Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Horsleys of Hollywood (NZ197524)

We don’t like to crow about it here in the North-East, but not a lot of people know that it was two brothers from West Stanley, Co.Durham, who founded the Hollywood movie business on America’s west coast. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have happened without them, but David & William Horsley were most certainly the very first businessmen to set up a film studio in the famous suburb of Los Angeles.

History seems to place David, the younger of the siblings, as the driving force behind the extraordinary venture. Born in 1873 at West Stanley, then a bustling little pit village in the heart of Durham, he seemed destined to follow his family members into the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed – until two significant events changed the course of his young life. Firstly, aged nine, his hand was crushed under the wheel of a train, necessitating the amputation of his lower arm; then, in 1884, the family emigrated to New Jersey in search of a better life.

As he entered adulthood, the disabled David set up a bicycle business and ran a pool hall. In time, he fell in with a former Biograph Studios employee, Charles Gorman, and the two of them – together with brother William – decided to set up the Centaur Film Company in 1907. By 1910, they were turning out a handful of films per week, including the famous Mutt & Jeff comedies.

In order to really make an impression in the industry, though, they needed reliable sunlight – and the west coast was the place they targeted. So, in the summer of 1911, their set-up was moved to California, and the name changed to the Nestor Motion Picture Company. Though a handful of film companies were already operating in the area, the Horsleys’ studio was the first to be established in the LA suburb of Hollywood. The very first movie set was erected in the backyard of the Blondeau Tavern Building on Sunset Boulevard – and in late October 1911 the first short Hollywood film was shot.

LA operations were, in the main, entrusted to the Horsleys’ general manager, Al Christie, whilst the brothers ran the film processing and distribution side of the business from their New Jersey base. However, things moved fast, and as other companies arrived in Hollywood in their droves, the Horsleys decided to merge with several other concerns and form the famous Universal Studios in April 1912 – with David listed as among the new company’s founders.

Within a year or so, however, he had sold his share in the new organisation and embarked on a life of travel. He returned to the film industry a few years later, but his venture failed, and he eventually died – and was buried – in LA in 1933. William Horsley also left Universal (in 1916) to concentrate on the processing and developing side of the business.

Interestingly, David’s son, David Stanley Horsley, became a movie special effects expert.

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