William Selig was the first filmmaker to discover the endless possibilities of making movies in Southern California, with its year-round mild climate and wide-ranging topography. He was the first American to produce a horror film (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1908) and the first feature-length film made in the United States (The Coming of Columbus, 1912); shot the first films in the American West with authentic cowboys and Native Americans, originated the “cliffhanger” and jungle-adventure movie genre, opened the first permanent movie studio in Los Angeles and planned a combination movie studio and theme park decades before Disneyland. And yet, even with all these aforementioned firsts, William Selig’s contributions have been all but forgotten. The neglect may lie partly in his generosity in helping others succeed rather than self-promotion; but mostly it stems from the fact that his studio folded in 1918, about the time when Hollywood was becoming known as the world’s film capital.
Selig was born in Chicago in 1864; his earliest adventure in the entertainment business was as an apprentice to a magician, and while still in his teens, began touring the Midwest as a vaudeville performer in his own minstrel show. He eventually made his way to the West Coast, settling first in San Francisco and touring the state as “Selig the Conjurer”. A two-week stint at the Texas State Fair in 1894 dramatically changed the course of his life. It was there that he met employees from Thomas Edison’s laboratory who were demonstrating the Kinetescope, a jukebox-like contraption for viewing short, live-action filmstrips through a peephole. Selig was amazed by the magic box; and immediately began exploring options on how the device might be made viable for projecting images on a big screen to a wider audience. With the help of machinist Andrew Schutsek, he began producing a variation on the cinématographe, a state-of-the-art French camera-printer-projector developed by Auguste and Louis Lumière. By 1896, Selig’s film company was producing not only motion pictures but film equipment as well.
For a time, Selig film company, Selig Polyscope held its own. The company produced the first narrative film shot in Los Angeles, The Count of Monte Cristo in 1908. In 1909, Selig opened a permanent studio in Edendale, at 1800 Glendale Boulevard; the site, still a comparatively isolated area with a backdrop of mountains, quiet residential streets and bodies of water, all within striking distance of a bustling downtown, proved to be ideal. Others would follow Selig’s lead in dramatic fashion: Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company arrived in town and set up shop a block away (at 1712 Glendale Boulevard) followed by cowboy star Tom Mix’s “Mixville” at the corner of Glendale and Silver Lake Boulevards.
During his years in Edendale, Selig produced and/or distributed nearly 1000 films, introduced the world to Tom Mix and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and dozes of other early film stars. After the success of his first jungle adventure film, a fake documentary, Hunting Big Game in Africa, Selig decided to open his own 32-acre zoo. Selig-Land in Lincoln Heights was envisioned as a combination film studio, zoo and amusement park, replete with rides, theaters, restaurants, and a hotel. In the end, only a single carousel was built as Selig’s fortunes went into a virtual free-fall. The year before his death in 1948, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his role in the history of the motion picture industry. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6116 Hollywood Boulevard.
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, Michael Locke with Vincent Brook, History Press, 2014. Please do not use this material in any media without my permission. © All rights reserved.