The sold-out house enjoyed a nearly two-hour screening of silent films produced by Santa Barbara’s Flying A Studio, followed by a question-and-answer session with studio professor Dana Driskel and local historian Neal Graffy. Some of the silent films were seen for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Santa Barbara was home to a silent film studio and production company during the early 1900s. According to Driskel, the American Film Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, also known as the Flying A, relocated to Santa Barbara in July 1912. The film company became a major economic force, with 1,300 employees between its Chicago home base and Santa Barbara.
“It had a payroll of $19,000 per week in Santa Barbara. That was huge at the time,” Driskell said. “It not only employed actors in Santa Barbara, but also seamstresses, technicians and carpenters, and their families.”
The American public had a viewing taste only for westerns at that time. American Film Manufacturing experimented by filming its westerns in Santa Fe, Tuscon and La Mesa, but settled on Santa Barbara.
“Flying A had the advantage that they actually shot their westerns in the West. The other studios were shooting them on the East Coast,” Driskell said, adding that in only eight years, the studio created more than 900 films. “Only 10 percent of silent films remain today. We can only speculate on the actual impact and content of the silent film from what remains today.”
Seven silent films were presented at this month’s tribute, beginning with the 1910 comedy Method in his Madness (the first known surviving film to be made in Santa Barbara), a 1912 western titled The Vengeance That Failed and the 1921 social drama Youth’s Melting Pot.
Completing the silent film experience was pianist Michael Mortilla on the Pollock Theater stage. Without music notes, he provided an exquisite musical accompaniment to the drama that enfolded on screen.
In Flying A’s heyday, it occupied an entire city block, bordered by Mission, State, Chapala and Padres streets. A building still remains at Mission and Chapala streets on the northwest corner. Graffy said the studio originally occupied a lot at State and Valerio streets that was formerly an ostrich farm.
The silent film era ended suddenly in 1918 mainly because of two factors: A deadly flu epidemic required that people not congregate in public places such as theaters to try to abate the spread of disease, and secondly, World War I was beginning, which diverted the public’s attention, resources and manpower. Many Flying A Studio actors and workers went south to Hollywood to find work.
“After the film studio closed down, Flying A was used as a glass studio, dance hall and revival hall,” Graffy said. “In 1948, most of the structure was taken down.”
A low-hung beige building still remains at the corner of Mission and Chapala streets (northwest corner). A furniture recaning business operated there during the 1960s and ‘70s.
The UCSB History Associates and the UCSB Affiliates were recognized for their support, and for sponsoring the wine and cheese reception in the Michael Douglas Lobby that followed the silent film program. Earlier this year, the Santa Barbara Historical Museum hosted a centennial exhibit of the iconic Flying A Studio.
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