The Essanay Film Company, 1915. I was commissioned to paint a mural that paid homage to the actors, actresses, producers, cameramen and animals involved with this silent film company. In early 1915, all of these individuals were working in a town called Niles, California. Niles is now part of Fremont–my hometown. I grew up semi-aware that Charlie Chaplin had made films in Niles. But I had never seen any of his films until I began working on this mural. Now, I have almost seen all of them. I learned more about Broncho Billy Anderson, the first Western movie star. I also found out that there were a lot of other awesome people who were a part of this history, although they never became as famous.
The mural consists of five panels, each measuring 9′ wide and 8′ tall. It features some fifteen life-size figures, including a dog and a horse. The background is a frontal view of Niles Blvd buildings and the Essanay studio. It has taken me several months to complete. It’s located in the backyard of a private residence. I’ll take you through my sketches and show you the panels one by one.
The first panel is all about the Snakeville Gang. These actors were the stars of comedies about a fictional town in Arizona called Snakeville. They are reacting to something scary in the second panel, which you will see…
Margaret Joslin played Sophie Clutts, the only woman in Snakeville. Harry Todd was her real life husband and he played Mustang Pete. Victor Potel was a funny one and he played Slippery Slim. Fred Church played Rawhide Bill.
Here’s what scaring the Snakeville gang. Cowboy actor Bill Cato is wrangling a rattlesnake!
Bill Cato turned out as one of my favorite figures on the mural. He was Broncho Billy’s stunt double and a true cowboy. Marguerite Clayton was Broncho Billy’s leading lady and there is Broncho Billy himself, more formally known as G.M. Anderson.
Panel three was a challenge to design for because the top of the right side was obscured by an orange tree. The right side was supposed to be left blank, but I made an executive decision to squeeze a figure in. Ben Turpin was too important to leave out!
Jess Robbins was a cameraman, producer, director and he was the man who signed Charlie Chaplin to Essanay. The little cowboy (standing in the distance, thus made smaller) was based on a photo of actor Tom Crizer. Ben Turpin was almost left out of the mural. He is now one of my favorites. Turpin was the first actor for Essanay, back when the studio was based in Chicago. The pie he is holding is related to a story from when he lived in Niles. The residents really liked him for his funny antics (although they didn’t like Chaplin). One story was about Turpin regularly stealing pies from a lady’s window and leaving her a dollar. It’s also rumored that Turpin was the first movie actor to have a pie thrown in his face… although historians dispute this.
Now for panel four, which was the prime space on the wall. It is the only bit that can be glimpsed from the front yard and street. Charlie Chaplin only stayed in Niles for three months and didn’t really like it there. Still, we love to celebrate him in Niles.
The picture on the left was taken when I was beginning to fill in the figures. I finished the sky and buildings completely before I started on the figures. I still had to make adjustments, such as making Chaplin’s face narrower and his shoes bigger. Edna was the easiest to paint. As soon as I gridded her, she was looking gorgeous! Next time I paint a mural, I will be more decisive about my colors. As you can see, I started with a pink skirt and changed it to navy. That’s the way I was used to painting my smaller works, with wild colors in the under-painting.
Augustus Carney acted as the character Alkali Ike, who was the star of several comedy shorts and sometimes appeared in Snakeville comedies. No one knows what became of him because he disappeared. Here he is riding an early Indian motorcycle. And of course, there is Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady for over thirty films. She is wearing her costume from the short In The Park (which was actually filmed in Golden Gate Park). I love Edna and Charlie– they are so cute together!
The first thing I decided about designing the mural was that I really wanted to paint Rollie Totheroh as a baseball player. Totheroh later became Chaplin’s long-term cinematographer. But he had his start when he was a third baseman and G.M. Anderson hired him to play on Niles Essanay’s team. I loved seeing photos of the old uniforms they wore. Rollie, also, was very handsome. He acted in a few Westerns, but they really weren’t his thing.
The Native American was Essanay’s mascot. There’s a photo of Charlie Chaplin wearing the headdress in his book, My Life in Pictures. The bottom of the mascot is signed “S and A,” which is how the word “Essanay” was formed. The founders of the company were George K. Spoor and G.M. Anderson. The dog featured in the mural was indeed named Quapaw Lord Orry. He was the charming bulldog who co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Champion. That film was one of the five films made in Niles. The others are A Night Out, A Jitney Elopement, In the Park and The Tramp. That tiny green thing on the mural is a frog. I added it on a spur of the moment when a little frog appeared where I was painting. He posed for at least five minutes. Obviously he wanted to be included.
I also want to acknowledge another animal friend I made while working. This is Granite, the neighbor’s cat, and he visited me almost every day. He wanted to play with my paintbrush and eat my lunch.
That concludes my tour of the mural. If you want to learn more about Essanay’s history, visit the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum!