Homes of the Western Stars — Bronco Billy Anderson

September 26, 2011




special guest blogger

Bob Siler


Max Aronson was born in 1880 in Little Rock (Pulaski County). His parents were Henry, a traveling salesman, and Esther Aronson. The Aronsons had seven children. Most of the children were born in Texas, but Max was born in Arkansas.


Aronson moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in the 1890s to work for his brother in law, Louis Roth, who had married Aronson’s sister, Gertrude, and who worked as a cotton broker.


Anderson lived during the last decade of the nineteenth century

 1902 – 1907


He left Arkansas around the turn of the century for New York, where he became involved with the old Vitagraph Company, a theatrical group.

From 1900 until 1926, Aronson produced, directed, or appeared in more than 600 motion pictures—everything from the one reelers, movies that consisted of approximately 400 feet of film, to full-length motion pictures that consisted of approximately 2,000 feet of film, produced later in his career.

By 1902, Aronson was in New York and, in 1903, was cast in Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery,a classic silent western. In his early films, he played various roles under the name G. M. Anderson, as in the movie Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman for Vitagraph in 1904, the first film Anderson directed.

1907 – 1909



Key developments in the Chicago cinema

Recent developments in the Windy City suggest that Chicago is set to rival New York as the leading film making centre in the U.S. In fact, this city is already ahead of New York in one respect: censorship.

The authorities have have passed the first local censorship ordinance in the country “prohibiting the exhibition of obscene and immoral pictures commonly shown in Mutoscopes, Kinetoscopes , Cinematographs and penny arcades”. Earlier this year projectionist Donald Bell and camera repairman Albert Howell founded the Bell & Howell Camera Co. Which hopes to play an important role if the industry continues to grow at the same rapid pace as during recent years. But most important of all has been the formation of the Essenay Company in February by George K. Spoor and actor-producer G.M. Anderson, who is best known for the Westerns he has made for Selig since 1904. Wasting no time Essenay is already filming in its studio at 501 Wells Street.

Anderson moved to Chicago to produce films. There, he developed the idea that the public would pay to see good western movies, and the era of “cowboy” films, that is, films based on marketing the name of the cowboy, began.

For a short time, he produced films in Colorado, but William Selig, an early movie producer for whom Anderson was working, could not see the advantage of western scenery in their releases. Anderson’s contribution was to develop the western film and the techniques he devised, including the “long shot,” “medium shot,” “close up,” and “reestablishment scene,” have become standard techniques present even in modern westerns.

Back in Chicago, Anderson partnered with George K. Spoor, a theatrical booking agent. The two of them established Essanay Studios in 1907, the name being derived from a phonetic spelling of their initials, S and A. Anderson married Molly Louise Schabbleman in 1908, and the couple had one child, Maxine.

From 1908 to 1915, Anderson made 375 westerns. The most famous of these was the Broncho Billy series. Anderson read a story in the Saturday Evening Post about a character called Broncho Billy. He liked the idea of a series character and developed Broncho Billy into a franchise of films which were extremely popular with the American public.


Founded in 1907 as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company but eventually renamed Essanay after the initials (S and A) of its founders, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson—turned out about 2,000 shorts and features between 1907 and 1917.

Anderson had worked as a janitor at the Thomas Edison Studio when he was chosen to play an outlaw in the first western ever made, The Great Train Robbery. The first characters of Spoor’s and Anderson’s surnames translated into “S” and “A.”, hence the name Essanay.


 Filming a “Broncho Billy” film in the Chicago Essanay studio



Cinema’s cowboy hero G.M. Anderson is about to assume a new personna in the name of Broncho Billy, based on the character in a Peter B. Kyne story, Broncho Billy and the Baby, the film will be called Broncho Billy’s redemption. The burly Anderson is already one of the cinema’s bright new stars. Born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas, in March 1882, he was briefly a travelling salesman before trying his luck as an actor in New York using the stage name Gilbert M. Anderson.

While working as a male model in 1902, he was hired by the Edison studio to play the lead in a one-reeler directed by Edwin S. Porter, The Messenger Boy’s Mistake. A year later Anderson played several parts in Porter’s trail blazing Western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally cast as the outlaw leader but was disqualified by the fact that he could not ride. On the first day of filming he parted company with his horse – and the role of the outlaw leader.
1913 – 1916 / 1917




In 1913, the Essanay Studios, a state-of-the-art studio was built in Niles at a cost of $50,000. A complete row of bungalows were constructed for the actors and the crew to live in. Two of the cottages still exist today.

Niles was selected by G.M. Anderson because of its mild climate, almost perpetual sunshine, and the unspoiled scenery of Niles Canyon (currently route 84 between Fremont and Interstate 680). Essanay made some 300 westerns in and around Niles. Charlie Chaplin made at least five silent movies in Niles, including The Tramp.

Charlie Chaplin lived in Niles for three months but accepted a more lucrative pay from Mutual in 1916. With the departure of a big star like Chaplin, Spoors bought G.M.”Broncho Billy” Anderson out, Essanay’s fortunes declined sharply and the studio eventually closed its doors in 1917.

G.M. Anderson fell in love with the perpetual sunshine and rolling hills of Niles and moved his crew here to make his silent westerns in the scenic canyon.

For about four years, Anderson produced, directed and starred as his “Broncho Billy” character which was the mould for all future western characters to come. He was the western trendsetter for the cowboy studded chaps, terrorizing a town with his swaggering gait, an outlaw with a sympathetic heart who always managed to take the bad guys out.
Anderson became a very rich movie star, bought a legitimate theater, began promoting boxers, and was running the Niles baseball team. By 1915 he had hired the biggest movie star of them all — Charlie Chaplin.

Niles Canyon Road.

This is the picturesque Niles Canyon Road today. It was here that more than 300 Broncho Billy westerns were filmed, replete with train robberies and chase scenes along the oak-studded hills of Niles Canyon.
Cloudy commute

This is a scene of one of the silent westerns shot in 1915 with Broncho Billy leading the posse, kicking up dust along Niles Canyon Road.
Broncho Billy westerns at Niles Canyon350 westerns were shot in Niles. Out of which approximately 140 Broncho Billy films were made in addition to 109 Snakeville comedies, starting in 1913 when the Niles Essanay studio opened.

He formed the Amalgamated Producing Company and made movies starring Laurel and Hardy.
Anderson was a very private person and didn’t talk much about his personal affairs, but being a recognizable figure there is some information about the “lost” years. In his retirement he had money, at least for awhile, to live the way he wanted, and whatever he did in the later twenties was probably not very newsworthy, I suspect, just enjoying life. He did sue his old partner George Spoor to collect on the proceeds of Chaplin’s films, but only collected $4000 in 1925. Anderson was also sued several times by various people and in one case, also in 1925, Anderson claimed he was broke and couldn’t pay after he lost in court, another reasonto keep a low profile.



Was living here


Anderson was living in San Francisco and managing an apartment hotel on O’Farrell Street. In 1941 he moved to Los Angeles. In 1950 he and his daughter Maxine tries to get a Broncho Billy series together for television, but nothing came of it. In his later years he was living on Social Security and some money from Maxine, who ran her own successful casting agency.

Broncho Billy was recognized with an honorary Academy Award for his accomplishments.

 He returned to the screen briefly in 1967, 47 years after he made his last silent film, to make his first talking picture—”The Bounty Killer”—with Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen and Dan Duryea.

The confusion about his death location is because of where he’d been staying, the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. In 1970 he was moved to their convelescent home in South Pasadena because of his worsening condition, an invalid near death, and that’s where he died. It’s listed on his death certificate, which I’ve seen. That document didn’t provide his correct birth year, though, it was listed as 1884, thereby further confusing the issue. Nor was his parents listed; those spaces where marked “unknown.” The information was provided by his daughter Maxine. Obviously she didn’t know him that well.



He’d been living here, where he died in 1971.



Bob Siler grew up in Burbank, not far from Universal Studios and Warner Brothers where they made his favorite monster movies.  A long-time fan of Westerns, he still has a hard time believing that the great John Wayne could die.  Bob has created many lists detailing where the famous and infamous lived, are buried, and the cars they drove.  He has recently completed this list of Western Stars homes after many years.  Burbank Bob now resides in Portland, Oregon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: