What did the Wild West look like? If you went to the movies in 1911, it looked like Marin and Sonoma county.
For six months of that year, the Essanay Film Company based its west coast operations in San Rafael, filming in West Marin and southern Sonoma County, including Petaluma and Santa Rosa.
The company had been moving around the west since leaving Chicago in the autumn of 1910, filming its short cowboy movies in Colorado and California, mostly in the South Bay and the outskirts of Los Angeles. Pretty much any of those places would seem like a better location for a western than San Rafael but as silent film historian David Kiehn explains in his definitive reference, “Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company,” Marin offered reliably nice weather and had other appeals:
|There was a valley with farmland and cattle ranches. The little nearby towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax gave the area a decided western flavor. A stagecoach still ran over the mountains on a dusty road from Fairfax to Bolinas…San Rafael, population 5000, had a lot going for it when Esaanay arrived on May 31, 1911.|
(Digression: The whole notion of filming westerns in Marin reminds me of a memorable incident on Groucho Marx’s radio quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” Before starting the quiz, Groucho would interview and banter with the contestants. Once a guest was a movie location scout for a major Hollywood studio and the man sounded boastful when describing his prowess in finding perfect settings around Southern California. Groucho asked for an example. “Why, San Juan Capistrano looks more like Italy than Italy does,” the man said with assurance. “Have you ever been to Italy?” Groucho asked. “Well, no.”)
The head of the company was Gilbert M. Anderson, who directed hundreds of these short westerns and starred in many as “Broncho Billy,” a character he had invented just a short time before arriving in the North Bay. Broncho Billy was the prototype for all the rootin’ tootin’ celluloid cowboys that came after him, yet with a range of roles that might be surprising; instead of always being the guy in the white hat with a toothy grin, sometimes Billy was a drunk, an outlaw or a man haunted by personal demons.
Anderson also directed modern-day comedies during his Marin stint, but he was better known for the action-filled cowboy adventures. Some members of his Essanay troupe were former cowpunchers and included an amazing stunt rider, who could “throw his horse down and, while still in the saddle, make the animal rise again,” according to researcher Kiehn. An actor was at risk of drowning when a horse kicked him in the chest during a river crossing scene but saved by an expertly-tossed lasso.
Much of the filming was done around Fairfax, which Anderson called “Snakeville” as per his usual fictional town setting. But in the week around Hallowe’en, the troupe traveled farther north to shoot scenes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa. In Petaluma the scenes involved a bank robbery, and Kiehn’s book includes two photos of the filming around the intersection of Main and Washington.
In Santa Rosa the shooting was for a comedy with a chase down Fourth street. The Press Democrat summarized the action:
|The story photographed here was that of “Hank and Lank” stealing a horse and buggy where it was left in front of Jacob’s candy store while the owner went inside on business. There was the chase and capture of the thieves, a fight and the return of the rig to its owner. Later the rig was stolen again, after a fight with the owner, and the chase and capture by the police and the finale with the prisoners taken to jail.|
Anderson usually worked locals into the storyline and here it was James W. Ramage, the PD’s circulation manager, “with his auto loaded with a bevy of handsome school girls,” and 16 year-old Margaret M. Hockin riding her horse. As the chase was proceeding down Fourth, an auto unexpectedly shot across the intersection at B street causing the young woman to quickly rein up her horse, which was then struck by the buggy following her. The horse was badly wounded in the collision but the girl was unhurt.
While in Santa Rosa, the Essanay players booked the big Columbia theater at Third and B streets and put on a play, “The Man From Mexico,” a farce that was popular on Broadway fifteen years earlier. The plot centered on a man nightclubbing while his wife is away; after being arrested in a police raid, he is sentenced to thirty days behind bars for drunkenly insulting a judge. To coverup his jail time he tells everyone that he is vacationing in Mexico and upon his release, spins a tangle of silly lies about life in that country (the Mexican currency was supposedly the “flempf,” as an example). It probably was a helluva lot funnier than it sounds, with Anderson starring as the lying husband. Both Santa Rosa papers gave the production raves, the Republican stating the audience was “in a state of uproarious laughter from start to finish.” The expensive tickets – with the best seats going for $1.00, about half the daily income of the average Santa Rosan – also probably paid for their excursion. The play was also performed in Petaluma.
A month later Anderson briefly moved the company to the San Diego area, then in the early spring of 1912 settled down in Niles (near the town of Fremont). Here Essanay built a studio and produced some of the best films of the era over the next four years, including Charlie Chaplin’s earliest classics. Today the town has a theater owned by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, which still presents silent movie programs every Saturday night. It’s quite fun – you should go next weekend!
There’s also a Believe-it-or-Not! angle to Santa Rosa’s first brush with the movies; just days before Essanay arrived here, Francis Boggs was shot to death in Los Angeles. Born in Santa Rosa, Frank was introduced here earlier in a profile of his grandfather, memorable Sonoma County “pioneer” William Boggs. Francis and Gilbert were doppelgangers; both came to California at about the same time to make movies for Chicago-based studios (the Selig Polyscope Company, in Boggs’ case). Both were prolific actors/producers/directors and both are credited with “discovering” a major silent movie comedian: Boggs launched “Fatty” Arbuckle’s career and Anderson sent cross-eyed Ben Turpin on the way to slapstick stardom (he also was responsible for luring Chaplin to Essanay).
Frank Boggs’ obituary in the Santa Rosa Republican also solved a little mystery. In May of 1910 there was another film crew here shooting footage of Luther Burbank, the Rose Carnival parade and other notable sights. There was much excitement that a newsreel of Santa Rosa would be available and the Columbia theatre even ran an unprecedented “coming soon” advertisement. From the obit we learn that the filming was done under Boggs’ direction and was part of a much larger project commissioned by the Southern Pacific for promotional advertising.
Alas, Boggs’ film was ruined, either by mishandling or technical problems. The Essanay footage from Santa Rosa and Petaluma is lost as well, and may actually not have made it into finished releases – no titles listed in Kiehn’s catalog seem to describe the plots as we know them.
When Anderson left the North Bay his best years were still ahead of him, and had Boggs lived he surely would have developed into an important Hollywood player. And speaking of which, we might not have a Hollywood at all if not for Boggs; he convinced the reluctant Selig office in Chicago in 1909 that he should open up a satellite studio north of Los Angeles. Within a year of his death the area was the hub of West Coast film production.
SEE YOURSELF IN MOTION PICTUREEssanay Film Company Will Take Pictures Here Next Week–Will Present Fine Show at Columbia
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company that has been making motion pictures at San Rafael for the past three months will visit Santa Rosa next Tuesday and perform a play at the Columbia Theater.
All the favorite characters that have appeared in the Western releases of this particular concern in the past three months will appear in “The Man from Mexico” at the local theatre next week.
The company will bring a carload of scenery and all electrical effects for the production. [illegible microfilm] is all built at San Rafael, where the concern keeps a number of mechanics at work building set pieces for the new productions.
While here the company will take several motion pictures to give the public an opportunity of seeing how the pictures are made. If you chance to be on the street that day you may have the pleasure of seeing yourself in pictures. The pictures that will be taken here will show at the Columbia a few days later.– Press Democrat, October 25, 1911
FRANK BOGGS SHOT TO DEATHFormer Santa Rosan Killed in South Friday
Frank W. Boggs, whose death was told in the dispatches from Los Angeles, published Friday afternoon in the REPUBLICAN, was a former Santa Rosan. He is a nephew of Professor and Mrs. Alex C. McMeans of this city and a brother of Miss Florence M. Boggs, superintendent of schools of Stanislaus county.
The former Santa Rosan was murdered by an insane Japanese at Edendale, where he was having a consultation with William C. Selig, president of the moving picture company which bears his name, and other members of the company which produce the pictures in southern California.
The murder was Frank Minnimatsu, a Japanese gardner at Edendale, where Boggs had erected a handsome studio for the purpose of taking the moving pictures. This place was surrounded by magnificent landscape gardens and one of the real show places of the southland.
Early in life Boggs evinced a liking and an aptitude for the stage and in Chicago he made good on his chosen profession. He became manager for the Selig people in the Los Angeles vicinity and later was given charge of the Pacific Coast for the firm. He was singularly successful in handling the affairs of the company on this coast and recently Mr. Selig presented him with a splendid touring car for his personal use, in addition to one which the company maintained for business purposes.
The last time Mr. Boggs was in this city he came with three men from Los Angeles to secure moving pictures of the Rose Carnival and of Burbank’s Experimental Farm here. The films were spoiled in the manufacture after they had been taken and could not be shown. It was planned to take another set at some future time….
…Santa Rosans who knew the deceased are shocked at the tragic manner of his death. The Japanese, who had been discharged by Boggs, is believed to have gone suddenly insane. Selig, who was wounded, had a bone broken in one arm and was shot in the head, the latter being more of a scalp wound than anything else. He will recover.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1911PHOTOPLAY HAS PLOT LAID HEREDaring Robbery of Horse and Rig on Fourth Street–Capture of the Thief–The Chase
The Essanay Moving Picture Company spent yesterday in Santa Rosa [illegible microfilm] During the afternoon they gave an exhibition of the method used in getting moving pictures for use in the thousands of moving picture houses throughout the country. The work was watched by a great crowd of people.
The Essanay Company keeps a company of thirty five well trained actors and photographers at San Rafael where the ball park has been fitted up as a studio for a setting, and where hundreds of scenes are enacted to be photographed and made into moving pictures. The company had a days’ outing coming here, but at the same time pictures were taken for a 500-foot reel.
The story photographed here was that of “Hank and Lank” stealing a horse and buggy where it was left in front of Jacob’s candy store while the owner went inside on business. There was the chase and capture of the thieves, a fight and the return of the rig to its owner. Later the rig was stolen again, after a fight with the owner, and the chase and capture by the police and the finale with the prisoners taken to jail.
The method of work is to take a picture of one incident at a time, and in any order of the chain of events which make up the whole of the story. Later these are developed, the films cut into sections and made up into one complete reel. The picture taken here yesterday will be released in about six weeks by the company and will be shown in one of the local playhouses, the Theaterette or Columbia.
In the chase after the stolen rig, Miss Margaret Hockin, mounted on her handsome bay horse was taken in the [illegible microfilm] W. Ramage, with his auto loaded with a bevy of handsome school girls, was also a part of the crowd taken as well as a number of other local people. They will no doubt be shown plainly in the moving pictures. An automobile which broke into the procession as it raced before the moving [illegible microfilm] B and Fourth street, caused Miss Hockin to rein up suddenly and a buggy following closely behind collided with her horse, forcing the point of the shaft into his flank, making a bad wound. Miss Hockin escaped unhurt.– Press Democrat, November 1, 1911
PICTURES OF ROSE CARNIVAL RUINED
Owing to some defect in the film the pictures that were taken here during the Rose Carnival were ruined along with about fifty thousand feet of film of views for the Southern Pacific for advertising purposes. The men came all the way from Los Angeles to take the pictures and it will be a big loss to the company. Among the carnival pictures were a number of Burbank views, and it meant much to this part of the state to have those pictures go on the circuit. It was through the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce that the men were induced to come here, and the loss will fall heavily on the Moving picture men.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 8, 1910