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Proto-Hollywood: 100 Melodramas Were Made In La Mesa 100 Years Ago

On Aug. 12, 1911, the American Film Manufacturing Co.’s “Flying A” troupe made La Mesa Springs its new home. Ceremony in The Village will mark the centennial.

One day a century ago, a “rough looking character” came to see director Allan Dwan in La Mesa.  The character claimed that he was there to “shut down” Dwan’s filmmaking operations. 

Dwan claimed that when the character attempted to intimidate him by shooting a pistol at a distant tin can, he missed. 

Dwan then states that he pulled out his pistol and hit the target twice—“and that afternoon he (the Patents man) left town.” 

His sharpshooting showed that he and the American Film Manufacturing Co.—known for its Flying A troupe—were not to be messed with.

Yet Dwan’s story of how he scared off a rival company’s men in La Mesa is pure Hollywood spin.

The Flying A began here Aug. 12, 1911—with its employees working and spending money in La Mesa Springs. They were generally welcomed.  And their presence was quickly reported in the local press.

On Sept. 28, in fact, the Union featured a jarring headline:

Moving Picture Crime Excites Spring Valley Man to Call “Police.”

Reportedly, an unidentified Spring Valley resident had telephoned local sheriff’s deputy Frank Jennings to report a “wholesale slaughter of cowboys” in the field near his home. 

The panicked caller informed the deputy that at least six cowboys were “putting holes in each other as fast as their guns will throw lead.” 

“Look, look, another one has been tumbled from his saddle,” the frantic caller screamed over the phone.  “The ground is covered with blood and it sure is raining bullets.”

The deputy then recognizing that the “crime” was likely the result of the local motion picture concern shooting one of its melodramas.  Jennings reportedly calmed the frantic resident and allayed his fears.

Whether this story was an accurate account of an unsophisticated Spring Valley resident—or perhaps another Allan Dwan public relations stunt—will likely never be known.  But it did put the Flying A in the headlines.

Honoring the Flying A Heritage

Two years ago, local resident Wade Douglas and past La Mesa Historical Society President Gordon Jones formed the La Mesa Historical Society’s Flying A Committee to find ways to honor La Mesa’s role as a pioneer in motion picture history.

At 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 12—100 years to the day that the Flying A arrived in La Mesa Springs—a commemorative plaque will be dedicated on the historic Wolf building to honor that history. 

And at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, at the Grossmont Health District Auditorium at 9001 Wakarusa Drive, Dr. Dana Driskel, UCSB historian and American Film Co. expert will give a lecture on the Flying A, including presentation of several films from the period.

Coming Attractions: Movie Making Moves to La Mesa

On Thursday, Aug. 10, 1911, a San Diego Union headline announced the arrival of a Troupe of Moving Picture Actors at La Mesa.

The paper reported that the American Film Manufacturing Co. of Chicago had taken out a one-year lease on the west half of Martin Wolf’s new business building on the north side of Lookout Avenue near Third Street (now home to the Mostly Mission store). 

The company’s “Western” film troupe, which had reportedly spent the last four months in Lakeside, was to move into the building on Saturday, Aug. 12.

The Wolf Building—which had opened June 1 when Edward Stokes’ undertaking business moved into the building’s eastern half—was being prepared for housing the new and then-high-tech motion picture makers. 

By early August, local contractor C.M. Lestrange had been busy installing partitions and alterations that would subdivide the large storeroom into eight smaller spaces.  These would be used for the company’s office, drying, finishing, developing and “other rooms necessary for proper equipment” for making motion pictures. 

In addition, local real estate broker M. W. McNeil also acquired a lease for the company to the empty 25-by-100-foot lot to the west and the 50 feet behind the Wolf Building.  The company fenced in this area where they built open-air stages with canvas roofs for shooting interior scene sets with La Mesa’s wonderful natural light.

In addition, the company also acquired a lease on a corral near the corner of Date and Orange across from the Allison School to keep the 15 saddle horses used in filming their “out west moving pictures of cowboys and Indians.”

With these improvements, the American Company’s western troupe now had the facilities for not only shooting their films in local, authentic “western” settings but also had the ability to develop, process, edit and test their “master” film prints. 

This new facility provided American’s western unit with its first “brick and mortar” studio to call home—one of the first such facilities in all of California.

Although town leaders were reportedly excited to have the 20- to 25-person company of actors, cameramen and support crew here, little did La Mesa know the significance that American, and its young director Allan Dwan, would eventually have in the industry’s history.

American Film and the Independents vs. the Patent Company

Motion pictures, and the people who made them, were something of a fascinating mystery to most people in 1911, even those in a new, progressive town such as La Mesa Springs.  (The first formal documentation of movies being exhibited is not until April 1912.)

The technology was in its infancy and its role as a mass media entertainment vehicle was in the midst of its most dynamic and volatile era. 

Thomas Edison had invented the motion picture camera in the 1890s and the Edison Co. held the patents on these machines.

After the production of Edwin Porter’s landmark The Great Train Robbery, a roughly 12-minute long narrative “feature film” in 1903, the value of films as mass entertainment was evident. 

Porter’s use of cross-cutting edits, double-exposure, camera movement and location-shooting helped turn movie making into an entertainment art.  And with this new “art-form” an exponentially profitable commercial venture rapidly grew.

Still the Edison Co. and their licensees controlled the manufacture, distribution and exhibition of most of these early films.  Pioneering newer companies such as William Selig’s Polyscope (which moved to Los Angeles in 1907), and George Spoor and actor Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson’s Chicago-based Essanay (S and A) companies were some of the newer film production companies joining with the Edison trust.

In 1908, Edison and its main licensees along with many former competitors formed what was known as the Motion Pictures Patent Co. to control their monopoly.

Yet with the public’s demand for new films growing rapidly, especially Westerns, a series of independent film exchange owners—the regional companies making their profits in renting out film product for exhibition—looked to bypass the Patent Co.’s stranglehold on the industry and its product.

One of those was Chicago exchange owner Samuel Hutchinson.  Hutchinson and exchange partners Harry Aitken, John Freuler and Charles Hite realized that the best way to meet their customers’ demands and avoid the legal challenges for not paying commissions to the Patent’s General Film Co. was to create their own film product—and subsequently their own production company.

American Film for the American People

In October 1910, the trade magazine Motion Picture World announced the formation of the new, independent film company—the American Film Manufacturing Co.  In a clear message to the Patent’s trust, the company motto said it all, “American Film for the American People.”

As Flying A historian Timothy Lyons wrote in his 1974 dissertation The Silent Partner: The History of the American Film Manufacturing Company 1910-1921, Hutchinson and his partners were not initially mentioned as they were all still in litigation with the Patents trust over “illegal” distribution of Trust product. 

Undaunted, Hutchinson and his “silent” partners filled their new company with experienced filmmakers and acting talent from their Chicago neighbors, the Trust’s Essanay Co. 

American’s “raid” of rival Essanay’s talent would lead to many later confusions of dates and participants in the Flying A’s story—especially after these companies shared time in La Mesa in early 1912. 

American not only raided Essanay’s staff to set up a studio in Chicago for filming social comedies and dramas, but American also copied Essanay’s lead and created a “Western” troupe to travel the west for realistic filming locations. 

Essanay had set the western location standard starting in 1908 when it moved a crew through the southwest and California in search of authentic film locations for its extremely popular “Bronco Billy” westerns. 

In 1910, Bronco Billy Anderson himself led the Essanay western troupe throughout Southern California, then up to Santa Barbara and the central coast to the Bay Area—familiarizing his staff and subsequently those of the soon-to-be established American Film Co.—with California’s filming opportunities.

The Flying A Heads West

American’s three production companies—all to produce films under the trade name “Flying A” after the company’s trademarked “winged “A” logo—began filming immediately. 

The Western troupe, under the direction of former Essanay man Frank Beal, was originally sent to Wisconsin to create some initial product.  As winter approached, the American staff recognized the need to find real and viable western locations. 

On Dec. 3, 1910, American announced in Motion Picture World that its western company would travel the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico on the way to what it would later publicize as western films “made in the West—of the West—and by our Western Company.”

Later that month, the Flying A’s western troupe had made it through New Mexico and onto Tucson, Arizona.  Here they began to try to produce two “one-reel” westerns per week to help supply the independent’s need for product. 

According to Dr. Dana Driskel’s 2003 documentary on the Flying A, An American Film Company, the western unit struggled to produce on a regular basis in these early months.  Reportedly watched by their Patent’s company rivals, they continued to move around.  By early 1911, Beal’s company had made it out to Southern California. 

Although one of the Patent Company’s “spies” had heard that the company had broken up over “internal squabbles,” the rumor was unfounded.

However the lack of regular, and quality, product worried Hutchinson and the American executives.  In order to check up on his western unit, Hutchinson sent young writer Allan Dwan out to California to find the troupe and report back.

Dwan, an electrical engineering graduate of Notre Dame and expert in lighting, had turned to his talents as a storyteller and began writing film scenarios.  A former Essanay employee as well, Timothy Lyons believed that Dwan likely had traveled to California with Essanay in 1909-10.

He found American’s western troupe at a small hotel in San Juan Capistrano in Orange County in early April 1911.  The company of eight actors, a group of cowboys, the company horses and all the crew were idle. 

Dwan reported that Beal had allegedly gone to Los Angeles “on a binge” for two weeks and nothing was in production.  When he wired to Chicago that the director was missing and that the company should be disbanded, Hutchinson reportedly sent the simple response: “You Direct.”

This is Dwan’s version of the beginnings of his legendary career as a director and producer that would span more than 50 years and 400 films—a career that eventually would see him direct such stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Shirley Temple and John Wayne.

Dwan had a talent for “spinning a tale” that is evident in his many later reminiscences of these early industry years.  Besides yarns on taking over the Flying A’s western troupe, he told similar “dramatic” stories to his biographer Peter Bogdanovich as well as to film historians Timothy Lyons, Kevin Brownlow and Dana Driskel. 

One of the most repeated of these stories was how Dwan reportedly scared off one of the Patent Company’s “thugs.”  Stories of snipers shooting out cameras and roughing-up talent were rampant during this period.  Dwan reportedly claimed to have hired armed guards to protect the company and its equipment. 

This claim of hired guards was later echoed by one of his early actors, Marshall Neilan. 

Dwan’s Nomads Find a Home

With his charge to add director to his screenwriting duties, Dwan gathered up the company and moved south toward San Diego.  He recalled that in these nomadic days they would travel until they found a good location, write a scenario to fit the setting, film a one-reeler (12-14 minute feature) in a day or two—and move on.

In late April, Dwan led his crew to Lakeside at the end of the San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern railroad.  Here they found the large Victorian style Lakeside Inn and automobile racetrack (a definite novelty of the day), Lindo Lake and plenty of arid landscape. 

Dwan used Lakeside as a base for about four months.  Although the stability had helped get the cast and crew into a steady production rhythm of two films a week, Lakeside still had some shortcomings. 

First, the U.S. Army troops brought into San Diego County to protect the border from the uprisings of the Mexican Revolution (see this History Gems article) had moved into Lakeside about the same time as the Flying A. The Army camping next to the lake and drilling and marching about the Inn clogged up locations. 

But more important was the fact that Lakeside had yet to receive electrical power from San Diego Gas and Electric Co.

Thus it makes sense that La Mesa Springs—with the new Wolf Building available for developing and processing the master films, next to an empty lot for constructing required open-air “interior sets,” being an hour closer to San Diego by train, and a fully electrified town—made it a better location for development of a movie studio.

Producing One-Reelers

Upon their arrival in La Mesa Springs on Aug. 12, 1911, Dwan’s crew was becoming a well-oiled moviemaking team.  Over the next 11 months they would produce some 100 films for exhibition—an average of two a week.

Dwan recalled his “organic” production methods in this period in Bogdanovich’s 1971 biography, Allan Dwan, The Last Pioneer:

I’d pile everyone into two buckboards, a ranch wagon for equipment, the cowboys on their horses—the actors too if they were riding in the picture.  On the way out, I’d try to contrive something to do.  I’d see a cliff or something of the sort.  I had a heavy named Jack Richardson, so we’d send J. Warren Kerrigan, the leading man, up there to struggle with Richardson and throw him off a cliff.  Now having made the last scene of the picture, I had to go backwards and try how to figure out why all this happened.

The company’s experienced cast of regulars including lead J. Warren “Jack” Kerrigan, who would become one of the country’s most famous actors (he was named Photoplay magazine’s most popular film actor in 1913 and 1914), heavy Jack Richardson, character actress Louise Lester, young female lead Pauline Bush (later to become Mrs. Dwan), and C.M. Morrison and his cowboys.

All headlined the crew while at La Mesa.

During a 1978 interview with Dana Driskel, Dwan noted that the production pace was such that he and his crew never saw a final print of the movies during their time in La Mesa.  Their raw master print was developed, edited and prepped in La Mesa, then transported via railroad back to Chicago for reproduction and distribution.

Dwan and his experienced crew’s rapid production schedule regularly paid homage to the local landscape. 

Titles of Flying A films produced in the period featuring local references including The Poisoned Flume, Bonita of El Cajon, Mystical Maid of Jamacha Pass, Bandit of Point Loma, The Land Baron of San-Tee, and The Winning of La Mesa

All were simple melodramas where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and everyone lives happily ever after—all in around 12-14 minutes.

Flying A Cowboys Serve the Community

In late November 1911, Dwan recalled that his tight production schedule was interrupted. 

Just a few days after Thanksgiving a series of wildfires broke out between El Cajon and Alpine.  The local authorities subsequently arrived in town looking for able-bodied young men.  C.M. Morrison and the Flying A cowboys, much to Dwan’s chagrin, were enjoined for a week to help fight the fires. 

Still, other times the cowboys proved to be helpful closer to home.  Historic photographs of the June 1912 La Mesa town Clean Up Day and Fourth of July parade that year show Flying A’s “movie cowboys” chipping in to help out as well as provide public relations icons.

Essanay Visits La Mesa

On Dec. 20, 1911 the Union featured an article that promised to make La Mesa the new center to the growing Southern California movie industry.  The article noted the Trust’s Essanay Co. was asking about property to house 30-40 employees in La Mesa with the potential to build their own studio there.

This announcement may have been one of the first concerns that the Flying A had with La Mesa—and the roots of the stories that the Patents trust members were pressuring the Flying A.

Interestingly, three weeks later on Jan. 13, 1912, the Union reported that the Essanay Company had moved into the area from San Francisco for at least five or six months.  Bronco Billy Anderson himself was in charge of the company in search of a dry winter climate, and if things went well that they might build their own studios in the area. 

Union articles in February and March documented that the Essanay crew was filming in and around La Mesa but had recently established its regular operations at Lakeside (which now had electric power). On March 31, in fact, it also was reported that Essanay was to return to San Diego from Lakeside on its way back to Northern California.

La Mesa and the Movie People: Friends or Foe

It was also clear from a Union article on April 27, 1912, that Essanay had made itself an unwelcome presence in La Mesa to more than just the Flying A crew.  It also may be part of the confusion of how the La Mesans reportedly regarded the Flying A movie people. 

The Union article’s author then made a great effort to note that the Flying A cast and crew was a remarkably “well behaved one” [movie people group], but “others became unmanageable if deprived of amusement; and the one which recently departed from La Mesa for Sunol” (Essanay’s Niles Canyon studio location) were such a group.

The belief that La Mesans were somewhat unfriendly to the movie companies may have its origins from these statements. 

In a Jan. 7, 1962, San Diego Union article titled La Mesa could have been Hollywood…If, Dan Woodman, a local who played cowboy roles for the Flying A in La Mesa, and for a year in Santa Barbara, recalled that “some of [the La Mesans] objected to the presence of a motion picture company and a troupe of actors in its midst.” 

Woodman was convinced that some La Mesans were so fearful of the movie people that “they just plain ran us out of town.” 

From this point on, the lore that the La Mesans had run the Flying A out of town was repeated. This fueled the belief that Flying A’s exit was the community’s own fault and that La Mesa missed becoming “Hollywood before Hollywood.”

Wallace Kerrigan—Jack’s brother and the Flying A’s business manager—reported a slightly different sentiment in a June 18, 1912, article in the Santa Barbara Morning Press

Kerrigan recalled that: “When we came to La Mesa, a preacher at a church warned his congregation against the moving picture people.  Now everybody is trying to induce us to remain.”

Interestingly in the April 27, 1912, San Diego Union article that praised the retreat of the troublesome Essanay troupe, Dwan commented on how he and the Flying A Co. felt about La Mesa as a place for making movies. 

Dwan was quoted as saying that “La Mesa is the best place in the world for the taking of motion pictures.  The scenic advantages are the most important, but the climate is the chief attraction.”

The Flying A Moves On

But Dwan’s glowing praise of La Mesa countered his real plans. 

In May he asked one of his actors, Marshall Neilan, to scout out Santa Barbara as a possible new location.  Neilan’s report was very positive and Dwan sent Wallace Kerrigan to Santa Barbara in June to secure a new lease.

The real reason for leaving, however, was the need for new and varied scenery. 

Flying A cameraman Roy Overbaugh relayed this reality in a 1954 interview for the Santa Barbara Historical Society quoted in Stephen Lawton’s 1997 book Santa Barbara’s Flying A Studio.

Overbaugh said that:

after working out of La Mesa for about two [sic] years and photographing exterior scenes exclusively, we practically ran out of settings.  We had photographed nearly all the worthwhile scenery within a reasonable working radius.

In the same June 18, 1912, Santa Barbara Morning Press article, it was quite clear that the Flying A was preparing to move.  On July 5, a Morning Press headline reported La Mesa’s Flying A fate: 

Film Company Come Tomorrow to Locate in Santa Barbara: Company of Thirty from La Mesa Secures Lease on former Ostrich Farm.

American’s Santa Barbara Success

In reality, the move made great business sense for the Flying A, especially if it were to grow and prosper.  The Flying A was looking to broaden its California productions beyond Westerns. 

Just as with almost all of the major motion picture production companies of the time, it wished to move all its production activities to temperate Southern California.

Santa Barbara provided not only similar natural landscapes to La Mesa, but its new location also was but a few minutes from the beach and ocean, and still within 20 minutes of the rugged Santa Ynez mountains. 

Large orange groves with elaborate estates and a growing town of 15,000 provided more extras and many new storyline options.

While La Mesa had but three or four business blocks, all built in the previous five years, Santa Barbara’s downtown streets, with their decades-old Victorian architecture, could double for any town or city in the country.

Within two years, the Flying A had built what historian Driskel called the most technically advanced movie studio in the country in the 1910s.  Over the next decade the company would produce nearly 1,000 films before going out of business in 1921, making it one of the most prolific studios of the times.

Dwan and wife Pauline Bush would leave the company in 1913, and he would go onto a legendary career for the Hollywood studios. Kerrigan and Lester became even bigger stars for American in the following years, and the company would add other stars such as 1910s teenage sensation Mary Miles Minter.

La Mesa’s Movie Heritage

Although La Mesa lost the Flying A, the town has always been mindful of its pioneering role in the motion picture industry.  In 1916, the La Mesa Scout reported on the formation of a new studio on James Murray’s land near the Murray Hill reservoir. 

Although this proved to be a false start, Ed Fletcher would eventually attract Arthur Sawyer’s S-L Studios to the Grossmont area in 1922.  Its financial troubles would see it re-form as the Grossmont Studios in 1925. But it too failed to profit and soon was out of business.

Still La Mesa has been the location for other film and television productions over the decades.

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