San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 1914
AN AUDIENCE of some 11,000,000 folks is some little Chautauqua to face every twenty-four hours in the year and get away with it regularly with a good hand. A task like that would be going some even for a grape-juice Secretary of State, assisted by all the Swiss yodelers in the Alps. Not even Booth ever went on to a house like that. But that is just what our old friend Broncho Billy is doing day in and day out. It would be better to say day in and night out, for like the British drum beat, which rolls around the world, Broncho Billy never ceases to prance upon the movie stage. At any time, some place on this earth, Bill is spurring his mustang across the screen. He never quits.
The 11,000,000 who daily watch Broncho Billy in his stirring cowboy feats are really looking at Gilbert M. Anderson, who created the character and who first gave the picturesque life of the vanishing West a place in kinetoscope drama. The king of the movies, whose position in the film industry is unsurpassed and whose face is seen oftener in the world than that of any other American, says that Bronco Billy was something in the way of an accident. Before Anderson came out to California and established the Essanay studio at Niles, he had a star actor whose name had gotten into the papers and who had accordingly grown too inflated to take orders from his manager.
“POSE YOUR OWN PICTURES.”
One day he refused to follow as suggestion Anderson had given him, and when the manager insisted, said with a sneer, “Why don’t you pose your own pictures if you know how to do it better than I?” Anderson took him at his word, discharged the actor, and got into the scene with such success, that he has been at it ever since. One day he worked out an idea for a cowboy scenario, whipped the play into shape, made the negative, and through pure luck, called it “Bronco Billy’s Christmas Dinner.” He had no idea of getting out a series under this name, but the piece went like wild fire. In a few weeks it was being shown more than 8000 times a day. Then, but still without the thought of producing a series, Anderson brought out another play called “Bronco Billy’s Last Deed.” That also met with instant success.
At once calls began to come in from theaters all over the country for more Bronco Billy plays. Anderson had struck a vein that proved to be a true mine. So great was the demand that he could not produce cowboy plays fast enough. The first two grew speedily into a series that has gone all over the earth and is still growing. Broncho Billy has become an established character, better known and more familiar in the highways and byways of the earth more than any merely literary creation ever was or ever can be. It is impossible, of course, to compute the number of people, excluding reporters, who have seen Anderson as Bronco Billy, but it is an easy matter to figure accurately that 11,000,000 see him somewhere every day.
To go back a bit, we may trace up the means by which Gilbert M. Anderson has become one of the most commanding figures in the business of producing moving-picture films, as well as the best-known and most picturesque of all the actors whose deeds appear in the celluloid drama. Of course, we all know that he is the big “A” of the Essanay Company, that he has made a fortune out of it, that he personally manages the big studio at Niles, where sixty high-salaried actors and operators are all at work all the time, putting new dramas on the films, and we see his face nightly as Bronco Billy, but we want to know how he achieved his spectacular success. It is worth while to see how a young fellow, who isn’t quite 31 yet, has done all this.
“Opportunity,” he says himself, modestly, but we all know it takes business genius to handle opportunity. Anderson has the rare gift to know opportunity when he sees it, and then hang on with a bulldog grip. In the first place, he was not born to the show business. His folks were merchants in Arkansas, largely interested in cotton buying. As a matter of course, he was brought up in that business. But his tastes did not run to trade. Though he became a good judge of cotton and acquired a business training that later stood him in good stand, his mind was elsewhere. He was always acting. He was the village reciter. He knew every play he cold get hold of and he was always practicing. Whenever there were amateur dramatics he always took the leading part.
ON THE STAGE EARLY.
When he was 18 the call of the stage became too strong to resist. He left his Arkansas home for New York. Unlike a good many aspirants to dramatic fame, he did not imagine that he was Joe Jefferson right off the bat. He was willing to take anything, and he soon got a job. However, his first professional engagement behind the footlights was remarkable for its brevity. His job was with a minstrel show. He was what is known as a dummy—put on to fill the stage—and strictly instructed not to let out a cheep anywhere. But on the second night his enthusiasm impelled him to join in the chorus. He never could sing, and this attempt was disastrous. He was off key and he threw the first tenor off. he was promptly yanked off the stage and fired.
Still Anderson stuck to the game. He got on wherever he could, no matter in how small a part. This willingness to take anything that comes is characteristic of the man. It was a valuable trait and it played a great part in his preparation for the role of manager and actor in the moving pictures. Anderson served a thorough apprenticeship on the New York stage. He was getting along as well as a young actor could expect and was reaching a place where he could really see a future for himself. What he might have become had he remained with the legitimate drama no one knows, but he was well on the road when something came which drove the stage entirely out of his mind.
“MOVIES” IN INFANCY.
Moving pictures were then in their infancy. The films then exhibited were no more than a taxing novelty. Sixty seconds was about as long as a single reel ever ran, and the films were, of course, limited to brief glimpses of things in motion. A play in pictures was yet to be thought of. Moving pictures seemed then to have no particular future, and were perhaps even threatened with extinction as an amusement feature as soon as the novelty wore off. Some one with a vision was necessary to put real life into the business.
Anderson had that vision. He can rightly claim the honor of linking up the drama with the kinetoscope. With keen business insight he saw the tremendous possibilities of moving pictures if they could be made to tell stories. But though he saw the promised land, a mighty gulf separated him from it. He had not a cent of capital. But with characteristic faith and energy he sought a way. He left the stage and took a chance at odd jobs posing in moving picture scenes for the Edison people. The standard wage for a day’s work was $3. Sometimes he got in as many as two days a week and sometimes none. But the work put him at least in touch with the outskirts of the business.
HAMMERED ON IDEA.
His chance came. He made the acquaintance of the manager. On him he labored with his theories on putting real stories into the films in place of merely illustrative views. Finally he succeeded. He persuaded the Edison people to prepare and put out “The Great Train Robbery,” the first attempt to tell a real connected story on the screen. This film ran for fourteen minutes, an unheard of length for a moving picture in those days. This was perhaps the most successful moving picture ever produced.1
The Great Train Robbery
Gilbert M. Anderson (Bronco Billy)
However, what Anderson wanted was a chance for a company of his own. He could not break into the Edison concern, and he left it. Going to the American Biograph Company, he helped put on “Raffles” for it. Then he went to Harry Davis at Pittsburg. Here he found plenty of opportunity to rse high in the executive side of the business, but no chance to get a share of it for himself. Davis owned a string of moving picture shows, for which he made films. He could see no farther than that. Though Anderson tried hard to make him realize the opportunity for an independent producer of films, Davis was convinced that he could not market more than his own theaters could use. So Anderson moved on to Chicago and became a film-making manager for the Selig Polyscope Company. It was here that he made the first of all Western pictures, and thus opened up the field in which later, under his own management, he made his greatest personal success.
Here at last Anderson decided to take the plunge for himself and sink or swim. By this time his knowledge of the game and his insight into the possibilities was sufficient to tell him that he could not lose. He needed money. First of all he wired his brother-in-law, still in the old cotton game in Arkansas and begged him to sell his business and invest the proceeds with him in the production of moving pictures.
“Give your store away, so long as you can get $2500 out of it. That’s all we need.”
So ran the wire. The answer that came back was a dampener.
“This is a legitimate business,” it said. That was five years ago. Brother-in-law is still conducting his “legitimate” business.
Anderson then laid a proposition for partnership before George Kline, who was interested in moving pictures. Kline listened, but finally decided that he could not see his way clear. Anderson had barely reached the street, however, when Kline changed his mind. Putting his head out of the window he tried vainly to call Anderson back. He was too late. His delay in making up his mind cost him at least half a million dollars.
Before he had dismissed Anderson, Kline advised him to take his scheme to George K. Spoor, who was then engaged in renting moving picture machines throughout the country. Spoor saw the merit of Anderson’s proposition to organize a dramatic company and put real plays on the moving picture stage. He liked the young man’s enthusiasm and appreciated his business sense. So the bargain was made; Spoor matched his money with Anderson’s integrity and business insight, and Essanay was born.
A STORY OF SUCCESS.
From that moment the tale reads along without a break, a story of ever mounting success. Unlike most businesses this one has never had a setback or even a halt in its progress. Anderson’s business skill, combined with a personality which made him a marvelous success as a moving picture actor, has carried Essanay in less than five years to a commanding position in the movie world. The firm maintains big comapnies of actors and studios in Chicago, Ithaca, and at Niles in California, with an auxiliary company at Hollywood, where the movie actors are familiar figures as they stage their thrilling pictures of frontier life among the California hills. Every week five negatives are made from which the reels are reproduced which carry Essanay all over the world.
So familiar has Anderson’s face grown to the public that he cannot take a step without being hailed as “Bronco Billy.” Let him ride on a street car more than twice and the conductor or the motorman will furtively slip him a scenario for his consideration. While he employs first class men to write scenarios for his companies, Anderson is his own principal contributor. With all the press of his business and his acting he managed to produce a constant stream of scenario ideas.
So, with a personal audience of eleven million people daily, this manager and owner of one of the greatest producing companies, himself his own star actor, and his own playwright, has some right to the title of the King of the Movies.
San Francisco Examiner, February 16, 1916
G. M. Anderson, known to film-land as “Broncho Billy,” severed connections with the Essanay Company, of which he was secretary, sold his stock in the concern and gone East.
Anderson, who had been with the company since its organization in 1906, was in charge of the Western studio at Niles, where he acted and directed.
Anderson’s stock was purchased by George K. Spoor.1
1 The actual value of the shares varied between $500,000 to $1,000,000. Anderson left for New York with Charlie Chaplin and form their own company, which never happened.