Friday, April 14, 2017

Half Horse, Half Hollywood

Born in a small coal mining village known as West Stanley in Durham County, England, early filmmaker David Horsley was the son of a master mechanic and blacksmith who worked for the West Stanley Coal Company.  The town was owned by the coal company.  Most of the residents were miners and their homes were also owned by their employer.  The dwellings were simple and most families owned at least one pig.  The Horsleys were no different and on January 18, 1884, David’s mother sent him out for pig feed.  Unfortunately, the ten-year-old boy was hit by a coal train and ended up losing his left arm just below the elbow.  The wise Mrs. Horsley knew that her son could never support himself in West Stanley so she convinced her husband to pack up the family and move to America where they settled in New Jersey later that same year.  There, David sold newspapers and worked as a Western Union messenger until he started his own business building bicycles. 

By the time he was thirty, he opened the ‘Horsley Pool Parlor’ completed with six pool tables, but lost the place during the financial panic of 1907.  That’s when he teamed up with one of his pool-playing patrons, Charles Groman, himself an artist at Biograph, and established the Centaur Film Company.  They chose the name ‘Centaur’ because it referred to a mythological character that was half-man and half-horse.  After struggling to remain in business and feeling pressured by Thomas Edison and The Trust—a filmmaking monopoly not known to be kind—Horsley knew that relocation was the only chance he had to keep his cameras rolling

The producer originally chose Florida for its sunshine and warm temps, but one of his directors, the Canadian-born Al Christie, had other ideas.  He believed that California was a much better option.  To be fair, the gentlemen flipped a coin and Christie won.  So in 1911, Horsley changed the name of his company, packed up and headed west.  In keeping with the mythological theme, Horsley called his enterprise The Nestor Motion Picture Company after ‘Nestor’ the Greek king of Pylos who claimed victory during the Trojan War.  They were the first motion picture studio to establish a permanent residence within the confines of Hollywood. 

Settling on the corner of Sunset and Gower, the fledgling movie company moved into the former Blondeau Tavern for $30 a month.  It was a deal, because in addition to the pub itself, Horsley also had access to the stables and carriage house.  The tavern’s garden served as a back lot and with a weekly budget of $1200, the production company issued three one-reelers each week—one comedy, one western and one ‘eastern’, or drama as we know it today.

Christie, who was primarily responsible for the Mutt and Jeff comedies, shared the directorial duties with drama expert Tom Ricketts and western filmmaker Milton H. Fahrney.  They simply used a stopwatch when filming and when time was up, the movie was over.  The negatives were developed in the dark on the tavern’s porch and then sent back east to Bayonne, New Jersey, for processing without anyone seeing them before they were printed and distributed.  The following year, Horsley was bought out by the newly-formed Universal Film Company and became one its largest shareholders.  In 1913, Horsley sold his piece of Universal to Carl Laemmle. 

Horsley then took his family to Europe where he encountered The Bostock Animal and Jungle Show in London.  The menagerie had recently been put out of their domicile by the British government because they needed the troop’s exhibition rooms for military training just prior to their entry into World War I.  Horsley bought them all including 58 lions, two elephants and countless other creatures.  He put them on a ship to New York and from there transported them by rail to Los Angeles.  He then leased an area at Washington and Main where he built grandstands, arenas and cages—all fenced in with concrete.  He opened his show in 1915.

Unfortunately for Horsley, his income never quite matched his overhead so he built a studio on the property and renamed it The Bostock Jungle Films Company.  Now back to movie-making, he filmed hundreds of comedy shorts, as well as a serial known as ‘Stanley in Africa’ starring Roy Watson as adventurer Henry M. Stanley.  The eight part jungle series was a great way to showcase the animals, but did not help Horsley’s bottom line.

By 1919, his venture was over and Horsley was in debt when he sold off his assets donating the lions to what would become the well-known Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte, California.  When Horsley left the motion picture industry, he was a defeated man and never able to regain the prominence he once held.  He died in 1933 at the age of 59 mourned chiefly by his father, wife and three children.