Let's Go to the Movies: The Mechanics of Moving Images

Early Locations

Welcome to Niles:
Bay Area Movie Capital

Two major events occurred in the early history of Niles, a small town southeast of San Francisco. In 1869 the Central Pacific Railroad came through Niles Canyon on its first transcontinental journey over its newly-built line. And in 1912, Niles became the home of one of the first West Coast motion picture companies, Essanay Studios. Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson filmed some of their most famous silent movies in Niles.

The Essanay Studio of Chicago was formed in 1907 by George Spoor, who had developed one of the first movie projectors, and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson had worked as a janitor at the Thomas Edison Studio when he was chosen to play an outlaw in the first western ever made, The Great Train Robbery. (Spoor and Anderson translated into "S" and "A.")

Niles was selected because of its mild climate, almost perpetual sunshine, and the unspoiled scenery of Niles Canyon (currently route 84 between Fremont and Interstate 680).

Essanay made 300 westerns in and around Niles. Charlie Chaplin made at least five silent movies in Niles, including The Tramp in 1915. He starred in, wrote and directed all five. Chaplin earned $1250 a week while at Essanay and he earned the studio owners a million dollars in 1915. The film company left Niles in 1916.

The town of Niles has virtually disappeared today, engulfed by the 98-square-mile modern city of Fremont, California. With its main street crowded with antique shops, though, this picturesque town is a great place to visit.


Lone Pine:
Location for Westerns

Lone Pine, population 2000, is a small community located in California's Owens Valley to the east of Mount Whitney. Since 1920, over 300 films have been shot near Lone Pine or the adjacent Alabama Mountains. While most were grade-B westerns, some were significant films, such as Gunga Din, King of the Khyber Rifles, How the West was Won, and, more recently, Star Trek and Gladiator. The area has also been popular for TV shows, counting The Lone Ranger; Have Gun, Will Travel; Wagon Train and Bonanza among the series made here.


The weird stone formations of the Alabama Mountains and the grandeur of Mt. Whitney continue to make the area a popular backdrop for films. Only a few hours drive from Los Angeles, the area is also conveniently near the Hollywood and Los Angeles entertainment complex.




Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, William Boyd, Randolph Scott, Robert Mitchum, Fatty Arbuckle, Kirk Douglas -- all walked or stalked the area around Lone Pine. They are fondly remembered annually during the Lone Pine Film Festival, held every October in Lone Pine.



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Back To Top This page last updated: September 17, 2001
Original content: Copyright © 2000, 2001 Museum of American Heritage