26 November 2011

California Dreaming Part 2

During my visit to California, my parents and I made a trip out to Niles, a small historic district in the town of Fremont located in the East Bay. Niles has a quaint main street with a series of antique shops and a charming old train depot.

The reason for our visit was the area’s history. For a few years during the early days of filmmaking, the streets of Niles were filled with movie cowboys and one very famous tramp. Niles was home to the Essanay Studios, the West Coast branch of the Chicago based-company, whose employees included Broncho Billy and Charlie Chaplin. Among the films Chaplin made in Niles was The Tramp in 1915, which included the iconic closing image of the tramp walking away down a dusty road (that would be a dusty Niles road).

Although the original studio is gone, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum chronicles the history of Essanay and exhibits original movie posters, cameras, and documents from the silent era. The Museum is housed in the Edison Theatre, built in 1913, and a tour includes a stop in the theatre's tin-lined projection booth, which is still functional. Every Saturday silent movies are screened with live piano accompaniment. They even have a cool gift shop (I picked up a Valentino magnet and a couple of new flip books).

Chaplin greets visitors in front of the ticket booth in the museum.

Although Chaplin spent less than a year in Niles, he's its most famous resident. Chaplin's image can be found everywhere and every June the area hosts "Chaplin Days," a weekend-long celebration of the man. The connection to Niles is such that when Google made a video doodle tribute to Chaplin earlier this year, it was done in collaboration with the Museum (and filmed on the streets of Niles too).

If silent film doesn’t interest you, there is a recently restored train depot across the street. The Niles Depot, built in 1901, contains a small museum that details its rail history. The depot was an important junction of two major lines at the turn of the century. Its bright colours look nice against the nearby hills and on Sundays a train runs between Niles and neighboring Sunol.

To learn more about the Essanay Studios, visit the Museum's website here. If you find yourself in the area and want to visit, go on a weekend as many places, including the Museum, are closed during the week.

Photos by Michele.

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