moving on to Mutual. Other early comedy stars for Essanay included Gloria Swanson (who made her debut in a Chaplin comedy) and her husband Wallace Beery, who starred as “Sweedie” in a series of drag comedies as a Swedish maid!
In 1916, Anderson cashed in his share of Esssanay and tried producing plays on Broadway for 3 years. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to film producing with a series of Stan Laurel comedies. (One of these, A Lucky Dog was the picture on which Laurel first met and acted with Oliver Hardy, although the pair wouldn’t form a team or even work together again until seven years later). Anderson’s Laurel series was no bonanza either, so, at age 40 he retired. This retirement was to last another 50 years.
For more on the history of silent and slapstick fiilms don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. And to learn more history about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.