The headline did its job, grabbing my attention right away: "Pleasanton in the Movies".
Within a Museum on Main monthly email newsletter this summer was a poster promoting the programming of a fellow historical center just a few miles to the south in Fremont.
The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum regularly screens films from the early days of American cinema, particularly silent movies whose productions took place in the Bay Area. And twice this month its Edison Theater was hosting showings of movies with scenes shot in Pleasanton.
The first has already happened ("Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", a 1917 picture starring Mary Pickford, on Sept. 9). But the second is coming up this Sunday, 1918's "Little Orphant Annie" featuring Colleen Moore in one of her first acting roles, as part of the museum's weekend-long "Broncho Billy & Friends Silent Film Festival".
I've always been partial to silent movies, shorts and features, no doubt helped by specific exposure to many in the silent film course I took at American University. Names like Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès were prominent. "A Corner in Wheat", "Nosferatu", "Safety Last!" and "Wings" stay with me to this day. Probably why "The Artist" (2011) is one of my favorite movies of the 21st century.
Silent cinema may seem like a niche genre, often discarded as dull or dated, but the films can be incredibly fascinating to watch. Of course, many need to be consumed with a grain of salt for socially distasteful shortcomings, but even those can help show how the industry and America have evolved -- and have not.
For the film buff, a silent movie screening can be a rare treat these days, especially in a setting like the Edison Theater, where the show is often accompanied by live piano music just like they would have been a century before.
"It gives a window to the past, historically speaking, but I also think they are entertaining," David Kiehn, historian and co-founder of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, told me by email ahead of this weekend's film festival. "It shows how modern films are more connected than one might assume to the early days of the medium in terms of quality and storytelling."
The Bay Area became a coveted filming destination in the early 1900s "because it had a wide variety of scenery and was relatively easy to get to from Los Angeles where many of the studios had set up shop," Kiehn said.
While San Francisco and Niles Canyon were among the more recognizable local setting (Chaplin made five films in the Niles/Fremont area, including his famed "The Tramp" for Essanay Studios), Pleasanton got its share of use too for movies starring the likes of Pickford, Pola Negri ("A Woman of the World") and Rudolph Valentino ("Cobra"), according to the museum.
"It looked like a small New England town and it was much closer for the movie people than going to New England. There were picturesque tree-covered streets, white picket fences and the architecture of the houses -- most of which are now gone, unfortunately," Kiehn said of Pleasanton in that era.
This weekend's film festival is all about highlighting the Bay Area's connection to the dawn of mainstream cinema. And the schedule is certainly full for these three days.
A pre-festival "Silent San Francisco Walking Tour" in the afternoon precedes the opening night film, "Salomy Jane", a dramatic Western filmed in Marin, at 7:30 p.m. this Friday (Sept. 29).
On Saturday, there will be a walking tour of Niles or a screening of the two-reel Western filmed in Niles in 2013 by the museum "Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret" to choose from at 11 a.m. Then the 2017 documentary "Beyond the Bolex" at 1 p.m, a collection of five shorts from the 1910s by Essanay Film Co. at 3:30 p.m., and the 1925 feature "The Last Edition" shot in San Francisco at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday will see programs "The Blooming of Color Home Movies: The California Nursery in Lenticular Kodacolor" at 10:30 a.m. and "The Miles Brothers Story" at 12:30 p.m.
Then "Little Orphant Annie" at 2 p.m., a film shot in Pleasanton in 1918 by Selig Polyscope Co., as restored at 35mm by Eric Grayson. Greg Pane will provide piano accompaniment.
"Adversity in young Annie's life leads to strange fantastical imaginings which she conveys to other "orphants" as cautionary tales. Adapted from the poem 'Little Orphant Annie' and short story 'Where Is Mary Alice Smith?' by James Whitcomb Riley," museum officials said. "Much of the exterior location filming was in Pleasanton (Alameda County)."
The "Little Orphant Annie" screening will be preceded by two shorts: "Those Awful Hats" by D.W. Griffith in 1909 and "The Frogs Who Wanted a King" by Wladyslaw Starewicz in 1922.
The festival will close with "A Romance of the Redwoods" (1917) starring Pickford at 4:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.nilesfilmmuseum.org.