Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 7:53 am | Overcast 65º


Santa Barbara’s Role in Early Cinema Soared with Flying A Studios

Santa Barbara Historical Museum hosting exhibiting celebrating silent film studio's pioneering work

In 1912, the Chicago-based American Film Manufacturing Co.’s Western unit relocated to our very own Santa Barbara. Known as the “Flying A” due to its winged logo, by 1915 it had built the nation’s largest studio with some of the industry’s top directors, actors and writers. Prior to its expansion into Santa Barbara, the studio consisted of a half-dozen actors and a handful of cowboys shooting one-reel Westerns around Southern California. From historic adobes to magnificent mansions, sandy beaches to mountain peaks, the cameras of the Flying A cranked out more than 950 of Westerns, dramas and comedies. The film pioneers of the Flying A left a legacy that continues to influence the movies and television shows of today.

Mary Miles Minter was the biggest star of Santa Barbara's Flying A Studios, appearing in 26 films in the early 1900s.
Mary Miles Minter was the biggest star of Santa Barbara’s Flying A Studios, appearing in 26 films in the early 1900s. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum photo)

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is elated to introduce The Flying A: Silent Film In Santa Barbara, commemorating the studio’s centennial anniversary in Santa Barbara. The exhibition will focus on the studio’s influential and prolific operation in Santa Barbara between 1912 and 1921, before the company was disbanded. Museum curator Dan Calderon invites visitors to learn more.

“Many locals are not aware that for close to a decade, their city was a thriving center of early film making,” he said.

Santa Barbara offered a wide variety of film backdrops, from the mountains, to urban scenes, great estates, the coastline and the ocean. While here, the Flying A cranked out two to three movies a week and specialized in short films of less than 30 minutes. Eventually the studio produced feature films, such as Purity, which featured some of the industry’s first nude scenes. Its star, Audrey Munson (1891-1996), was a famous model who had posed for statuary in New York and Washington, D.C.

The studio’s biggest star was Mary Miles Minter (1902-1984), who appeared in 26 films from 1916 to 1919, and rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity.

“The Flying A was also a training ground for major talent,” said museum executive director David S. Bisol.

Allan Dwan went on to direct Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).  In 1939, Victor Fleming directed Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

As the industry centered in Hollywood, the studio hit hard times and ceased operations in 1921. The call “Lights! Camera! Action!” can still be heard here today as filmmakers continue to utilize Santa Barbara’s unique environment.

This groundbreaking exhibit is open through Aug. 19 and coincides with two very special occasions: the the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the marking of the centennial anniversary of the Flying A’s arrival in Santa Barbara. The exhibition features original Flying A artifacts, documents, photographs and a selection of original silent films, which will play on the Sala Gallery Wall Theatre.

This exhibition was made possible thanks to the support of Astrid and Lawrence T. Hammett, Marlene and Warren Miller, Nini and Peter Seaman, Anne and Michael Towbes, Eleanor Van Cott, John C. Woodward, Bella Vista Designs, Ventura Rentals and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The project is a collaborative effort of Dana Driskel, guest curator; Neal Graffy, exhibition guest/historian; and Daniel C. Calderon, curator.

To complement the exhibition, the museum is hosting a presentation by lecturer-historian Neal Graffy, “A Liar, A Drunk & A Piano Teacher — The Story of the Flying A” with three opportunities to attend: 11 a.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Friday. Museum members and Santa Barbara International Film Festival platinum pass holders are complimentary. Guests are $10 and reservations are highly recommended. The museum will also play host to Film Fest First Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday with live music, wine and activities for all ages.

The exhibition may be viewed during the museum’s operating hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Entrance to the museum is free and docent-led tours are available at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is located at 136 E. De la Guerra St. Click here for more information, or call 805.966.1601.

— Dacia Harwood is the the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s marketing and media consultant.

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