It was Spring in San Francisco. One quiet April morning, in 1906, a San Francisco filmmaker took what was then a relatively new invention, the motion picture camera, and shot a mild, unassuming film of his city’s bustling downtown.
Just a few days later, those same buildings tumbled to the ground.
The silent film captured that morning reflects some of the final hours of a city that would be forever changed by what would become known as the Great San Francisco Earthquake. It was one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, and without the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, the touching, quietly moving impact of such a short film likely would’ve been lost forever.
The Niles Essanay museum is one of the world’s leading curators and preservers of silent film history, memorabilia, and the films themselves. Inside its walls, classic movie posters hang in frames – illustrations of a different time in both filmmaking and art, and antique silent film cameras stand like sentinels guarding the films and memorabilia.
Sifting through the museum’s collections is like sifting through time itself, its pieces remnants of a time so distant now it’s barely a memory.
The quaint, box-shaped little building the museum calls home is itself an historic landmark. Once the location of Niles Essanay Studios – prominent producers of silent films in their heyday – the building and its now-dormant production facilities created and distributed many of the most famous silent films of all time.
Most notably, the studio produced several of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic films, so much so that Chaplin memorabilia and history is one of the museum’s main draws. In fact, the museum remains a key collaborator in Charlie Chaplin-based projects to this day, ranging from news and print features covering Chaplin’s history to homages, as was the case with a recent “Google Doodle” celebrating the great silent star’s birthday.
Today, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum provides an entertaining window into a vastly different era, but also provides an increasingly important service. As modern culture moves further and further away from the silent era, not only its artifacts but also its memories are being lost. Thus, this more than a museum – it is, and will remain, a bank for those memories.