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[whitespace] Tough as Niles

Silent-film cowboy hero Broncho Billy Anderson put Niles on the map

By Richard von Busack

THE TOWN OF NILES, in the eastern part of Fremont, where Alameda Creek spills out of the canyons on its way to the estuary, is a little antiqueville best known for its annual flea market (June 25 this year). One main street full of decades-old buildings faces the old Union Pacific railroad line, which is lively once again with commuter trains. The village has one other claim to fame. During a few years, in the earliest part of the last century, it was home to one of the most famous men in the world.

This Friday and Saturday (June 2-3) marks the third annual Niles Broncho Billy Film Festival. The event honors Gilbert Maxwell Aronson (1880-1971), later known as "Broncho Billy" Anderson. Aronson was a New Jersey studio janitor tapped to be an extra in The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the earliest films to tell a story. After leaving Thomas Edison's film production company, Anderson worked his way up to producer and director. With his partner, George Spoor, Anderson founded the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (Spoor was the "S," and Anderson was the "A"). Anderson came West from Essanay's Chicago offices to build a film studio. Deciding to cast himself as a cowboy hero, Anderson made some 500 short Westerns in the Bay Area foothills: some in Marin, some in Los Gatos, most at Niles. Few of his 140 Broncho Billy Westerns still exist. The British Film Institute has shipped three of them to Niles for their first public showing in America in 80 years.

The appeal of this long-forgotten star is easy to see. Neither youthful nor especially handsome, Anderson was jowly; his nose was broken and badly set; and his eyes were slightly bulged. Yet Anderson's modest underplaying--his shyness, his self-effacing gallantry--influenced generations of movie cowboys. In an early cinema full of theatrical gesticulators, Broncho Billy's simplicity must have been irresistible. Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner (1911), a 15-minute two-reeler filmed near Fairfax, casts the hero as a wanted outlaw. Billy laughs off an offer of amnesty from the sheriff of Rattlesnake County, but fate conspires to bring him right to the sheriff's Christmas dinner. Broncho Billy's Heart (c. 1914), shot in Niles, is indeed about the cowpoke's good-naturedness and how he gives up his own horse to save a family of settlers who are mistaken for horse thieves.

In 1916, Essanay went bankrupt only three years after the Niles studio opened. But Essanay managed one coup in its short life: hiring Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone. Chaplin is a kind of patron saint in Niles. The famous final shot in his 1915 film The Tramp--the slow iris out as Chaplin trudges away in the dust--was filmed in a since-forgotten spot nearby.

The Broncho Billy Film Festival includes a Friday symposium at 7pm. Experts on silent film will discuss Broncho Billy, Chaplin and some of the early Essanay stars--one of them Texas Guinan, the cowgirl comedienne (Whoopi Goldberg's bartending Star Trek: The Next Generation character was named in her honor). Historic tours will be offered--two houses owned by Anderson and the bungalows for the Essanay actors still stand, as does as a hotel where Chaplin stayed. Among the guests at the Saturday screening of four Essanay films is True Boardman, son of the actor W. True Boardman, who plays the sheriff in Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner. The younger Boardman was a 4-year-old player in Broncho Billy's Heart, where he co-starred as the son of the pioneer family rescued by our hero. Boardman told me that he had been too small a boy to remember the day that he sat on Broncho Billy's lap, fussing because he wanted a sip of the cowboy's coffee. The film still exists, showing those minutes. On 35mm film, the 80-year-old afternoon light is still silvery and lambent through the shade of the eucalyptuses on the dirt road that is today car-clogged Highway 84.

The Third Annual Niles Broncho Billy Film Festival takes place Friday-Saturday (June 2-3) at Niles Elementary School, 37171 Second St. Tickets are $10-$20. (510.791.2192 or www.essanayfilmmfgco.com)

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From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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