100 years ago this week: Chaplin begins work at the Essanay Studio in Niles, CA & discovers Edna Purviance

Los Angeles Times, January 20th, 1915

100 years ago this week, Chaplin, along with his stock company, arrived at the Essanay studio in Niles, CA, a small town southeast of San Francisco. After making one film1 at Essanay’s Chicago studio, Chaplin had deemed it “too damn cold.”

Heavy on his mind at this time was finding a new leading lady for his comedies.  Shortly after his arrival & while a cafe set was being built at his new studio (Chaplin said when he was lost for an idea or a gag, a cafe set usually supplied one), he accompanied G.M. Anderson (co-founder of Essanay) to San Francisco to search for a leading lady. One of Anderson’s cowboy actors had told Chaplin about a pretty girl who frequented Tate’s Cafe on Hill St. He thought the proprietor might know her. Mr. Tate knew her well. Her name was Edna Purviance. She was from Lovelock, NV and was living with her married sister in San Francisco.  A meeting was arranged at the St. Francis Hotel. During the interview, Chaplin found Edna to be “more than pretty, she was beautiful…with large eyes, beautiful teeth and a sensitive mouth.” However despite her looks, he thought she seemed “sad and serious” and doubted whether she could act or if she had any humor because she was so reserved. Nevertheless she was hired. If anything, he thought, she would be “decorative in my comedies.”2 Edna arrived for work at the Niles studio on January 21st.

An interesting sidebar to this story is that around the time of Chaplin’s arrival in San Francisco, Edna’s photograph had appeared prominently on the society page of the January 17th edition of the San Francisco Examiner.  The original photo was taken on January 9th, a week before her meeting with Chaplin, at a Grand Ball at the San Francisco Civic Center. It was one of the pre-opening events to the 1915 World’s Fair. Did Chaplin see this photograph? One can’t help but wonder.

Edna is at far right.
Source: Linda Wada — www.ednapurviance.org

1His New Job, released Feb. 1, 1915
2Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Additional sources:
Linda Wada, The Sea Gull, 2008

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