The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1976, Volume 22, Number 4
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor

By Blaine P. Lamb

Images from the Article

Although the film industry had its genesis on the East Coast there soon occurred an exodus of movie makers to points throughout the country. It was not long before these primeval producers found their way to California. As early as 1897, the Thomas Edison Company had cameramen traveling the length and breadth of the Golden State. In February, 1898, an Edison crew shot a picture entitled, Street Scene, San Diego, (California). The entire film was but twenty-five feet long and contained a glimpse of downtown San Diego and a double-decker trolley car taken from a fixed camera position.1 These humble beginnings marked the birth of the motion picture business on the West Coast.

Surprisingly, almost ten years passed before a film company set up permanent operations in California. In late 1907, the Chicago based Selig Polyscope Company located a studio in Los Angeles.2 The fledgling Bison Company of New York became the next firm to move to the Golden State. Arriving in Los Angeles in November, 1909, it set up operations in an empty grocery store and barn.3 In January, 1910, a young director named David Wark Griffith led a troupe of Biograph Company actors and technicians from the East Coast to the city of the Angels. This group soon began working in a vacant lot at the corner of Grand Avenue and Washington Street.4

By 1911, therefore, three firms were in more or less permanent operation on the West Coast. Their films attracted the attention of other film makers in the East and Mid-West. The sunshine and varied environment of Southern California caused an ever increasing number of motion picture companies to locate in the area. Among the first of these pioneers to take advantage of the Southland’s climate and scenery was the American Film Company.

In the summer of 1910, the Chicago advertising firm of O’Malley and Smith released a one reel movie entitled Romantic Redskins. The nonsensical picture met with moderate success, and on October 5, 1910, two Chicago entrepreneurs, John R. Freuler and Samuel S. Hutchinson, revealed themselves as the real producers of the film. They also proudly announced the establishment of the American Film Manufacturing Company, otherwise known as the Flying A.5 Proclaiming that they would make “American Film for the American People,” Freuler and Hutchinson asserted that every employee of their studio and office had from two to five years previous experience in the young motion picture industry.6

American Flying A was organized with its studio and main office in Chicago. In the fall of 1910, Freuler and Hutchinson sent a troup of actors to make cowboy pictures in Wisconsin.7 The adverse Wisconsin winter, however, necessitated the formation of a second production unit in a warmer climate. By December, this group, headed by director Frank Beal had located in Tucson, Arizona8

The company remained in Arizona until early 1911. At that time there occurred a managerial shakeup and the Western troupe moved to San Juan Capistrano, California, where a young technician named Allan Dwan9 replaced Beal. Dwan later recalled the circumstances under which he became a director:

There were about eight actors, a lot of cowboys, some horses, and everyone was sitting there doing nothing. I said, ‘Why aren’t you working?’ They said, ‘Well, our director has been away on a binge for two weeks in Los Angeles, and we don’t see him very often, so we haven’t made any pictures.’ It looked like a pretty bad situation and I wired the Chicago office, ‘I suggest you disband the company. You have no director.’ They wired me back, ‘You direct.’ So I got the actors together and said, ‘Now either I’m a director or you’re out of work.’ And they said, ‘You’re the best damn director we ever saw. You’re great.’ I said, ‘What do I do? What does a director do?’ So they took me out and showed me. And it worked.10

At that time, the American Film Company was an independent firm which did not belong to the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company. This infamous “Film Trust” sought to monopolize the movie business, and often used violent and extra-legal methods to accomplish this end.11 By late May, 1911, the Flying A’s Western troup had relocated at Lakeside, California in order to avoid the hired thugs of the Patents Company.12 Dwan set up a makeshift studio near the Lakeside Hotel where he and the actors lived. The actresses and cowboys resided in nearby private dwellings.13 In August, however, due to a lack of available extras in the immediate area, the company again migrated, this time to nearby La Mesa.14

American located its La Mesa studio in the Wolff Building on the north side of Lookout Avenue (today La Mesa Boulevard). Dwan had the interior of the structure partitioned into offices and developing, drying, and finishing rooms. The company also leased the adjoining vacant lot. This provided a total of 7500 square feet of outdoor space within which carpenters erected an open air stage for the filming of “interior” scenes. All members of the group found accommodations in nearby private homes. In addition, the company quartered its animals in a rented stable on Date Street.15

Even in comparatively quiet La Mesa, the Flying A faced danger from Patents Company snipers. Marshall Neilan, who at the time acted for American, recalled that gunmen often aimed at the cameras, rather than actors or technicians. This was because the machines were quite scarce, and a well placed bullet could have put the Western troupe out of business for several months.16 As a precaution, director Dwan posted sentries armed with rifles whenever the picture-makers ventured into remote locations.17

Despite the primitive conditions and threat of violence, American Flying A’s La Mesa troupe turned out well over one hundred one-reel films. Most of these were cowboy pictures, although the troupe produced a significant number of documentaries dealing with Southern California.18

Movie making in the early 1900s required little in the way of planning or preparation. The Flying A company allowed three days for the shooting of two one-reel pictures. Technicians spent another two days developing the films and then shipped them to Chicago for printing and nationwide distribution. This leisurely schedule left the cast and crew free every weekend for sightseeing.19 Director Allan Dwan described a typical day’s activities:

I’d pile everyone into two buckboards, a ranch wagon for our equipment, the cowboys on their horses — the actors too if they were riding in the picture — and off we went out into the country to make a picture. On the way out, I’d try to contrive something to do. 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 the cliff. Now, having made the last scene of the picture, I had to go backwards and try to figure out why all this happened.20

Films made in this manner often came out with a plot line similar to that of The Poisoned Flume, an August, 1911 release:

Mrs. Napier and her daughter, Winnie, are worried over the affairs of their ranch. A neighboring rancher, Martinez, attracted to the girl, offers his aid which is rejected. Mrs. Napier engages a new manager, Jim, who protects the girl from the advances of Martinez and restores the ranch to its former affluence. Water is provided by a flume or trough which carries the water into the valley. The jealous Martinez poisons the water and Napier’s cattle die. Jim investigates, discovers that Martinez is responsible, and confronts the villain. Martinez shoots Jim and the Napier’s cowboys immediately give chase. Martinez is cornered in the flume and shot, his body falling into the water. Meanwhile, Jim is carried home to the ranch and nursed back to health by Winnie.21

Not all of American’s films dealt with such straight Western subjects. They often exploited social issues, as in The Yiddisher Cowboy and The Cowboy Socialist. The company also ventured into the field of medical drama with the August, 1912 production of The Western Doctor’s Peril.22 By 1912, however, the Flying A’s La Mesa players directed their efforts toward the manufacture of cowboy comedies, and attained much success in “. . . corralling the elusive laugh.”23

During the period of time spent in the San Diego area the Flying A company clearly demonstrated the superiority of Southern California as a center for the production of movies. Operating on a shoestring budget and under the most primitive circumstances, the Western troupe eclipsed the Chicago players in the manufacture of popular films.

While in the Southland, however, American’s Western company operated almost entirely out of doors, and by the summer of 1912, much of the available nearby scenery had been photographed.24 Allan Dwan therefore sent Marshall Neilan to locate a new studio site, which he found in Santa Barbara. The Flying A players then moved from La Mesa. In the years which followed, the American Film Company established a large permanent studio in Santa Barbara, and operated there until the company went out of business in the early 1920s.25

Although American left San Diego in 1912, the city of the Silver Gate had by no means seen the last of the picture makers. In late December, 1911, while the Flying A troupe was still operating in La Mesa an agent for another Chicago based firm, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, came to La Mesa and secured accommodations for the members of his troupe.26 Essanay had been formed in 1907, and represented the initials of its founders, George K. Spoor, a Chicago film distributor and exhibitor, and Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the famed cowboy actor, director and producer. Like American, Essanay had its headquarters and a studio in Chicago, and sent a troupe of actors on expeditions into the far West. It was on one such journey that Anderson brought the Essanay Western company to La Mesa.

On January 12, 1912, the bulk of the Essanay Western company arrived in San Diego county with two automobiles, a stage coach, and a herd of trained horses.27 While in the La Mesa vicinity it turned out several “Broncho Billy” cowboy pictures, and a number of “Alkali Ike” comedies, which starred the diminutive but highly popular funnyman, Augustus Carney. At one point, Anderson even contemplated the establishment of a permanent studio in the San Diego area. This plan was never brought to fruition, though, and Essanay Western remained in Southern California for only three months.28

From San Diego, the Essanay Western troupe moved to Niles Canyon in Alameda County. There, Anderson built a large plant, and for a while employed a young English comedian named Charles Chaplin. Essanay’s Eastern studio also continued in operation, and boasted the talents of such performers as Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne, Henry B. Wathall, Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson. Like American, however, Essanay expired in the early 1920s.29

Shortly before the departure of Essanay from La Mesa area, veteran motion picture cameraman, William Paley, arrived in San Diego. Working for the British owned Nestor Company, Paley had been assigned to film local historical and industrial scenes. The local press was quite enthusiastic about Paley’s mission and claimed that his pictures would “Advertise San Diego Throughout the Country.”30 He quickly set about the task, and on May 18, Nestor released a short documentary entitled Estudillo House California:

This very interesting scenic shows the marriage place of Ramona as it is today. ‘Ramona’ as most book lovers know, is the heroine of the great American novel of that name. Estudillo House is where Father Gaspora married Ramona and Alessandro for whom Ramona had left her beautiful home to wander from town to town, happy in her great love for the handsome Indian. Beautiful views of the garden, grape arbor, wishing well, and temporary abode of Ramona are also shown, together with kitchens, oven, and cart so vividly described in the book.31

Nestor followed up this film with only two more San Diego pictures. The first, Historic San Diego, was described as: “A short film with some good views of spots in San Diego with historic associations.”32 In the absence of a print of this film, one can only speculate that it must have contained glimpses of Old Town, Point Loma, Presidio Hill, and Mission San Diego. The second picture, called Interesting San Diego, presented general scenes of the city, and came to the screen on July 20, 1912.33 By that time, however, Paley had departed San Diego to film views elsewhere in Southern California.

Although their stays in the San Diego area may have been relatively short, Essanay, American, and Nestor had rather long and productive overall life spans. During the early days of the motion picture industry, though, numerous firms came into existence, operated for a very short time, and then disappeared. Typical among these lesser concerns was the Ammex company.34

On August 16, 1911, the San Diego Union carried the headline, “Big Motion Picture Plant to be Established in San Diego.” The article which followed heralded the formation of the Ammex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company. Officers of the new firm included San Diego insurance agent Charles Oesting, as President, businessman F. D. Halliday, as Treasurer and Harry Nelson as a member of the Board of Directors.35 C. W. Fait became the plant’s general manager.36 The principal backer of this venture, however, turned out to be a San Diego real estate man, Harry L. Miller, who had invested $50,000.37

A spokesman for the Ammex company implied that the success of the Flying A troup in nearby Lakeside prompted the location of the new firm in the San Diego area. The climatic and scenic features of the region also had a pronounced influence, as the Union article stated:

One occasionally sees in moving pictures girls in shirtwaists presumably in summer weather with their frozen breaths issuing from their mouths in streams and their forms plumpened by having woollen underwear beneath their summer clothes because the pictures were taken in some place like Cnicago in the depth of winter. Of course it is impossible to take out of door pictures of a summery sort in that climate at such a season.

Not only has San Diego the climatic advantage, but its varied senic [sic.] settings, its tropical and semi-tropical vegetation, its mountains and valleys, its seacoast and waterways all contribute to afford a variety of settings that would be hard to obtain anywhere else in the country.38

The founders of Ammex organized the firm with general offices in San Diego’s American National Bank Building.39 For actual movie making facilities, the company leased the old National Bank Building on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Twenty-First Street in National City. As soon as the property had been acquired, workmen set about turning the two story structure into a factory for the photography, development, and printing of motion pictures.40

In early October, 1911, Ammex confidently announced that the renovation would be finished by November 18.41 The date came and passed with no activity at the National City studio. The company then stated that actual film production would begin in early 1912.42 Throughout the first part of the year, however, the factory remained dormant.

Eventually, Ammex did release a few movies. The company’s first film, The Trail of Guilt, appeared on the screen on August 28, 1912, and had the following story line:

Dave Kemp, a defaulter hiding on a Western ranch meets the rancher’s daughter Floe and tries to lure her away. Girl’s sister suspects Kemp, and appeals to her lover to protect Floe from the stranger. When Floe and Kemp attempt to ride away, sister’s lover detains them. Just then the sheriff is notified that Kemp is wanted for embezzlement and arrests him. Kemp, accused of the crime, confesses his guilt.43

Ashes of Memory, released on October 3, 1912, also typified the melodramatic nature of the National City studio’s product. The plot of this picture involved:

. . . one man who because he misused entrusted money, is forced to seek refuge in Mexico; and later in life his finer instincts are the means of saving the reputation and career of the son of his former sweetheart.44

Ammex distributed these and other features through the unsuccessful Film Supply Company of America.45 After manufacturing a few more pictures, the National City company encountered severe management and personnel difficulties, and went out of business.46

Despite the Ammex failure, during the period from 1910 to 1912, San Diegans could boast that their area was fast becoming a center for the movie industry on the West Coast. Although eventually Hollywood attained this status, San Diego over the years has been the home of several minor film studios, and a favorite “location” spot for the major motion picture and television producers.

The firms mentioned in this brief study are numbered among the pioneers of the film industry. The owners, producers, directors, actors, cameramen, and technicians of these companies all helped to advance the frontier of the cinema. Their failures, for the most part, stemmed not from any lack of skill or talent, but from an absence of precedents on which to rely in times of crisis. The successes of the early concerns should not be measured in terms of corporate longevity or financial gain. Rather, the triumph of companies like American, Essanay, Nestor, and Ammex can be found in the entertainment they brought to millions of moviegoers.


1. Kemp R. Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection, 1894-1912 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 265-266.

2. Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926), pp. 532-533.

3. Fred J. Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller, One Reel A Week (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 54-56.

4. Robert M. Henderson, D. W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph Noonday Books (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), pp. 114-123.

5. Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, pp. 574-575.

6. Moving Picture World VII (October 8, 1910), p. 817.

7. “American Enterprise,” Moving Picture World VII (October 15, 1910), p. 865.

8. Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), December 18, 1910.

9. Allan Dwan was born in Toronto, Canada in 1885. A few years later the family moved to Chicago. Dwan studied electrical engineering at Notre Dame University, and after graduation taught mathematics and coached football. In 1909 Dwan went to work for Essanay as a scenario editor. He held the same position at American Flying A until 1911, when he became the director of the Western troupe. After leaving American in 1913, Dwan directed pictures for Universal, Famous Players, First National, Twentieth Century Fox, Republic, and other firms. In all, he directed over four hundred films, completing his last picture in 1961. Peter Bogdanovich, (ed.), Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971).

10. Ibid., p. 17.

11. Benjamin B. Hampton, History of the American Film Industry from its Beginnings to 1931 Dover Books (New York: Covici, Freide, 1931), p. 73.

12. Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan, p. 18.

13. Interview between Mr. W. Beadle and Mr. Carlisle G. Kohl, Jr., July 27, 1971 (unpublished manuscript in the possession of the author).

14. Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan, p. 21.

15. “Troupe of Moving Picture Actors at La Mesa,” San Diego Union, August 10, 1911.

16. Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, p. 575.

17. Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan, p. 19.

18. Ibid., pp. 170-172.

19. Ibid., p. 21.

20. Ibid., pp. 19-20.

21. National Film Archive Catalogue: Silent Fiction Films, 1895-1930 (London: British Film Institute, 1966), p. 180.

22. Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan, pp. 171-172.

23. “American Produces Western Comedies,” Moving Picture World XI (February 10, 1912), p. 468.

24. Typed transcript of a recorded interview made with Roy Overbaugh by the Santa Barbara Historical Society, March, 1954.

25. For more information on the activities of the American Film Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, see Blaine P. Lamb, “Pioneer Film Making in the West” (unpublished Master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1972); and Timothy J. Lyons, “The Silent Partner: The History of the American Film Manufacturing Company, 1910-1921” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Iowa, 1972).

26. “Motion Picture Firm to Establish Company of Actors at La Mesa,” San Diego Union, December 21, 1911; Moving Picture World XI (February 17, 1912), p. 568.

27. “Another Moving Picture Concern Locates Here,” San Diego Union, January 13, 1912.

28. Essanay did not establish a permanent studio in San Diego County, possibly because the rival American Film Manufacturing Company was already operating in the Lakeside-La Mesa area.

29. For more information on Essanay, see Lamb, “Pioneer Film Making.”

30. “Original Motion Picture Man Here on Business Visit: Views To Be Taken Will Advertise San Diego Throughout Country,” San Diego Union, March 11, 1912.

31. “Notes and Comments on the Films,” Moving Picture World XII (May 18, 1912), p. 662. 32. “Notes and Comments on the Films,” Moving Picture World XIII (July 13, 1912), p. 148. 33. “Notes and Comments on the Films,” Moving Picture World XIII (July 20, 1912), p. 276.

34. The most blatant example of the fly-by-night motion picture firms is that of the Graphic Film Company. Formed without proper financial backing, Graphic Film defaulted on payment of a $74.00 note and went bankrupt within one month. Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer, Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), p. 16.

35. “Big Motion Picture Plant is To Be Established in San Diego,” San Diego Union, August 16, 1911.

36. San Diego City and County Directory, 1911 (San Diego: San Diego Directory Co., 1911), p. 699.

37. Jerry MacMullen, A Memorandum on the Ammex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, June 19, 1959, Serra Museum Library, San Diego, California.

38. “Big Motion Picture Plant,” San Diego Union, August 16, 1911.

39. San Diego City and County Directory, 1911, p. 66.

40. “Motion Pictures To Be Made at National: Ammex Company Has Leased Building and Will Maintain a Troup [sic.] of Actors,” San Diego Union, October 6, 1911.

41. Ibid.

42. “To Begin Making Motion Pictures,” San Diego Union, December 20,1911.

43. Moving Picture World XIII (n.d., 1912), p. 583.

44. Moving Picture World XIII (September 28, 1912), p. vii. 45. The Film Supply Company of America had been formed by Harry Aitken, a pioneer film distributor. The establishment of the Mutual Film Corporation in 1912 left the Film Supply Company with only one American producing firm. Film Supply tried to stay in business by distributing the pictures of new producers such as Ammex. This stratagem failed, and the Film Supply Company went under. Kalton C. Lahue, World of Laughter: The Motion Picture Comedy Short, 1910-1930 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), pp. 48-50.

46. MacMullen, Memorandum on the Ammex Motion Picture Manufacturing Company.


Blaine Lamb, a native San Diegan, received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from the University of San Diego. He has published articles in the Journal of San Diego History, Railroad Magazine, and the Journal of the West. At present Mr. Lamb is a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, Tempe, and is completing work on a dissertation dealing with the history of the Jewish community in Arizona.