Monday, December 29, 2014

Shhh . . No Reason To Be Silent About The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum!

This is the third in a three part series on the historical district of Niles in Fremont, California.

Saturday nights are a great time to visit Niles Boulevard. Why? Because of the silent films they show each Saturday at 7:30 PM in the Essanay Silent Film Museum. The movies are shown in the original nickelodeon theater that was built in 1913. Each film is accompanied by a pianist and the whole show lasts for two hours. They also have some 4 PM Sunday matinees, like an upcoming Laurel and Hardy program on January 11, 2015. Here is the schedule for January 2015.

A back room showcasing some film posters and hand cranked cameras of the early 1900s
I had the pleasure of visiting the film museum a couple of weeks ago when I spent the day on Niles Boulevard. I had no idea that Niles had such a fascinating cinematic history. Over 350 silent films were made here, including Snakeville comedy shorts and Bronco Billy westerns. 

A Bronco Billy Western scene filmed along Niles Canyon Road
But the films that really made Essanay Studios and the town of Niles famous, were the five movies made by Charlie Chaplin, including The Champion and The Tramp.

Famous last scene of The Tramp, filmed in the hills above Niles along Alameda Creek

Charlie Chaplin and his leading lady Edna Purviance may or may not have slept here during their time in Niles.

You may wonder how I got so interested in silent films and their place in Niles history - it was because of their little gem of a museum where I got to view hand cranked cameras, the original projection studio and theater, and speak with the knowledgeable people who work both in the museum store and behind the scenes.

Original theater seats (but not the original props)

You had to have a good arm to keep cranking the film throughout its duration!

To protect the theater, the projection booth was lined with tin. Nitrate film was highly flammable!
Writing on the wall - early projectionists were warned to spit their tobacco juice into the box and not on the floor.

Film history buffs and students can take advantage of the many books that are available to the public within the museum. The books must be viewed on-site and it is best to call ahead to make arrangements. 510-494-1411

The museum store also sells many wonderful books, DVDs, T-shirts, posters and other paraphernalia that would be hard to find anywhere else. I bought my son an Edgar Allan Poe poster that appealed to his dark sense of humor, and bought myself A T-shirt showing the famous shot of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock.

Hitchcock fans will be pleased with the items available at the museum store.
The Essanay Studio, founded by Gilbert Anderson ("Bronco Billy") and George Spoor has an extensive and fascinating history. You can learn about some of it in the museum store, on their website, and in this well researched book by film historian David Kiehn called, Bronco Billy And The Essanay Film Company. 

This Fire station was built on the original site of the Essanay film studio in Niles, CA

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Boulevard in Fremont, CA and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12 to 4pm. Entrance is free but donations are welcome. Saturday night movies cost $5.00 for museum members and $7.00 for the general public. Sounds like a great family night or date night to me!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Downtown Niles - A Street All Its Own

This is the second in a three part series on Niles Boulevard in Fremont, California.

Niles Boulevard - Old-Fashion Charm
I'd always read that Niles Blvd was known for its antique stores and Silent Film Museum. That is true; but as I discovered, it has so much more. When I first saw the boulevard I was surprised at how small it looked. It's a one-sided railroad layout, so most of the shops line just one side of the street. But though it looks small, there are many unique and wonderful shops, restaurants and curiosities lining this street and several of the side streets.

This is one of the "curiosities," an old adobe home!
There's a good sized parking lot when you first enter the street, complete with public restrooms. I'm told the parking lot fills up early on the weekends but I didn't have a problem. My first stop was an antique store called, A Moment in Time. 

Wonderful Victorian Treasures.
I was drawn to it because of it's beautiful Victorian window display. The shop is full of many treasures including a pink Epergne (an ornamental stand). I love browsing antique stores, even though I don't know anything about antiques, because it is a fun way of learning a tiny bit about a long ago era.

A rare and beautiful pink Epergne from the Victorian era
 Before I continue on to the other shops, I want to mention another antique store that is just getting started. It is at the other end of the street and is called, Back To The Future. Even though they don't have much merchandise yet, they do have a funky collection of skateboards and surfboards.

37671 Niles Boulevard, 510-794-3622
After I walked to the other end of the street to see the Back To The Future store, I took a side detour and was pleasantly surprised to see some wonderful old homes. I've been told by someone who knows more than I, that the homes date from the early 1900s and our pre-craftsman bungalow.

Historic homes
Walking back down J Street to Main Street, I saw a young couple loading a really cool bike into their truck. I commented on it and discovered that they are the owners of Gooseneck Bicycles. Gooseneck specializes in handmade bike frames, custom-made bikes, vintage bikes - new and used  - and building up bikes to look the way you want them to. One of their goals is to make cool and affordable bikes for everyone. They do bike repairs as well. Like I said, I thought their bikes were really cool (did I mention they're cool?)  and affordable.

This is the bike that caught my attention. It features an 8 Series, handmade frame.
This store has plenty of personality - I loved it!
Lunchtime! There was a roving food truck selling inexpensive Mexican food that seemed very popular, but the line was so long I decided to look elsewhere. I'm glad I did because I discovered a Pizza Palace called Bronco Billy's. Talk about personality! The interior is crammed with cowboy movie memorabilia from some of the many films made by Bronco Billy and the Essanay studios in the early 1900s. It makes for a really fun atmosphere. The service was great and the pizza fantastic. A"slice"of pizza actually takes up a medium-sized plate. I brought home a lot of yummy leftovers to share with my kids. I highly recommend this restaurant for families and discerning pizza connoisseurs.

Fun and friendly!
So much to look at!
After lunch, I backtracked to H St. to visit the Early Start Music and Toys Store. They are a small store that specializes in selling discontinued (and therefore cheaper) Plan Toys, which are "educational and developmental wooden toys." I think they are colorful and attractive and would have bought some for my children if they were still toddlers. The Music and Toys store also specializes in giving Music Together classes, designed for babies, toddlers, preschoolers and parents.

There are always bubbles to share at the Music and Toys Store.
Ukulele lessons are available from the proprietor!
I saved the most interesting place (in my opinion) for last. It is not a store, it is a studio called Mudpuddle Music and it's run by the talented and prolific musician and songwriter Michael McNevin. Mudpuddle Music is not actually a recording studio, it is really a place that Michael uses to host gigs and jams (as in music, not jelly).  This is what Michael says about it: The gigs are usually a $10-20 a head thing for listening acoustic concerts, and/or a cheap to free sliding donation for the more casual jams. IE on occasional Sundays and other random nights, I just open the door and invite locals to come play music. All events are BYO, so it does make for a cheap night out. Broncho Billy Pizza delivery to the shop is optional :-) Some shows are family friendly, some are more geared for the grownups, so you can bring the whole gang or make it a date night.

The Mud Puddle with Michael McNevin 37433 Niles Blvd
Michael gave me one of his CD song samplers and I was really impressed with the music. He's a good guitarist, has a very nice voice, and on this CD, played with a talented group of instrumentalists. Many of his songs are actually stories about Niles; he grew up there and knows the town and it's history really well. Here's a link to one of his story songs about a childhood friend of his who barely out ran a train, called Two Feet Ahead of the Train.

My Kind of Studio!
 Michael is also an amazing Etch-a-Sketch artist.
Illustration for Two Feet Ahead of the Train

Have I given you enough enticement to visit Niles Bouldevard? And there is so much more to see. Next week I will cover their silent film museum and don't forget, there's also the Niles Canyon Railway and Train Museum! Have fun!


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Niles Depot Museum

I have just discovered the historic district of Niles, in the city of Fremont, California. I'd read about Niles in the San José Mercury News, because of their famous antique fair, but I had never visited. Last weekend I had the luxury of exploring Niles Boulevard by myself. There was so much to see that I'll have to divide this blog into three parts, beginning with  -

The Niles Depot Museum.

Major restoration completed in 2009

The museum is a good starting point to study the history of the railroad in Niles. The depot itself is the original one built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1901. It is situated on its original site but turned 180° away from the tracks to face the town. It was not always in this location, and has been moved a couple of times. Set to be demolished in 1981 by the Southern Pacific railroad, it was saved by a grassroots effort of volunteers, the city of Fremont, and the Tri-City Society of Model Engineers. The depot's history is quite interesting, you can read more about it here.

An Original Western Pacific Railroad Caboose - WP467
Inside the museum you'll see a replication of the inside of a railroad depot, meaning you will see authentic furniture, telephones, telegraph equipment, railroad signals, lanterns, uniforms, etc.. There are many historic photos as well. Please note, this is not a hands on museum. Children need to know they can look but not touch. 

Depot Office

The Tri-City Engineers are currently constructing two large layouts of model railroads, including an HO layout  and N scale layout. You can view part of the construction behind glass and if you ask nicely, the engineers will open a door for you to see more. I was very impressed with the models. I cannot describe it better then this quote from their website: The layouts are based in Niles and the surrounding communities of the Bay Area. Attention is being given to accuracy and detail in both the track plans and surrounding scenery. The modeling era is the mid-1970s, but all industries and towns are being represented as they were in their prime. 

Steve and Larry, Tri-City Society Engineers who were both knowledgeable and nice.

Replication of The Niles Canyon Railway

Drive-in under construction - I wonder what movie they'll show?

The town of Niles came into existence because of the transcontinental railroad. In fact its history of the railroad (railroads I should say) is so extensive I cannot begin to cover it here. The best I can do is direct you to the Niles Canyon Railway website and this book. Also, Niles is known for its famous Christmas Train Of Lights. Tickets usually sell out by early October.

The Union Pacific
And last but not least, because it's the Christmas season the museum has set up a Christmas themed model train display. Here is a short video clip for you to enjoy.


If you go: the Niles Depot Museum is currently open on Sundays from 10 AM to 4 PM.
                  they are located at 37592 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, CA 94536
                  Mailing Address: Niles Depot Historical Foundation
                                               P.O. Box 2716, Fremont, CA 94536