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American Film Company and Santa Barbara's "Flying A" Studio


Early Films Movie Palace

In the early years of  the 20th century, on almost any day of the week, it was possible that a passel of lean, dark horses would be seen at a full run, heading pell mell down State Street.   Astride each of these horses was a wild-eyed cowboy, clinging like a burr to his saddle.   They sped through the sleepy town, these men on horses, amid the acrid smoke and  loud pops of old-fashioned six-shooters fired into the air.

Occasionally, one may have spied a low-flying bi-plane that shattered the serene seaside morning as it buzzed the curved shoreline....unsuspecting tourists who strolled along Cabrillo Boulevard would  gasp,  grasp at their loved ones, and run for cover against the chaotic scene in the sky. 

There were times when a woman could be heard to scream as she lay, bound hand and foot,  on the Southern Pacific railroad tracks,  her shreik competing with the ominous whistle of the 5:15 train....

The world of modern films - silent movies - was born here, in Santa Barbara, where, no matter what the script,  the perfect mise en scène was created and captured on film before the director yelled, "Cut!" 


In 1909,  there were about 2,500 motion picture exhibitors in America.  These "exhibitors" showcased films in little theaters and movie palaces from coast to coast - throughout the heartland and hinterlands of the United States.  

A few films were made each year, and were owned and distributed by the powerful Patents Company.   In the earliest days, movies were actually "photo plays".  These plays were  all filmed indoors in relatively small sound studios. 

At that time, most movies were made by George Spoor and  Gilbert Anderson, who had formed the Essanay Film Company (from "S and A").  Their photoplays were filmed in studios located in Wisconsin, New York or Chicago, and the final products were distributed and routed to theaters through the Motion Picture Distributing Company.  

But by 1910, there were a host of independent film makers - mavericks - men who did not want to be controlled by the politics and rigid methods of the Patents Company.  SS Hutchinson, who owned the Chicago-based American Film Company, concocted a plan to lure some of the best Essanay film-makers and actors away from their parent company.  

Alan Dwan, J. Warren Kerrigan, Charles Ziebarth, and others from Essanay joined Hutchinson in his new venture.  The group joined the American Film Company and together, they formed the Flying A Studios.  The independent Flying A Studios allowed for creativity and innovation that had not been possible within the confines of the Essanay way of doing things.

Theater Seats

The first order of business was to get away from photo plays.   Film-goers had become more sophisticated, and they wanted big action, vivid scenery, and  realism. SS Hutchinson and his Flying A Studios determined that they would create it.  

Hutchinson had visited Southern California, and knew that the excellent weather, the variety of scenery available, and the many days of bright sunlight would be the perfect atmosphere for creating these new types of movies.  He sent his crew to La Mesa, California, (near San Diego) to set up shop.   They filmed most of the movie scenes out of doors.

Early Films Popcorn Machine

New technology was needed to support this shift to filming action and drama outdoors - new lighting techniques were developed to facilitate filming after dark; lighter and more sophisticated camera equipment was necessary, as were better camera lenses.  Equipment became more portable and easy to use, even away from the studio. Film processing was enhanced. These improvements brought an increase in quality and believabilty to the web of fantasy that film makers were now able to offer. 

The world delighted in the dramatic action, the vivid comedies, the special effects and stunts that were performed, along with the natural beauty and realism that were displayed on the big screen.  They wanted more. 

Soon, the American Film Company sent scouting crews all over Southern California to seek new opportunities for filming locations.

Early Films Motiograph

SS Hutchinson considered his options carefully.  Widespread publicity and rave reviews from   America's wealthiest citizens had imbued Santa Barbara, California, with a reputation as a charming and desireable vacation destination and residence.  Santa Barbara was always described in superlatives, and was perceived as a year-round summer-land whose temperate climate and natural wonders were seemingly wreathed by perfumed vines that flowered year-round at the edge of a gentle shore edged by an azure sea.  

No kidding.

The reality for the movie industry was that abundant sunshine most days of the year would allow for copious filming opportunities, and the variety of landscape and scenery options could be used to depict almost any spot on earth.  The world already held the little town in great esteem, and setting the Flying A Company in Santa Barbara would offer a romantic and fanciful élan that Wisconsin or Illinois just could not impart. 

Also - Hutchinson knew Santa Barbara was a viable location for a film studio, as Essanay had successfully filmed several of the original Bronco Billie movies here....

Hutchinson was sold.  Although the American Film Company remained based in Chicago, Santa Barbara was its new western home.

Early Films American Cinematographer

According to old Santa Barbara city directories, there was an ostrich farm located on upper State Street (near the corner of today's Mission and State Streets).  This was deigned to be the perfect site for the new film company - near sea and mountain, and just outside the little city.  The ostriches were evicted, and the actors were installed.  The American Film Company/Flying A Studio  began by building an outdoor stage, converting the old house into offices, and constructing workspaces for creating costumes and scenery, and for processing film.

Flying A Films 1913

The American Film Company

  Santa Barbara and vicinity furnish the incidental scenery and background for one of America's largest industries - the manufacture of motion picture films.  American Film Company Santa Barbara 1920

In July,  1912,  the American Film Company established its studio at Santa Barbara,  and beginning with only one company of players, has developed a plant now employing from eleven to thirteen companies,  and has a payroll amounting to thousands of dollars weekly.

The continued presence of the American Film Company at Santa Barbara is due to the fact that that city and surrounding country offers practically every scenic location necessary for making pictures,  adaptable to almost every situation and subject.

Opportunities in Film


There are mountains and canyons,  deserts,  the Pacific ocean with its rocky cliffs,  caves, and sandy beaches,  noted hotels,  and homes that range from the old adobes of Mission days,  to the beautiful estates of millionaires.   In recent months,  President Samuel S Hutchinson of the American Film Company has inaugurated construction work at the local studio which will make the plant,  long noted for its efficiency,  one of the most complete in the world.....

Early Films Olive Tell and Lou Tellegen

The local manager of the industry at Santa Barbara is Mr PG Lynch.   

~ Gidney, Brooks, Sheridan, History of Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo Counties, 1917

Flying A Studio Today 2

The studio completed two features a week  in the beginning - 1,000 feet of film for each.  After shooting the movie, the film would be sent back to Chicago for final processing and basic editing.  The negative would be returned to Santa  Barbara for final editing, and sent back to Chicago for approval and distribution.  

Santa Barbara fell instantly in love with the city's newest resident:  the movie industry. 

The flying Lougheed brothers, along with Jack Northrup and Glenn Martin (later of Lockheed-Martin and Northrup Aerospace) brought the world some of the first aerial views of the earth captured on film - shot from the clear blue skies above Santa Barbara.  Wild stunts took place throughout the town and surrounding areas, to the amusement - and sometimes, bemusement - of tourists and townspeople.  

Early Films Movie Camera


Kevin Starr, California State Librarian and eminent historian, relates a story about a dramatic scene being filmed in downtown Santa Barbara in those early days.   The film crew loaded a car with dummies, and sent it careening down State Street.  The stunt went awry, the car slammed into the limosine that had been parked alongside the curb.  Dummies were flung into the air, and landed on the street.  Horrified passers-by, as well as the limosine's owner - a Montecito resident - imagined at first that the dummies were real bodies.  All parties were relieved to find that the carnage was not real, and the only damage done was to the limo.  

Other unusual scenes played out around town - Warren Kerrigan and other actors filmed a riotous sword fight for use in The Adventures of Jacques; 

Adventures of Jacques - Flying A

...there were shoot-outs between bandits and sheriffs' posses in the rugged back country of Santa Barbara county; the local railroad tracks were used to film episodes of The Perils of Pauline;  and a beautiful and controversial young actress, Audrey Munson, starred in Purity, where she appeared in the world's first nude scene,  set in the dappled shade of a California sycamore tree that grew near a creek just outside of town.

There was much excitement surrounding the presence of the actors and movie moguls around town, as well.  On any day of the week, Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Lon Chaney, Mary Miles Minter, Audrey Munson, Fatty Arbuckle, Lou Tellegen, Thomas Ince, or DW Griffith, might be seen.  They ate in local restaurants, bought their groceries at Diehl's Market on lower State Street, and made use of the goods and services offered by local craftsmen and merchants.  Movie stars were often seen at the beach, walking downtown, at the country club and at social events in the area.  They had really  become a part of the community.

With each new film, movie production improved and became more sophisticated.  Soon, it was possible to screen a movie just 24 hours after filming, and obtain retakes, if necessary.  Flying A added a still-photography studio so they could produce publicity photos, they enlarged the indoor filming studios, and added an updated film processing studio.   They even built an entire old western town, located at the back of the lot where ostriches used to graze.  From 1912 to about 1919, Santa Barbara was deemed the film capital of the world.

Flying A Studio Today 3

However, as American movie-goers expanded their appetite for films, they began to crave movies set in urban environments.  American and the Flying A staff found themselves traveling southward more and more often, to access suppliers, production companies, and to secure actors and extras.  Los Angeles also provided the urban setting that was becoming so popular.

And just like that - the world's movie capital in Santa Barbara was abandoned.  By the time movie production had ceased in Santa Barbara, about 1,200 movies had been filmed in and around the area.  

Hollywood received her crown and title of Film Capital of the World.  And so it remains today.

 The Flying A Studio propety in Santa Barbara was eventually abandoned.  It languished for years, being used intermittently as a place for religious revival meetings, then a roller rink, a USO dance hall, and eventually a mortuary.

Flying A Studio Today 6

Today, the property houses an architect's office, the Quaker Society meeting place, a Buddhist meditation center, dentist offices, apartments,

Flying A Studio Today 5

a restaurant, and other little businesses.   The rose arbor, beneath which the world's early movie stars would gather and mingle - belongs to the architect now. 

Flying A Studio Today 9 

Today, it is possible to find other remnants of the early film industry can be found throughout the downtown area of Santa Barbara.  A few blocks south of the original movie studios,  the Flying A Studio Boarding House stands on De la Vina Street.  The property has not changed much in the past 100 years, and the buildings on the property are still used as apartments and residences today.

Flying A Boarding House 7

For years, this was home to many of the costumers, artists, technicians, and movie extras who were involved with the film industry.

Flying A Boarding House 2

 And while the Flying A Boarding House was home to extras and technicians and production staff, many of the stars and executives lived in other accommodations nearby.

Flying A Boarding House Sign

One of the favorite hotels was the Edgerly Court Hotel, located at the corner of Sola and Chapala Streets.  The sturdy brick and timber structure was built exclusively for people employed by the local film industry.

The Edgerly 4

  It offered more commodious and elegant accommodations than the boarding house.  Today, the Edgerly Apartments provide affordable housing for income-qualified senior citizens.  The building is beautifully maintained, and looks much the same today as it did when first built.  It is a downtown jewel.

Edgerly Court Apartments

Another luxurious option was the Arlington Hotel, located  across the street from the Edgerly Court Hotel.  The Arlington, one of the west coast's most famous luxury hotels,  eventually became the Arlington Theater.  

Today, the Arlington Theater is a movie palace in the grand tradition of a bygone era.  It is also an important venue for showcasing live events: musicians, dancers, authors, and other performance events are hosted throughout they year. 

It is also the beloved and sentimental site of many annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival events.

Arlington Hotel 1910

 The annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival allows us to bask in the glamour and magic of the film industry, all over again.


The 26th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival continues through February 6, 2011, with screenings, award cermonies, and special events scheduled every day.

Visit their website to purchase view the schedule, purchase tickets, or to learn more about the people and events of the 2011 SBIFF.

Roy Rogers and Trigger in The Golden Stallion

Many happy childhood hours were spent watching Roy, Trigger, and that sassy Queen of the Range - my idol - Dale the hills and valleys of Santa Barbara County, streams and mountains and dark oaks still gather old stories and mysteries and haunting songs in their shadows. 

One of my favorite movies of that era was the Golden Stallion. The short movie features Roy, as handsome and humble as ever, who, with his good looks and charm could have any cowgirl in the world.

But he would have none but Dale. And Dale knew how to ride herd on her cowboy like a good cowgirl should.

This story showcases the smartest horse in the movies: Trigger. He, like Roy, is especially handsome, smart, and savvy with the ladies. He is able to calm a rowdy herd of wild horses with just a toss of his mane....

"Why, he's gonna get along all right with that little filly!"

Just like you, Roy. Just like you.

This movie has everything - adventure, mystery, romance, the beauty of the Wild West, and even a few cowboy songs with The Riders of the Purple Sage. 

Roy Rogers encouraged us all to be honest, and true, to be good friends, and citizens, to feed the animals first, and always honor our ma and pa. 

Sit back and enjoy a glimpse at a bygone era. Enjoy the camaraderie, the roping, the riding, the intrigue, and yes, the romance. And while you may be tempted to ride your palomino across the fields at warp speed, remember: 

 “Be brave, but never take chances.” – Roy Rogers Riders Club Rules



 For more cowboy inspiration, here's a great blog entitled, Drifting Cowboy....

Living in the Ring of Fire - Historic Earthquakes in Santa Barbara

Matsushima from Japan and Her People 1902

Photo of Matsushima, Japan, 1902

The whole world mourns with Japan for losses unspeakable. 

Terror ongoing. 

Tragedy immeasurable.

Life is perilous, even in day-to-day living. But on our worst days, when we have witnessed the what cannot be borne, have experienced what cannot be endured - our minds come apart as we understand the full measure of how very small and fragile we are.

We realized that we had lived before in a state of grace, with a sense of safety, routine, and predictability.  Never again will we return to that place - not after we have lived through a tsunami or earthquake or mudslide or wildfire or crime or accident or war - after the full force and wrath of nature - or man - has been unleashed.  

We will go on - but we have been changed forever.

Contact Direct Relief International, a Santa Barbara-based non-profit agency,  to make your donation for aide and relief to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  (Forbes magazine has rated Direct Relief 100% efficient in fundraising for the eighth time in 2010.)

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 1

The Chumash, Santa Barbara County's indiginous people, have called this land home for the past 13,000 years.  They are no strangers to earthquakes.

The mythological world of the Chumash is composed of three levels - the world of the sky, sun, and moon;  the world of human beings and plants and animals; the lower world, the foundational world, supported on the backs of two cosmic snakes, who, when they wriggle and writhe - are the cause of earthquakes in Chumash country.   In pre-recorded history, the Chumash world was rocked by earthquakes throughout the millenia, but any damage to their homes and villages was quickly repaired, and life went on.  The Chumash lived lightly upon the back of Mother Earth.

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 2

 The Spanish arrived in Santa Barbara, claimed the land for Spain, and built their Presidio in 1782.  The Santa Barbara Mission was completed in 1786.   Both buildings were destroyed in 1812, as the result of a series of devastating earthquakes.   To the north, the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, and in the south, the San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura, were both destroyed, as well.

December 21, 1812:  Santa Inez  two shocks, fifteen minutes apart, beginning at 10 am. At Purisima, at 10:30am,  December 21, the earth shook for four minutes so violently that it was difficult to stand.  Half an hour later, another more violent shock.

 A succession of light shocks this day and the next....there was a huge earthquake wave at sea. A stick with a pendant ball was set up at the Mission Santa Barbara,  and the ball vibrated continually for eight days,  and later at intervals, for fifteen days.   

A ship at Refugio was carried up a canon by the wave and returned to sea.

~ Edward Holden, Director of Lick Observatory, List of Recorded Earthquakes, 1887

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 3

Another account of that fateful event:

...A tidal wave rushed into the land; fortunately, the people noticed the receding sea and,  taking the alarm,  made a timely escape.

New springs of asphaltum opened; cracks occurred in the sierra,  and the frightened people spent two or three months in the open country.   La Purisima had several slight shocks on the 8th,  doing no harm,  but on the 21st,  the shocks - lasting about four minutes - were so severe that no one could keep his feet;  the church was thrown off its plumb;  half an hour later,  another, more violent shock demolished the church and most of the adobe buildings....

~ The Bay of San Francisco, A History, Lewis Publishing Company, 1892

Both the Santa Barbara and La Purisima missions were rebuilt, although not on their original locations.  The missions you visit today are the result of the later construction, dating from 1820 and later.

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 5

In 1857, the Fort Tejon earthquake, a 7.9 temblor that struck about 100 miles east of Santa Barbara, was greatly felt here on the coast.  However, there was no evidence of physical damage to the small settlement of Santa Barbara.

In 1902, the little town of Los Alamos, in northern Santa Barbara County, was shaken and rattled:

The San Francisco correspondent of the Daily Mail reports that the people of Santa Barbara, a county of southern California, are terror-stricken, owing to the increasing frequency and severity of the earthquake shocks, of which there were seventy - from July 27 through 31.

The most destructive was at the town of Los Alamos...on July 31.  All the brick buildings were thrown to the groundj, but the frame buildings generally escaped serious injury, except to their windows.   Not a chimney has been left standing.

The shock lasted thirty seconds and seems to have had a spiral motion. Goods were hurled from the shelves of the stores and piled in the middle of the rooms, even heavy desks were tossed about.  The inhabitants ran into the streets in a panic, for in the morning, between 7:25 and 7:30, there were three additional shocks,  and just before nine - two more.   It is also reported that there were four severe shocks of earthquakes in Los Alamos Valley on August 1.

Several buildings which had survived the earlier shocks were badly cracked,  and an immense structure near Los Alamos was turned partly round on its foundations.  The earth continues to tremble at intervals, and the countryside is said to be changing appearance.

~ Sir Norman Lockyer, Nature, Volume 66, August 1902

 In 1906, the earthquake that leveled San Francisco, was also felt as far south as the city of Santa Barbara.  Although there was no damage reported, the shocks were distinctly felt - from about 350 miles away.

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 6

But it was on June 29, 1925, that the City of Santa Barbara was forever altered by an earthquake.  The pictures posted here are evidence of the widespread damage that resulted from the shaking.  A newspaper article in The Ojai, describes the event:

The whole earth rose and seemed to shake itself with the motion of a spaniel fresh from the water....

From Sola Street south to the ocean front, a total of approximately 40 buildings were either demolished,  or so badly wrecked, that rebuilding will be necessary.

The San Marcos building at Anapamu and State streets was almost entirely demolished.

One wing of the four-story structure, completed less than two years ago, lies flat on the ground. The State Street frontage is one-half demolished and in the wreckage are believed to be bodies of several employees of the Strling (sic) Drug Company.

The Arlington Hotel, California's first great tourist hotel, and famous on two continents, is a wreck.

The entire front section of the hostelry crashed to the ground, scores of guests barely escaping with their lives.

Other large buildings wrecked were the public library, one of the most beautiful in the state; the First National Bank; the Trinity Church; the First Congretional Church; the Hotel Carillo (first two floors); the Clock Building; the Edgerley Court Apartments; the W.F. Higby Automotive building; the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows; the New Hotel California, finished less than a month ago, and a large number of others.

Immediately after the first shock, all electric power and gas mains were shut off. Traffic came to a standstill and special police and naval reserves took charge of the downtown situation. A search of the wreckage for bodies was begun with huge wrecking machines and tractors dragging the debris from the streets.

Santa Barbara Aerial View Earthquake Damage 1925

The first efforts of the salvage crews were hampered by the crowds of curious who flocked to the stricken zone, before the Granada Theatre, an 8-story structure which survived the tremblor, thousands gathered to watch the workmen. Recurring shocks soon sent them scurrying to a place of safety, however, and when the big building began to rock above their heads there was a general scampering in all directions.

Scores of heroism came out of the first shocks. "Art" Hensling, well known as a semi-professional baseball player,  was standing with a companion before a produce store on Ortega Street when the first blow came. The front of the building caved in on the pair, seriously injuring them.

A small Mexican boy was passing, and the lad, with superhuman efforts, and with shock following shock, almost continuously, stayed with his work of rescue until he had freed both pinioned men from their perilous positions.

The $5,000,000 city reservoir of Gibraltar dam escaped the force of the quake and stands apparently undamaged, but the Sheffield storage reservoir just above the Old Mission, broke and its rushing waters inundated a large section of the city in the lower part of town.

Up until this afternoon few people of the city remained indoors. Scenes remindful of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 could be seen on all sides. On every lawn, breakfast was being served on tables hastily set, but few were partaking of the food.

The shutting off of electricity and gas plants made hot food at a premium. Bursting water mains cut off most of the water supply, and there were few cups of hot coffee in the city.

~ The Ojai, Vol. XXXIV, no. 25 (Friday, July 3, 1925)

The Southern California Earthquake Data Center estimates that the quake registered a 6.3 on the Richter scale.  13 people were killed as a result of the quake. 

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 8

In 1933, the massive Long Beach earthquake was felt in Santa Barbara, and although it caused major destruction to the south of Santa Barbara, the damage to our city was relavitely minor.

In the past half-century, I've experienced many of Southern California's ubiquitous temblors.

I was living in Santa Barbara during the 1978 earthquake.  I worked as a grocery checker at the Vons market on Turnpike Avenue in Goleta, the area that happened to be the epicenter of that quake.

I was in a checkstand at the front of the store, just feet from 30' tall windows.

An unholy sound - a rumbling and screeching that sounded like a plane crash - was the first warning before the quake struck.

The land buckled, and knocked me down to my knees. 

I looked up and saw the huge windows ripple in long waves, more like water than glass.  I grabbed the counter and pulled myself up - I  looked over at the liquor department, and saw half-gallons and quart bottles  of alcohol flying horizontally across the aisles. Ceiling tiles and overhead lights fell.  People screamed. 

I ducked completely under the checkstand until it was over.  The noise and shaking seemed to go on and on.   

After it was over, we exited the building.   The store was in shambles.  Not far away, a train was derailed, the cars twisted like little metal toys and thrown from the tracks.  Dozens of people in the area were injured.

I got in my car and began driving home, carefully coursing along the damaged roads, dodging fallen trees and power lines.  Water sprayed high into the air, a fountain created from a damaged hydrant.

I saw an aftershock that  ribboned through the road - a small roll of the earth lifted a little black BMW into the air.  The earth suddenly leveled out, and for a split second, the BMW was suspended, mid-air.  It crashed back to earth, flattening all four tires.  It was uncanny.  The quake was only a magnitude 5.1.

The amount of damage wrought by a quake not only depends on the magnitude - but also what type of earthquake it was:  mega-thrust, liquifaction, wave, deep focus....

The thing I have learned about earthquakes is that the laws of physics seem to be suspended, or momentarily reinterpreted, at least, allowing the unimaginable to happen before your very eyes...sheets of glass can ripple like water;  walls shimmy like jello;  telephone poles are able to rock back and forth at a 45 angle for several minutes before they settle down - sometimes to their original position.  Sidewalks and roads roll like magic carpets.  

And, depending upon the nature and strength and duration of the quake, buildings and roads and landscapes can be relatively unaltered - or completely laid to waste, unrecognizable once the shaking has stopped.  There are no predictors.

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 7

In Southern California, we are taught, from the time we are toddlers, to duck and cover at the first sign of a quake.  We are admonished to have three days' worth of food and water for each member of our family, and flashlights, medication, first aid, extra clothes and blankets - all in case of a quake. 

We have drills, like the Great California Shake-Out, to practice our response to the imminent earthquakes that are sure to roll through our world - with regularity. 

But as we have seen so recently - in the face of a real monster of a quake - flashlights and bottled water stored in the garage may prove to be horribly inadequate.

Earthquake Santa Barbara 1925 OAC 4

This past week, the Japanese people have taught me so much.  Their physical preparation for earthquakes was perhaps the most sophisticated and well-orchestrated in the world.  And with an earthquake of this magnitude, coupled with the tsunami - even that failed.  

But the Japanese people are triumphant in the most important ways.  They act as a community, they are helpful to each other, they are patient, they are gracious.

In California - if a giant were to strike, would we survive?  Many of us can't even share a lane of the long, smooth highway on a bright and sunny day when there are no calamities in sight.

We have much yet to prepare within ourselves.

Visit the California Geological Survey website to view their California  tsunami inundation map.  Also, visit the California Office of Emergency Services to learn more about responding to the inevitable California earthquakes:  OES Earthquake Program