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La Mesa's Cinematic Past Focus of Silent Film Festivity

The La Mesa Historical Society will re-live local history when on Saturday Jan. 11, they will bring the “Flying A” movie company back to Spring Valley.

In fact, a little more than 102 years ago the American Film Manufacturing Company’s “Flying A” troupe apparently made quite an impression there.

On Sept. 28, 1911 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 deputy Sheriff Frank Jennings to report a “wholesale slaughter of cowboys” in the field near his home.

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

The Sheriff soon recognized that the “hub-bub” was likely the result of the local motion picture concern shooting one of their melodramas.

Whether this story was an accurate account of an unsophisticated Spring Valley resident – or perhaps another of the Flying A company’s energetic and imaginative new director’s public relations stunt – is one that will likely never be known. But it did put the Flying A into the local headlines.

It was just a month before that the Aug. 10, 1911 edition of the San Diego Union announced the arrival of this “Troupe of Moving Picture Actors at La Mesa.”

The Union article detailed that the Chicago-based pioneering motion picture company 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 pioneering “Western” film troupe, which had travelled the southwest for location filming that winter, had spent the previously four months in Lakeside.

The new La Mesa facility provided their first “brick and mortar” studio and just the third such facility in all of California (beating Hollywood’s first studio by a few months).

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 new director Allan Dwan, would eventually have in the industry’s history.

Dwan was just beginning his legendary career as a director and producer that would span over 50 years and 400 films. A career that eventually would see him direct such stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Shirley Temple, and John Wayne.

Upon their arrival in La Mesa Springs, Dwan’s crew was becoming a well-oiled movie making team. Over the next eleven months they would produce approximately 100 films for exhibition – an average of two a week.

The Company’s experienced cast of regulars included 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.

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

In June 1912 however, the Flying A moved on to a new home in Santa Barbara – looking for new and varied scenery – and leaving La Mesa to wonder if we might have become “Tinseltown” ourselves.

Evening of Flying A Movie Heritage

On Saturday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Trinity Presbyterian Church, 3902 Kenwood Dr., Spring Valley, the La Mesa Historical Society in concert with the Theatre Organ Society of San Diego will present an evening of family-friendly silent movie entertainment.

The program will include the showing of one of the locally produced 1911 Allan Dwan directed Flying A one-reelers “The Ranchman’s Nerve,” along with silent film superstar Douglas Fairbanks in his swashbuckling silent farewell from 1929, “The Iron Mask” (sequel to The Three Musketeers).

Noted San Diego organist Russ Peck will accompany the films on the Theatre Organ Society’s historic pipe organ installed at the Church.

Pre-event tickets (up to Jan. 4th) can be obtained from the Historical Society ($12 for adults; $8 for children 5-12) and day of at the event ($15 for adults; $10 for children). For more event information contact the Society at 619-466-0107 or go to lamesahistory.com.

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