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Why Has Fremont’s Niles District Sometimes Been Called “The First Hollywood”?

Jun. 20, 2011

California — and especially Hollywood — has long been known as the heart of the motion picture industry. But did you know that Fremont was once the center of the movie industry?

Have you ever wondered…

  • Why Has the Niles District of Fremont Sometimes Been Called ‘The First Hollywood’?
  • Who were Charlie Chaplin and “Broncho Billy”?
  • What can you see at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum?

Did you know?

Welcome to the Niles district of Fremont! Did you know that this area was once the home of some of the first stars of the silver — and silent! — screen?

It’s true! On April 1, 1912, the 52 members of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company arrived in the small town of Niles, California (population: 1,400) on a train.

The motion picture industry was just beginning and, by 1912, moving pictures were taking the nation by storm. People in Niles loved to watch movies every week at Conners Hall on Front Street (now Niles Boulevard).

They recognized many of the actors by sight, but there was one they knew by name: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. “Broncho Billy” was the world’s first western movie star. In addition to acting, he also did almost everything else on his movies, from writing and directing to producing and editing.

By the time George K. Spoor and “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the “S” and the “A” of Essanay) got to Niles, they had already made over 200 films. They found the town very welcoming and soon started construction on a movie studio. On June 11, 1913, director Lloyd Ingraham produced the first film at the new studio.

Every week, the new studio would produce at least two — and sometimes as many as four or five — new 15-minute films. These short, silent films were called “one-reelers.” “Talking” pictures wouldn’t begin until the late 1920s.

The whole town of Niles got into the spirit of making these films. Many local residents became frequent part-time actors. Movie makers would also often ask people to provide props to use in movies. One movie maker once even borrowed a six-month-old baby!

Early on, each film cost about $800 to make. Many of the films would make as much as $15,000. All that changed in December 1914, though, when Essanay signed movie star Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin was arguably the most creative and popular movie star of the silent-film era. His most famous role was “The Tramp,” which he played in many different films. Compared to the $15,000 that many other films made, Chaplin’s films made up to $125,000 each.

It was only a year later — December 1915 — that Charlie Chaplin moved on to a bigger studio. Facing competition from new, larger studios, the Niles Essanay studio was forced to shut down only a few months later, marking the end of an era in Niles history.

Today, you can relive the legends of the silver screen, the silent-film era and the works of “Broncho Billy” and Charlie Chaplin with a visit to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. The museum sits on the site of the old Niles Essanay Studios and shows silent films each week.

Recently, the museum worked with Google to make an animated “Google doodle” featured on the Google.com homepage on April 15, 2011, to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday.

Try it out!

If you’ve never been to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, check out its website online. You’ll learn more about the history of the silent-film era in Niles. You can also take a virtual tour of old silent-film posters!

Take the Challenge!

Not sure about the Wonderopolis Fremont Challenge rules? Check them out before you get started!

This week’s Wonderopolis Fremont Challenge is all about enjoying the wonder and beauty of silent films. Choose one of the following challenges for your family to complete, and then come back here to share your experience.

  • Visit the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and watch a classic silent film. NOTE: Admission fee is $5.
  • Watch a silent film with your family at home. You can borrow one from a local library or rent one from a video vendor.
  • Make your own silent film! First, figure out what short story you want to tell. Then write some notes to use as a script. How many actors will you need? Who will play what role? Finally, using a video camera or a phone that can record video, record your movie!

Remember: You’ll need to log in and upload something about your family’s challenge—it could be a photo, a video, a poem, an essay or whatever inspires you! As soon as you’ve completed three of the weekly Fremont Wonderopolis Challenges, you’ll be eligible for the free family trip to Washington D.C.!

Wonder words to know and use:

  • industry
  • directing
  • producing
  • editing
  • props
  • era

Still wondering?

Interested in movies? Be sure to check out Thinkfinity’s Museum of the Moving Image feature, which highlights the only museum dedicated to the art and industry of all of screen culture, from the earliest silent films to today’s video games.

Wonder what’s next?

Next week’s Wonderopolis Fremont Challenge will get you outdoors to explore the natural beauty of Fremont!

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