Local Author Debuts Book: Movies & Million-Dollar Mansions: Silent Movies Made in Montecito

Montecito is home to celebrities and royalty, with mansions hidden behind tall hedges, long driveways, and locked gates. But a century ago, the welcome mat was out for actors and film crews making movies set in tropical islands, Ancient Rome, and other locales. 

Local author & historian Betsy J. Green has found 65 silent movies that were filmed in and at Montecito’s multi-million-dollar estates back in the glory days, and has compiled her research into a newly-released book, “Movies & Million-Dollar Mansions: Silent Movies Made in Montecito.”  

In addition to Santa Barbara’s “Flying A” studio, as many as nineteen Hollywood studios also filmed in Montecito during the 19teens and 1920s. In the early decades of filming, before the years of big budgets, it was more cost effective to find an existing mansion than to build one or to create a realistic set. Montecito’s proximity to Hollywood and wealth of luxurious estates made it an attractive solution

The films were befitting of their settings, beginning with religious themes in 1911, then turned into melodramas and adventure; 1928 saw a jazz-age movie based on a Broadway musical. The book is structured with a chapter for each movie. Each contains a lively synopsis, behind-the-scenes info, plus photos from the film and its million-dollar setting, with over 450 images in total. The book’s cover contains a scene from a movie that was filmed at the first “Bellosguardo” mansion.

Green, who also authors the Independent’s Great House Detective column, will present her book at Chaucer’s Books on August 29 at 6:00 PM, as well as other upcoming local venues.  

We sat down to ask Green about the inspiration behind her efforts. 

What led you to choose this particular topic?

As I wrote my Way Back When series for 1914-1919, I was impressed by how many movies were being filmed in our area. I focused on Montecito because it was interesting to see how the estates there were used to represent Ancient Rome, France in the time of Louis XIV, etc. It was also interesting that so many estates were open to movie studios filming on their properties, compared to the present day when most estates are hidden.

Did you have a passion for silent films before this project?

I didn’t have a special interest in silent films before I began researching Santa Barbara history in the 19 teens. As I looked through old newspapers, I got curious about the movies playing in the local cinemas, and started looking for these movies online. Watching old silent films is a way to travel back into the past.

What was something that surprised you while doing research for the book?

I started out thinking that Santa Barbara’s “Flying A” studio did nearly all of the filming in Montecito. But I discovered that more than 15 studios from the Hollywood area traveled up here to film at Montecito’s estates.

Do you have any upcoming projects in the works for the future?

There’s a lot of interesting movie history in our area, so my next book (for next year) is about the 200+ silent movies filmed on the Channel Islands, and then another book about the interesting happenings behind the scenes at the “Flying A” and the other studios that filmed here.

Betsy J. Green has been a writer for more than 25 years. She was an editor at “Reader’s Digest” and “World Book Encyclopedia” and has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines worldwide. She specializes in history, architecture, and the environment. She has written seven books about Santa Barbara history, including the “Way Back When” series and “MESApedia.” In her spare time, she writes “The Great House Detective” column for The Santa Barbara Independent.

Speaking dates: 

Aug. 29 – Chaucer’s Books

Sept. 10 – Montecito Library

Sept. 28 – SB Historical Museum

Groups or organizations that are interested in having Betsy present a talk or slideshow can reach her through her website at betsyjgreen.com

Signed copies of the book are available at Chaucer’s Books and the Mesa Bookstore. Copies are also available here on Amazon.com

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