It was a Monday, the first of April in the year 1912, when the town of Niles, population 1400, was invaded by a small army. The fifty-two members of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company had arrived by train.
Twenty years before, the moving picture profession had been non-existent. By 1912, it was transforming the nation and the world with a universal language printed on film. The people of Niles were well aware of this new medium. Charles Ellestyne, manager of the local circuit for the Edison Moving Picture Company, put on a movie show every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night at Conners Hall on Front Street (called Niles Boulevard today).
Many of the actors were recognized in Niles by sight, but one person was known by name: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the world’s first western movie star. He also wrote, produced, directed and edited most of his films.
George K. Spoor and Anderson were the “S” and “A” of Essanay, based in Chicago, Illinois. They began the company in 1907, but the harsh winters drove the ever- restless Anderson west in search of the perfect location. By the time he and his company arrived in Niles, they had already been responsible for more than two hundred films.
These newcomers arrived in Niles with little warning and quickly filled all three hotels to capacity. The cowboys, and those who didn’t mind “roughing it,” were housed in tents. Three local men immediately saw Essanay’s economic value to the town: Billy Moore, an enterprising saloon owner, August May, president of the Niles State Bank; and Luther Rood, editor of the troubled Township Register. They hustled Anderson into the back room of Billy Moore’s Saloon and proposed to arrange a lease for a makeshift film studio - a barn on 2nd Street.
Anderson approved of their choice, but was still skeptical that the community would accept him and his film company. To settle the matter, he set out alone, walking the three blocks of Front Street’s business district. Anderson entered each shop, introduced himself and asked for donations for the barn’s rent. He collected $100.
Satisfied on all accounts, Anderson then opened his own wallet and bought barber J.A. Silva’s cottage on F Street plus the lot next door on the corner. He also paid for five lots on Second Street near G Street. By October of 1912, six red bungalows sat, squeezed together, on Anderson’s land, ready to accommodate members of his cast and crew.
That same October, George Spoor visited Niles, approved of the location and arranged for Essanay to purchase eight more lots next to Anderson’s for a state-of-the-art studio, estimated to cost $25,000. After considerable input from Anderson and Jess Robbins, Anderson’s trusted cameraman, San Jose architect George W. Page drew up plans for the building. The final cost was $50,000.
Construction of the new studio began early in 1913 under the supervision of Alfred Griffin, a local contractor. By June, the main building, 200 feet long and 50 feet deep, was ready to occupy. On June 11, director Lloyd Ingraham inaugurated the studio with its first production. In the next few months, a concrete horse stable was finished, followed by a glass-enclosed interior stage, a blacksmith shop and a western street exterior set. Meanwhile, Anderson added four more bungalows to his row on Second Street.
Each week, a minimum of two fifteen minute one-reelers were made in Niles. Occasionally, the number rose to four or five. The whole community provided the backdrop for these productions, and local residents frequently stood in front of the cameras as part-time actors. Even though the studio had a huge storage area full of props to decorate the interior sets, neighbors often found the property master at their doorsteps, asking for anything from bric-a-brac to a kitchen stove. On at least one occasion, a six-week-old baby was borrowed!
During Essanay’s years in Niles, the company increased its staff to eighty. Their combined annual salaries added up to $200,000. The cost to make each film averaged $800 and brought in as much as $15,000. But the equation changed in December, 1914, when Charlie Chaplin was signed by Essanay. His yearly income, including a bonus, was $75,000. However, each of his films brought in around $125,000.
By 1915, the times were clearly changing Essanay and the other old-time companies were facing competition from independent upstart producers and studios such as Metro, Universal and Paramount. The new feature length films captured audiences that formerly saw Broncho Billy and the Snakeville comedy shorts.
When Chaplin’s contract came up for renewal in December, 1915, Spoor rejected Chaplin’s salary demands - $10, 000 a week plus $150,000 to sign his name on the contract. Chaplin went elsewhere. Anderson was also ready to move on and Spoor bought him out. On February 16, 1916, the Niles Essanay studio received a telegram, ordering it to shut down. The doors were closed and locked. It was the end of an era.
But the legends of a pioneering movie studio, the world’s first movie cowboy, and a universally celebrated film comedian live on in their films.