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Broncho Billy and The Essanay Film Company in Happy Valley

By Constanza Perry

There was a [happy] valley with farmland and cattle ranches. The little nearby towns gave the area a decided western flavor. A stagecoach still ran over the “mountains” on a dusty road from San Rafael to Fairfax to Bolinas. And the mountains, Tamalpais to the southwest, Loma Alta the north, and Pine Mountain to the west, protected the area from ocean fog and rain, spreading out the cloud cover and letting in the sunshine. San Rafael, population 5,000 had a lot going for it when Essanay Film Company arrived on May 31st, 1911.


In 1907, Gilbert Anderson and George Spoor founded Essanay Studios ("S and A" for Spoor and Anderson), one of the predominant early movie studios headquartered in Chicago. Gilbert Anderson acted in and directed over 400 short films for the studio. Although he played a wide variety of characters in these, he gained enormous popularity in a series of 148 silent western shorts, becoming the first cowboy star of the movies, "Bronco Billy."[1] Originally spelled “Broncho Billy.”

Spoor stayed in Chicago running the company like a factory, while Anderson traveled the western United States to California by train with a film crew shooting movies. Many of these were shot in small towns with trains running through them. These were: San Rafael, Fairfax, Niles and Santa Barbara.

Essanay Film Company rented four houses near the Eastside Ballpark in San Rafael. Today’s addresses would be: 168 Palm Ave, 130 Palm Ave, 448 Grand Ave. and 1301 Second Street.[2] The film lot was on the Ball Park. The “Ball Park” where Essanay filmed in 1911 was located on Irwin Street at 3rd and 4th street across from the French Quarter Victorians where there are medical and dental offices today. It took up the whole block. The portable stage was sitting outside of right field on the ball park. No one told the San Rafael Colts baseball team. Their star player, Roland Totheroth, remembered, “One day we went to practice and Lo and Behold! There was a bunch of Cowboys and Indians and Horses all over the field.” [3] Roland Totheroth joined Essanay the next year (1912) in Niles, CA and became a camera operator. In 1916 he went to Hollywood and became cameraman for Charlie Chaplin.

Essanay’s first film in San Rafael was called “The Outlaw Samaritan.” It opened with ‘Jack Mason the Outlaw’ (Anderson) robbing an express train singlehandedly. It was filmed along the train route between San Rafael and Fairfax. In 1911 Fairfax looked like a ready-made western set, the surrounding hills adding to the terrific backgrounds.

bronco billy.jpg

Over 2000 films were produced in the 10 years that Essanay made films. “The Great Train Robbery,” (in which Anderson played two roles - a robber and a passenger – for 50 cents an hour), was the longest feature film ever made at that time. [1903] [5]

In 1912 they moved from Happy Valley (San Rafael) to Niles, California, a small town in Alameda County near Fremont, CA., where the nearby Western Pacific railroad route was a perfect location for the filming of Westerns. Eventually they moved to Los Angeles as it was becoming the film capital of the world.

Many Bronco Billy westerns were shot in Niles, California, along with “The Tramp” featuring Charlie Chaplin. In Niles they made a picture a week. He recalled in 1968 that he made early westerns “like popcorn”. [4]

Anderson’s legacy:

Gilbert Anderson was honored in 1998 with his image on a US postage stamp called “Bronco Billy.” In 2002, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. Anderson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame![6] A Chicago park near the Chicago Essanay Studio lot was named Bronco Billy Park in his honor. [7]

Broncho Billy Anderson lived his last senior years at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital on Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills. Niles, part of Fremont, which was the site of the Western Essanay Studios, holds an annual Bronco Billy Silent Film Festival.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, CA open noon to 4:00 PM Saturday and Sunday. They show rare silent films with piano music every Saturday night. Every week. Year round.

(1) Arnie Bernstein, Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago & the Movies, Lake Claremont Press, 1998, p. 37. (2) Kiehn, David. (2003). Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company. Berkeley, Calif: Farwell Books. p. 162.

(3) Marin Journal June 1, 1911 page 4

(4) "Bronco Billy Anderson is Dead at 88.". New York Times <> . 1971-01-21.

(5) Richard West in the Lost Angeles Times. Jan. 21, 1971 (6) Richard West in the Lost Angeles Times. Jan. 21, 1971 (7) "Bronco Billy Anderson is Dead at 88.". New York Times <> . 1971-01-21.


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