English-American immigrant David Horsley (1873-1933) was a cinematic pioneer many times over: founder of America’s first independent film studio, founder of the first film studio in Hollywood, one of the founders of Universal Studios, and more. Making all this even more remarkable was the fact that he was partially disabled: he was a one-armed man.
Horsley was from Durham, an English coal mining region. His whole family worked in the mines. That likely would have been his lot if not for a dreadful accident. When Horsley was nine years old a train ran over his hand (he’d fallen onto the tracks), necessitating the amputation of half of his arm.
Two years later, Horsley moved with his family to Bayonne, New Jersey, which he was to make one of the most unlikely film capitals of a most unprecedented era. Entrepreneurial by nature, Horsley amassed capital by running a pool hall and a bicycle business. In 1907, he met Charles Gorman, an actor and screenwriter with Biograph, who became the catalyst for the formation of the Centaur Film Company with David and his brother William. At that earlier stage, motion picture equipment was considered patented by Edison and his associates — they were essentially pirates, which is why Centaur was technically the first “independent” film concern, which sounds quite impressive, though for some perspective recall that they were operating out of a bike shop, processing the film in a bath tub, and improvising movies in New Jersey. Still it was the founding of big things, and among the people who got started at the infant studio at this early stage were future comedy kingpin Al Christie and future western star Francis Ford (whose younger brother was future film director John Ford). In 1910, the studio had a big hit with the Mutt and Jeff comedy series which we wrote about here.
In 1909 started the Nestor Film Company to be the West Coast branch of Centaur. In 1911, Nestor built the first permanent studio facility in Hollywood, and Horsley moved all his operations out there, for the better weather and all sorts of other reasons. Many other movie studios throughout the country followed suit. Essentially Centaur became Nestor.
In 1912, the Horsleys and several other small independent producers (most notably Carl Laemmle of IMP) merged to form Universal. Centaur and Nestor would continue to be brand names used by Universal until 1919 and 1920 respectively.
Meanwhile, in 1913 David Horsley cashed out of Universal and formed David Horsley Productions, which produced films 1916-1919. Perhaps more interestingly, he also bought the famous Bostock menagerie (which had exhibited in Blackpool, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and Dreamland in Coney Island), and built an arena in Hollywood, where he made animal films through the newly established Bostock Jungle Films Company. These enterprises eventually went belly up. Horsley died at the relatively young age of 60. His son, also named David Horsley, became a successful cinematographer and special effects expert.
Meanwhile, William Horsley left Universal in 1916 and started Bill Horsley Laboratories, which morphed into Hollywood Film Enterprises, a successful film developing lab (this had always been in main bailiwick and interest in the film production business).