Before Hollywood, there was Flying A — but before Flying A, there was Essanay, the film company that first brought the silver screen to Santa Barbara. In January of 1910, 14 people from the company arrived in Santa Barbara on a three-month odyssey of filmmaking. After their departure from our coastal hideaway, Santa Barbara’s good reputation for moviemaking spread to the famous Flying A studios, which set up base off State Street just two years later to much success.
As a fundraiser for the County Parks Foundation, three Essanay movies were “premiered” anew Thursday night in the historic Mural Room of the Courthouse. Dr. Dana Driskel of UCSB accompanied the movies with a conversation on Essanay’s history and stories.
Among the supporters and guests was Mary Anne Morrison, granddaughter of cowboy “Chick” Morrison of Flying A fame. She lent a hand in coordinating the event and has worked with Driskel for more than a decade to identify her own many Morrison relatives in early S.B. films.
Although only 10 percent of films from the silent era remain, Driskel has traveled around the world to track down gems like this. The fundraiser’s three all came from the archives of the Library of Congress, but other collections exist in the U.K. and in Amsterdam.
The audience favorite was Method in his Madness, which showed two vagrants who learned they could con any of State Street’s 21 saloon owners (yes, downtown had that many bars in 1910, according to Driskel) into giving them a free drink by pretending to have a fit on the sidewalk. Released in March 1910 — just two months after filming — the piece created a controversy in town when bar owners became annoyed that they didn’t get any free publicity by getting to showcase their establishment in the background.
Film Number Two — The Fence on the Bar Z Ranch — displayed Widow Brown’s gun-totin’ fury in a border dispute with her very manly neighbors. Her two young children were played by Santa Barbara’s own The Wonderful Osborn Children, who performed in a musical act at the Santa Barbara Opera House in between picture shows, according to Driskel.
Finally came The Ranch Girl’s Legacy, about a young girl who will only receive her wealthy dead uncle’s inheritance if she marries his nephew. Both go to outrageous lengths to come off as uncouth and gross, but fall in love when the veil is lifted.
Even though the silent film era came and went without much of a trace in town, it’s seeing a revival as locals begin to recognize their humor and history. After the fundraiser’s success with the audience (who laughed out loud and cried enthusiastically), the Parks Foundation is already working on another movie showing of Essanay and Flying A films for this spring and says it may even incorporate those movies into the summer showings at the Sunken Gardens.