The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

I fulfilled a long-standing ambition a few days ago (September 27-29) by making a pilgrimage to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, in Niles, California (we blogged about the town itself separately here). The occasion was the Harry Langdon Film Festival, but rest assured the Museum is worth a trip in and of itself for the silent film buff. Therefore we’ll do this post in two parts: this one, and then one specifically devoted to the Langdon festival.

Niles Essanay facilities back in the day. Some of the bungalows in back, used for artist and crew quarters, are still extant

For those in the dark about Niles and the Museum: in the nineteen-teens, the little California hamlet was home to west coast movie facilities for Essanay Studios. The studio was a partnership of George Spoor and Broncho Billy Anderson. Spoor remained for the most part at the home base in Chicago, while Broncho Billy was the hands-on boss in Niles, making films starring himself, as well as the likes of Alkali Ike (Augustus Carney) and the rest of the Snakeville cast, Ben Turpin, and Charlie Chaplin. So, for some of us, it is a mecca of sorts.

Site of the original studio, today the location of the town fire station

During my stay at Niles, I was treated like a king by all the representatives of the museum, in particular board president and founding member Dorothy Bradley, who generously shared her home with me for three days (a farmhouse with a citrus grove out back!), scholar/projectionist/author David Kiehn (who met me at the train, oriented me to the town in impressive detail, and wasted no time demonstrating his vintage machines), Rena Azevedo Kiehn (the public relations czar of the museum, and the one I’ve known longest, by way of social media), and Sam Gill, former archivist at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, current archivist at Niles, and co-author, with Kalton C. Lahue, of Clown Princes and Court Jesters, a seminal book to those in my geeky line, a premier text that helped found a whole new area of pop culture scholarship. Needless to say (among some of you) I was starstruck to meet Sam, though he couldn’t have been more down-to-earth. And I loved the rest of them immediately, too. But these are people who love the same things I do — it’s a pretty firm basis for immediate friendship.

As for Kiehn, his importance not just to Niles but to scholarship in general rapidly became apparent as he and Rena (his wife, the p.r. point person, and not surprisingly the most outgoing person at the place by at at least one order of magnitude) showed me around the museum and the town. In 2010, David was prominently featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes after he discovered that a film by the Miles Brothers called A Trip Down Market Street had been shot about a week prior to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, making it a valuable record of how the city looked just days before it was destroyed. Kiehn is also the author of the 2003 book Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, which I am now halfway through, and which has improved my understanding immensely. And in 2015, he directed a two reel silent film, on authentic period equipment, using only period techniques. It is called Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secret. The cast includes no less a personage than the actual Baby Peggy (96 or so at the time of shooting).

Kiehn is like a kid in a candy store — if he got to work at a candy store:

This is how they shoot silent film titles:

Early color camera!

Other gadgets:

A Mutoscope, of course! There’s one at Coney Island USA but it plays an elephant getting electrocuted, which isn’t for everybody.

Trunk of the actor Harry Todd:

Some Ben Turpin love:

Given how much I love Chaplin, and how much Chaplin STUFF there is around the museum, it’s odd that I only took a picture of this one example, which was hanging in the bathroom:

They have an excellent bookstore! I know because they carry my book Chain of Fools!

Here are some sets from Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secret, located on their “back lot” which is also their parking lot:

The Edison Theatre, where I would be spending very much time indeed over the course of the Harry Langdon Film Festival.

And then the Kiehns showed me this neat mural at their house, which I’m afraid I had to chop up, because I’m a dolt. A real guy would have panned a short video, but anyway here are sections:

And look! Like Harold Bissonette in It’s a Gift — an orange ranch!

Okay, now onto the Harry Langdon Film Festival.