Recap: BATW Visit to Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

By Ed Walsh, BATW Board member

The meeting at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont was held on Saturday, March 16, 2024 at 11 a.m. Approximately 18 people were in attendance.  There were at least two cancellations probably because of the concern about the Caltrans freeway closure that day. The meeting was hosted by the museum. They opened an hour before their usual opening time and waived the admission charge.

Refreshments were served and we mixed and mingled for about 30 minutes.  At around 11:30 am, a museum docent gave us a short talk about the museum and then we watched two silent films in the very theater where Charlie Chaplin often watched films, both his own films and films from the competition.

The museum opened to the public at noon and we were treated to a tour of the theater by another museum docent.

The highlight of the tour is being taken to the projection room which was lined with tin. The first films were made with nitrate and were extremely flammable. They needed that safeguard so that the burning films wouldn’t set the rest of the theater on fire. Fortunately, there were no fires at the theater.

The theater has a fascinating history.  It was once used as a dancehall, then most recently as an artist’s studio. The artist lived in a loft he constructed next to the projection room. We learned that Charlie Chaplin skyrocketed to fame in the films he first made in the Niles Canyon area of Fremont. His most famous film, The Tramp, was shot there. That was one of the movies we were able to watch in the theater. Niles Canyon provided the backdrop of the film.

We were given a tour of the other exhibits in the museum including some scraps of old films that were recently uncovered in the walls of the theater.  Sadly, we learned that many silent films were lost because teenagers through the years had broken into the warehouse of Essanay Films and set the highly flammable films on fire.

We had a lot of leftover refreshments which were divided up among the museum’s volunteers. By the way, the museum is run by a group of dedicated volunteers whose passion comes through in their enthusiasm for what they do. The museum is also actively raising funds to continue restoring and maintaining the museum.

No new members in attendance. A few members left the group to take the Niles railway, which left from the Sunol Station at 1pm.  The station is about five miles away from the museum. The railway was offering all our members the senior discount to ride the train.

Special thanks to:

Ginny Prior for sending out the announcements and reminders for the meeting.

Lina Broydo and Laurie Amstrong Gossy who put the museum on BATW’s radar.

Ed Walsh who organized the meeting and lugged the refreshments on the two-hour journey on public transit.

The dedicated museum staff who graciously opened an hour early for us and set up a table for our refreshments. They also played two movies for us so we could experience what it was like for audiences there more than 100 years ago.

The staff at the Niles Canyon Railway who gave all our members who wanted to go, a senior discount to the ride that left Sunol at 1 p.m.

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