Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jason celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Broncho Billy coming to Niles

Well, there were a lot of other festivities--a train ride, costumes, a presentation in the town square, but I spent the time working in the Niles Essanay Film Museum. For those who don't know the story...come to the museum sometime. Better yet, come to the museum and buy the book our historian/projectionist David Kiehn wrote (even get it autographed by him!) But the short, short version is Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson (born Max Aronson) and George Spoor formed the Essanay (S and A, for their initials) film manufacturing company in Chicago in 1908. They found success with westerns, but Chicago wasn't a good place to shoot those, so while Spoor stayed behind and ran the Chicago studio and the business side of things, Anderson took a crew and traveled all over the west for a few years making movies. In 1912 the company had grown to 52 people, and they settled in their "permanent" west coast home in Niles, CA (they left 4 years later in 1916.) Specifically, they came to town on April 1st, 1912--100 years ago last Sunday. And so Niles had a big party.

The one part of it I got to enjoy (other than working at the museum) was seeing a series of documentaries made about Broncho Billy and Niles. They all tell pretty much the same story, which is very familiar to me. But they all have their own charm.

First up was BRONCHO BILLY, THE FIRST REEL COWBOY made in 1998 for Arkansas Education Television. Broncho Billy was actually born in Arkansas, either in Pine Bluff or Little Rock (he himself was inconsistent about this) and even though his family moved away when he was 3, there's still some local pride in him. They even have a mural of him in Pine Bluff. Finally, I have a reason to visit Arkansas...hooray?

Then we saw excerpts from a 1958 interview with Gilbert Anderson himself. That year he was honored with an honorary Oscar for his pioneering work. Sadly, television audiences didn't get to see that because the show ran long and his award was cut from the broadcast. But it was cool to see him alive and getting his due. And come to think of it, it was cool to hear him for my first time!

Then we took a little intermission, and back for two more movies.

First, THE MOVIES GO WEST (1974) is a short piece that again goes over the same history. The treat here is seeing Essanay actor Hal Angus, then well in his 80's, reminiscing about the time in Niles. Also, seeing the old Essanay barn (their first studio in Niles before the bigger studio was built) before it was condemned and torn down (sadly, efforts to raise funds to restore it were unsuccessful.)

And finally, WHEN THE MOVIES CAME FROM NILES (1964) is the longest and most complete documentary of the bunch by far, nearly an hour long. The treat here is once again the voice of Gilbert Anderson reminiscing (unfortunately, he's not shown on camera) and also the voice of Bill Cato--actor, true cowboy, and Broncho Billy's (occasional) riding double. He was very kind in his words, talking about how much he liked working for Anderson and how Anderson (eventually) liked doing his own riding, except when maybe the scene was too dangerous.

And that was it, the celebration's over. Except that we keep the party going every weekend at the museum. Open with free tours Saturdy and Sunday from noon to 4:00. Silent films with live piano music every Saturday night at 7:30 (doors open at 7:00.) Popcorn, soda, candy is just a dollar, and there are plenty of friendly, colorful people.

Total Running Time (estimated): 111 minutes
My Total Minutes: 275,819

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