FILM FESTIVAL ADVENTURES OUTSIDE THE THEATER – Exploring the Silent Era in San Francisco Today

by Gary Meyer

Despite the silver screen temptations of a Film Festival one must get outside, take a walk, breathe the air and see some related sights. Bring your jacket because it is, after all, the unpredictable summer in San Francisco. Mark Twain may not have really said “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” but it is apt.

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(This article was written for people attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival but most of it applies to anyone interested in San Francisco’s past and its relation to the movies. We have and will continually update it to be current.)

One of the easiest things you can do is take “A Trip Down Market Street” towards the Ferry Building, replicating the trip filmed by the Miles Brothers shortly before the 1906 earthquake.

Take a vintage F Market Streetcar from the Castro (or anywhere along Market) all the way to the Ferry Building (about 25 minutes). Sit near the front for the best view. The original film started its journey at the Civic Center near where Hyde and 8th Street meet Market. When you get off at the end you might visit the Ferry Building and its many food related shops and the nearby Railway Museum.

Walk around the area to see several fine buildings, especially in the Financial District. Don’t miss The Palace Hotel (1875) with the Pied Piper Bar dominated by its namesake large Maxfield Parrish painting.


The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival premiere of the newly discovered Miles Brothers’ film showed a very different Market Street just after the earthquake. As it starts we can barely see the Ferry Building’s spire through the smoke and dust but as we move forward it becomes ever more visible.

"Market Street toward ferry." San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of…

There is destruction everywhere you look yet San Franciscans are going about their business, many dressed in their Sunday finest. We will add this footage as soon as it is available online.I can’t wait to watch the two films side-by-side.

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Location, Location, Location

Many movies were shot during the silent era in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The Essanay Studios were located in Niles, near Fremont in the East Bay. Bronco Billy Anderson and Charlie Chaplin were the studio’s big stars. The film historian who restored the Market Street films, David Kiehn is based at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum where you can see some of the surviving parts of the studio, explore the filmmaking past in the museum, visit the fantastic book and gift store and watch classic films in the Edison Theater. The small town has numerous antique stores, good dining and a vintage railroad. Driving time from San Francisco is about one hour in good traffic. Add 30 minutes to take BART with a bus or cab connection from the Fremont station. One can happily spend a day exploring Niles.

This KPIX documentary, WHEN THE MOVIES CAME FROM NILES about Essanay Studios is quite entertaining and informative though available footage when it was made in 1964 is often poor.

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Closer would be to find the Golden Gate Park sites where Chaplin filmed A JITNEY ELOPEMENT and IN THE PARK. Chaplin Film Locations Then & Now will be your guide.


Try a tour of Buster Keaton San Francisco locations as detailed by John Bengston on his fascinating Silent Locations website.

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For more location info check links for AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY (one of several films Mary Pickford shot here), Erich Von Stroheim’s GREED, Lon Chaney in THE PENALTY and MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY starring Rudolph Valentino and Dorothy Dalton.

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You can also walk through the Palace of Fine Arts, one of the buildings visited by Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle during the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair.

(You should put some music on while you watch)

There is much more of course and you might prepare for future explorations by reading Geoffrey Bell’s excellent book The Golden Gate and The Silver Screen and Margarita Landazuri’s online “How Cinema Was Born By the Bay” to learn about San Francisco in the movies.   Many films set in the city by the bay were filmed elsewhere. But there are hundreds of movies made in the bay area since the silent era.

Musée Mécanique has a collection of over 200 operating mutoscopes, mechanical musical instruments and other antique arcade machines. Free Admission near Fisherman’s Wharf.


Read Christine U’Ren’s articles.


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Paramount Theater, Oakland

The San Francisco Bay Area enjoys a large number of surviving theaters from the silent and early sound era. Some still show movies and others feature live acts. From the ornate theaters like the Castro, Curran, Orpheum, Golden Gate, Geary, Warfield, Metro and Alhambra (the last two now gyms but worth a look inside). The New Mission in San Francisco was restored by the Alamo Cinema team. The Paramount, Fox, Piedmont and Grand Lake in Oakland are historic theaters as are the United Artists, U.C. Elmwood, and California in Berkeley, Stanford in Palo Alto, Cerrito in El Cerrito,Orinda in Orinda, Park in Lafayette (to be restored),Rafael in San Rafael and California Theatre in San Jose to more modest yet charming historic neighborhood venues including San Francisco’s Balboa, Roxie, Vogue, Victoria, 4-Star, Empire, Brava and Presidio. Some have been multiplexed but the early charms may be found. The North Bay has the Lark in Larkspur, Sebastiani in Sonoma, Empress in Vallejo, and Uptown in Napa.

The Avenue Theater is closed but the facade and marquee have been lovingly restored and there are hopes it can reopen. The Avenue is notable for showing silent films every weekend during the 1960s featuring Robert Vaughn among others at the might Wurlitzer. The big event was when the Avenue and Pacific Film Archive presented the first screenings of Kevin Brownlow’s early restored version Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON with the full three screen finale scored by Vaughn.

A major online project by Bill Counter is adding information and photos of San Francisco Theaters daily. Maybe you have something to contribute.

Books worth reading are Jack Tilmany’s Theaters of San Francisco, Theaters of Oakland and Theaters of the San Francisco Peninsula, co-authored with Gary Lee Parks who also produced Theaters of San Jose. The Oakland Paramount by Susannah Harris Stone is a small but lovely book about that palace. And Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters has essays by Eddie Muller, Rebecca Solnit, Joshua Grannell, Elizabeth Houseman, Chi-Hui Yang, Katherine Petrin, Liz Keim, Julie Lindow and others are accompanied by the evocative photographs of R.A. McBride.

Have you heard of the Camera Phone Theatre of 1908? Read Woody LaBounty’s recent article on Open SF History, a very good place to learn more San Francisco history along with his OutsideLands exploring the western part of the city. Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 2.22.58 AM.png


If you are a historic radio fan there is the ongoing California Historical Radio Society in the former Sunset Telephone & Telegraph Building (1900) in Alameda. There are hundreds of radios from the early 20th century to modern times in their museum along with artifacts and archives from the bay area history of radio. The museum is under construction but exhibits can be viewed on the twice monthly Saturday volunteer workdays and at the quarterly swap.  Free admission. Information on the Events Calendar.

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Mark Saturday July 20, 2019 on your calendar for Radio Day By the Bay. This annual event includes your chance to hear live music from Radio’s Golden Age, see a radio play, bid on or purchase a radio from the past – 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s at great prices.


The Disney Family Museum is not a theme park nor a children’s attraction. It was a dream come true by the late Diane Disney who hired artists and designers to tell the story of creativity using her father’s life as our tour guide. The Disney Company has no say in what goes on here other than to give permission to use images. I have taken skeptics who became fans and returned for multiple visits. The early part of the tour includes the story of Walt’s silent Laugh-O-Grams, the Alice cartoons and his collaboration with Ub Iwerks on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with homages to other early animators he admired. And then we move to sound where there are wonderfully fun interactive exhibits followed by every aspect of Disney’s career and projects with a fascinating look at the creation of Disneyland. The Museum does not shy away from some of the controversial issues such as the animators strike in the 1940s.

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There is a lot to see.  If you live in the bay area consider joining the Museum so you can return often and not feel like you have to see everything on one visit. We suggest that you break the visit in half by going for lunch at one of the excellent nearby restaurants including the Museum Café.  You can also have nice hikes in the Presidio and possibly visit the site where James Stewart pulls Kim Novak out of the bay in VERTIGO.



As mentioned above the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is a fun visit that reveals a movie-making history that most people don’t know.

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Marvel at the early camera, beautiful stone litho posters and surprises around every corner.


In addition to the weekly film screenings and other joys of the Museum and Niles, there are two major annual summer events, the Broncho Billy Film Festival  and Charlie Chaplin Days, a fun weekend where people can dress up as silent film characters. It is quite a sight seeing all ages looking their Chaplin best. Screenings and seminars fill the weekend.

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The Bronco Billy Silent Film Festival features rare films, some in 3D and unusual film formats and a series of panels.

broncho_billy.jpg“Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company” by David Kiehn  offers a rare inside look at a silent-era movie company in action, with the participants often speaking for themselves: cameramen describe a job unknown to the world only a few short years before; actors talk about their craft; cowboys tell of being cowboys. Along the way, Anderson provides insight into the life of a filmmaker. Illustrated with 270 photographs.



We encourage our readers to offer suggestions, additions and corrections as we know there is much more to be discovered. The next article in this series will explore the movie palaces and classic neighborhood in the bay area. Future entries might cover classic neon, the many film archives in the bay area, the splendid surviving hotels, restaurants, commercial and civic buildings as well as homes and neighborhoods. Please post your thoughts and images on our Facebook page.


We urge you to purchase the books listed here from your local independent bookseller. They can order those not in stock. You can also order from independent bookstores via Indiebound. For your reference and research we have used Amazon links.

*Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City- A San Francisco Atlas has a wonderful essay and map, “Cinema City” tracing the movies made in San Francisco starting with Eadweard Muybridge. Her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West is a thrilling tale about the birth of the movies.

*John Bengston’s books on filming locations for Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are great fun. His website includes:

How Chaplin Filmed THE CHAMPION –on Location in Niles

Chaplin’s San Jose Day Making A Night Out

Chaplin’s The Tramp – ‘New’ Views of One of Cinema’s Most Iconic Scenes, Filmed in Niles

World Film Locations: San Francisco by Scott Jordan Harris is a thorough guide. You can preview the book here.

A perfect companion volume is Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover’s Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations by Jim Van Buskirk and Will Shank.

San Francisco Film Locations Then & Now is a terrific website constantly being updated as a labor of live by Tim Welsh who describes it as  “A Then and Now Tour and History of San Francisco Through Films and Photography.”

Here is a sample:

decadeschaplinuse1915 – ‘A Jitney Elopement’: Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance race north past Golden Gate Park on an unpaved Great Highway attempting to elope. Sutro Heights can be seen in the distance.

*The Library of Congress has some rare early documentary films of the City.

*MAPHOOK has created an app that allows you to look at dozens of locations based on where you happen to be standing.

*Reel SF is an ongoing exploration of where movies were filmed in the City and what the locations look like now with an emphasis on Film Noir and the 1960s and 1970s. Subscribe for updates.

*San Francisco Film Locations Then & Now

*Film in America locations guide.

*If you are a Film Noir fan you must have Nathaniel Rich’s San Francisco Noir.

*Footsteps in the Fog is Aaron Leventhal’s excellent book about Hitchcock’s many bay area movies.


Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve-years-old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre screening dozens of silent films with music arranged from his parents’ record collection. Over 250 films were screened along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, “Nort!” and a film newsletter, “Ciné.”  After film school at SFSU he calls his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created several film festivals including the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014.  He founded the online magazine, in April 2014.

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