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Frontier Outpost Was Curtain-Opener for Film Legend’s Career

March 3, 1995

FREMONT, Calif. (AP) _ Charlie Chaplin once said that all he needed to make a movie was a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.

And for a time, he found them not in the show business mecca of Hollywood, but in Niles, a frontier outpost some 30 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Chaplin’s sojourn in Northern California was brief. A year and five comedies later it was back to the bright lights of Los Angeles. But before he left he did something that assured Niles a place in film history.

It was here that Chaplin shot his first big movie, ``The Tramp,″ establishing his trademark character of the hobo, an endearing little guy in derby hat and floppy shoes who loses everything but heart.

Faded pictures and a weedy vacant lot are all that remain of the Essanay Western Co., the studio where Chaplin and other budding screen stars helped invent an industry 80 years ago.

But the town, with its wooden storefronts, neatly painted bungalows and dimly lit bars, still looks much as it did when it provided a rustic backdrop for location shots.

``There’s a lot of old-timers here and they just never changed the town,″ says Michael Toschak, president of the Niles Merchant’s Association.

Niles got into the movie business in 1912, when film pioneer Gilbert M. ``Bronco Billy″ Anderson set up shop.

In those days, Niles was the jumping-off point for the interior, a rough-and-ready railroad town nestled between broad-shouldered hills and wild, open country.

It was the perfect setting for Anderson’s Wild West movies and the locals were eager to join in the fun, lending horses and houses and appearing as extras just for kicks.

``Since there wasn’t that much to do here and there wasn’t TV, or MTV, this was how they entertained themselves, by making movies for the rest of the world,″ said Toschak.

Anderson, who called the company Essanay after the initials of himself and his partner, a film distributor named George K. Spoor, numbered such stars as Ben Turpin and Wallace Beery among his players. Chaplin started working with the company after being lured away from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios.

``The Tramp,″ shot in 1915, was Chaplin’s last movie for Essanay.

It concludes with what was to become Chaplin’s famous signoff _ the hitching of the baggy pants, the twirling of the cane and the toddling walk up the road, back to the camera.

``That road still exists; the rocks still exist,″ said Jim Goldner, professor of cinema at San Francisco State University. Goldner visited the historic spot while working on ``The Movies Go West,″ a documentary about Essanay by the late Geoffrey Bell.

In addition to ``The Tramp,″ shot in Niles Canyon, Chaplin made ``A Night Out″ and ``The Champion,″ in Niles and Oakland. Two more comedies, ``In the Park″ and ``A Jitney Elopement,″ also were made here, with exteriors shot in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, according to a 1973 article by Bell.

Despite his successes, Chaplin chafed at country life.

``He didn’t really like Niles. It was too provincial for him, I guess,″ Toschak said.

Chaplin would go on to international success, but Niles’ time in the spotlight was brief. In 1916, the Essanay studio abruptly shut down.

``They left everything here and it just decayed,″ Toschak said.

According to local legend, children used what was left of the film stock for fiery _ and extremely dangerous _ toys, rolling the flammable spools of nitrate down the streets and setting them alight.

``I’m surprised they didn’t burn down the town,″ Toschak said.

Strictly speaking, Niles, like the studio, has become extinct, swallowed up in suburban sprawl.

But the erstwhile town has retained its sense of community and history.

Faded stars on the sidewalks of Niles Boulevard, the main drag, commemorate the luminaries who once lived here.

Wooden replicas of Chaplin’s mustachioed face are everywhere and the annual Charlie Chaplin Day celebration brings out flesh-and-blood facsimiles for a lookalike contest.

That’s a tradition even the Niles-wary Chaplin would have appreciated.

When similar contests were held as publicity for ``The Tramp,″ Chaplin himself was moved to compete, incognito, in Pasadena, Goldner said.

A lock?

Not quite.

``Chaplin came in third,″ Goldner said.

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