Andrew Erish, Author-Teacher-Episode #291

Apr 16, 2024 | 0 comments

“Don’t write about the same thing that’s been written about a million times. There is so much virgin territory out there about film that hasn’t been explored. Get creative. And think about the stories you’d like to be able to tell and dig.”
~Andrew Erish

The first book published by noted author and teacher, Andrew Erish, Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, was hailed by the L.A. Public Library as “One of the best books of 2012.” And The Huffington Post declared, “…it may well be the film book of the year.”

Andrew’s most recent book, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, received the Peter C. Rollins Award for the best book of 2022 by the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association.

I’ve read both of Andrew’s fascinating and entertaining books, and can tell you that, despite my having been a student of films and Hollywood for more years than I care to admit, I learned a great deal about the beginnings of the movies that I had no clue about. If you like knowing all about Hollywood, I highly recommend both books to you.

Andrew also contributed five essays to American Cool, published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. And he’s written for various publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Andrew has lectured at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the L.A. Central Library, Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, Santa Fe Film Festival, and the Shubert Archive in New York. In the United Kingdom, he’s lectured at the Oxford Literary Festival and London’s Cinema Museum. He’s also programmed films and was honored at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy. For several years he has taught film history at universities and colleges in the Los Angeles area.



Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Andrew Erish: Don’t write about the same thing that’s been written about a million times. There is so much virgin territory out there about film that hasn’t been explored. Get creative. And think about the stories you’d like to be able to tell and dig. Find out where those stories are and do the work. You have to make a commitment to this, you know, it does take years. See it through to the end. You come to the point where you say to yourself, if no one bothers to read this, whatever it is, I at least want to know this for myself. it’s a win win at that point.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today is the noted author and teacher Andrew Erish His first book, Colonel William N. Selig the man who invented Hollywood, was hailed by the LA Public Library as one of the best books of 2012, and the Huffington Post declared it may well be the film book of the year. Andy’s most recent book, Vitagraph, America’s first great motion picture studio, received the Peter C. Rollins Award for the best book of 2022 by the Southwest Popular American Culture association. I’ve read both of Andy’s fascinating and entertaining books and can tell you that despite my having been a student of films and Hollywood for more years than I care to admit, I learned a great deal about the beginnings of the movies that I had no clue about. If you like knowing all about Hollywood, I highly recommend both books to you. You’ll find a link to both on Andy’s storybeat page. Andy also contributed five essays to American Cool, published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and he’s written for various publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Quarterly review of film and video. Andy’s lectured at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the La Central Library, Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, Santa Fe Film Festival, and the Schubert Archive in New York. In the United Kingdom, he’s lectured at the Oxford Literary Festival and London’s Cinema Museum. He’s also programmed films and was honored at the Pordinone Silent Film Festival in Italy. For several years he’s taught film history at universities and colleges in the Los Angeles area. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s my distinct privilege to welcome the author and film scholar Andrew Erish to storybeat today. Andy, welcome to the show.

Andrew Erish: Steve, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s a great pleasure to have you here, believe me. So let’s go back in time a little bit. When did you fall in love with movies and movie history?

Andrew Erish: Oh, my earliest memories, I was a little kid when the great escape came out, Steve McQueen. And I do absolutely recall that as the first movie. I think I literally got down on my hands and knees and begged my dad, we’ve got to go back and see this one again, dad. and I think I was five years old, and most kids are saying, can we see Bambi again? And I’m saying, can we see the great escape again? I had seen an interview on TV on Artlink Letter’s house party, right. Two of the fellows who had actually made the escape in real life, and they were talking about the differences between what happened in the movie and in real life and how certain things were done. And, I was five years old, spellbound.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Andrew Erish: I think that was the moment it.

Steve Cuden: Got you very early on. So that once that got into your blood, that was it.

Andrew Erish: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Do you think of yourself now primarily as a scholar or an author or a little of both?

Andrew Erish: I don’t think of myself as any of those things.

Steve Cuden: what do you think of yourself as?

Andrew Erish: The one thing I know is that I seem to know things that other people don’t.

Steve Cuden: What does that mean? It means you just have memory for stuff.

Andrew Erish: I have a good memory for things, and I am insatiably curious. I want to know. And I’ve had some great opportunities to meet people, talk with people who were interested in the things that I’m in and participated in very profound ways in those things.

Steve Cuden: And at what age then did you start to think about writing about these things?

Andrew Erish: That wasn’t until much later in life. I actually went to film school. Like you did.

Steve Cuden: Right.

Andrew Erish: Went to NYU, my last two years of undergrad. And with the desire to become a producer and director, not even thinking, well, I’ve been writing my own stuff all these years. It never entered my mind. And I found myself. Because it was so expensive to make movies back then on your own. I found myself in a position where I could only afford to write movies by necessity and then hope that maybe someday someone would buy a script, and then that would be my entree into producing and directing, and it just didn’t turn out that way. I sold a few scripts that never got made, but it just never happened. I had some opportunities to be a guest lecturer. Some friends seemed to think that I would be good at talking about film. And I was a script reader for a couple of studios for a number of years and had my own business doing that. And I really enjoyed lecturing students. And I thought at a certain point, as I got older, this dream isn’t really happening that I’ve carried with me all these years, but I’m getting such a kick out of teaching that maybe I should pursue that. And when I went to college, I was 16 years old. I was the youngest boy in my class.

Steve Cuden: That’s young.

Andrew Erish: When I went back to college, I still had half a semester to finish at NYU. I was in my late forty s. I was the oldest boy in my class. And it was at that point, going back to school in middle age, where I thought I’d like to teach, but I’d also like to write because I realized there’s things I know that I don’t find in books, and people seem to be interested in this stuff. So I took some kind of baby steps to see if, number one, I could do it, number two, if there was an audience for it. And I got very fortunate right off the bat, the first thing I wrote sold to the LA Times.

Steve Cuden: So you’re actually a filmmaker who’s also a great student of history of film and Hollywood.

Andrew Erish: Yes, I would say so.

Steve Cuden: That’s interesting because I think a lot of, and unfortunately, this is true, a lot of young people today are not students of the history of film. And they think they understand everything there is to know. And they really know, actually very little. I know that from teaching myself. Do you agree?

Andrew Erish: Yes, absolutely. And the sad thing was, when I got to college, I thought, okay, I’m finally going to meet people like me that really know their stuff and are hungry for this. And only, ah, met a couple of people.

Steve Cuden: That’s because I think this is my theory. I think a lot of people watch movies and TV and they think to themselves, that looks easy. I can do that. So they just go into it not knowing anything about it.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, I would agree.

Steve Cuden: And that becomes an issue because they get in there and they go, wait a minute, this is harder to do than it looks.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, well, another thing that primed me was my dad worked in radio and a little bit in television, and every Wednesday he would bring home variety, weekly variety. And I think I was eight years old and I saw a headline that was talking about the Batman TV show, which was one of my two or three favorite shows at the time. So I pick up variety. I’m, mesmerized by this thing. And I read variety from COVID to cover. Probably beginning when I was eight, for years on end and just couldn’t get enough. So just kind of soaking in all fat sets of, show business and learning an awful lot.

Steve Cuden: So you got lucky and sold your first article to the LA Times. Yes, yes. And what was that about?

Andrew Erish: It was about an exploitation film that there wasn’t a lot of information out there about. Called in Gagi that was produced and released in 1930. Peter Jackson remake of King Kong was coming out and they were making a big splash in pre production and saying this is going to be the biggest film and blah, blah, blah. And I thought if it weren’t for Ngagi, the first King Kong wouldn’t have been made. And I don’t think anybody knows anything about this. So I did an awful lot of research. So the only print that was known to exist at the time, that was heavily censored and wrote my article. And the LA Times gave me a full page. It was amazing.

Steve Cuden: So what for you then makes a good idea for an article or a book? In fact, you’ve written a couple. What attracts you to an idea that says to you, yes, this is something I can work on?

Andrew Erish: Steve, I think it’s a couple things. One is that the story has not been told before. I don’t want to tell a story that’s been told a million times. That bores me. I’ve read all the stories. I’d like to explore new ground. And the unfortunate thing about film history, I can’t speak about any other kind of history is there is so much there that is unmind in so many different fields of film history. Even as Americans, we know so little about the filmmaking that’s gone on outside of America.

Steve Cuden: Why do you think that is?

Andrew Erish: Oh, we’re too self absorbed. I don’t know.

Steve Cuden: You don’t think it’s because movies are thought of as an ephemeral, passing thing that you see a movie and you’ve seen it and it’s gone?

Andrew Erish: I think for a general audience that’s absolutely the case. But I do think that filmmakers, a lot of them tend to take pride in what they do and hope that their movie will be seen again and again. And I discovered it’s often a knock against pioneer filmmakers. That they didn’t know what they were doing. They had no idea that there was any value or anything to this thing. And that just wasn’t true. Over and over and over again as early as 19, 119. Two, they, believed that they had a great responsibility in terms of not only capturing history in documentaries, but also in telling the stories of people as they existed at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. I think there’s more of that than what we’ve been led to believe. Anyway.

Steve Cuden: You’re clearly a very deep researcher. You must spend a lot of time. How much time on each of your books did you spend? Was it years?

Andrew Erish: Probably five years on the first one and six years on the second.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Andrew Erish: And part of that, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. And I try to keep thinking out of the box, what haven’t I considered in terms of a source or what angle can I look at this from? And those kinds of questions. Challenging myself, I guess. But I also honestly don’t think of myself as a writer. I don’t think I’m a very good writer.

Steve Cuden: Oh, I’ll disagree with you about that, Andy.

Andrew Erish: Well, thank you. But, to compensate for what I think are my insufficiencies, I have to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite like crazy. And, I mean, it gets down to words.

Steve Cuden: Do you know what we call that in Hollywood?

Andrew Erish: Tell me.

Steve Cuden: Being a writer, right.

Andrew Erish: It’s pathetic how much I rewrite. I, rewrite until it’s the best I can possibly do, and then I let it go and move on to the next thing.

Steve Cuden: That’s what writing is. It’s been that way for me for 40 plus years. You write and write and write and write, and at some point, I think of it, and it’s probably a negative way to think about it, but I think of it when I finally get to the point where I’m rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, it’s time for me to move on.

Andrew Erish: I hear you.

Steve Cuden: All right, so describe your process in developing a book. So you start with an idea. You have a concept. I want to write about William N. Selig in this case, or about vitagraph. And then where do you begin? Do you just start digging in and reading and going to libraries, or what do you do?

Andrew Erish: Well, in the case of Selig, it actually goes back to that first article I wrote about the Ngagi film, because I discovered that all of the new scenes that were filmed for that exploitation film were shot at a place called the Sealig Zoo, and there just wasn’t any information out there, and the Internet didn’t exist. And I don’t trust the Internet anyway, so there’s too much misinformation out there. After I finished the article, I thought, I want to learn more about this sealig zoo. It sounds interesting to me. I don’t know why. And I had been doing research for the exploitation film at the Margaret Herrick Library, Motion Picture Academy Library. And I said, do you guys have anything on the sealig zoo? And Barbara hall, who you’ve interviewed.

Steve Cuden: Yes.

Andrew Erish: Said, as a matter of fact, William Seelig was the first filmmaker to donate his papers to the motion picture academy back in the mid forty s. And I said, oh, really? And she said, yeah. Do you want to look at them? I said, absolutely. And within a day or two, I made the commitment to myself, I need to tell this story just in a couple of days. My mind was blown with the information. And that’s something that’s important to me, is going to what you would call a primary source, original source material about the information that you’re writing about, rather than relying on another author or even an old person’s recollections of what the old days, I’m guilty of that. Know, we get older and ears get fuzzy and things like that.

Steve Cuden: Oh, yes.

Andrew Erish: But the great thing about Sealig was he held on to, I think it was something like 18 linear feet of business papers. And I went through those one by one. And I didn’t have a laptop at the time, so it was all handwritten in spiral notebooks, tons of them, every day for years, maybe three years. And I ended up doing the same thing with the second book about vitagraph and going to original sources and uncovering amazing things, finding out where the original documents are, and more importantly, if you’re going to write about film, finding out where the films are, Sealig and the photograph guys died believing that their films didn’t exist anymore, and no one’s going to remember them anyway. The films don’t exist. And lo and behold, it’s a small percentage, relatively small. But films do exist, and they’re all over the country and all over the world. And if you’re willing to travel and go see it, and if you have the money, you have to do it. It’s incumbent on you, if you’re going to write about film, to see the film you’re writing about. And I’ve read too many books and articles written by people that haven’t seen the films they’re writing about.

Steve Cuden: And they made literally hundreds, if not thousands, of relatively short films back then.

Andrew Erish: Yes, well, they started very short, and at a certain point, these are the guys that developed film into a two hour long format, right? Sealig was the first one to do it, and Vitagraph continued to do it for ten years after Sealig kind of broke ground with that. So short films, long films. I’ve seen literally hundreds of each of those companies films, but I don’t want to work in a vacuum. So even though I had grown up seeing all the Griffith films and all that, you watch those again and you seek out films by competitors that aren’t well known, like Sigmund Lubin, who was based out of Philadelphia, the biograph company, before DW Griffith got there, a place called the New York Motion Picture company that was actually making films in the beginning in New Jersey, and then moved out to Los Angeles. And they followed Selig out to LA and moved right across the street. So they were the second people in LA, and they were copying everything Sealig was doing across the street. So the New York motion Picture company is in Jersey and in LA.

Steve Cuden: So you now have gathered all of this voluminous information over a period of years of literally, ah, footwork, of doing it over and over and over again and picking all this information up. How do you then, especially without a computer in those days, how did you assemble it and figure out how to do it? Did you just decide I was going to write it, or, you were going to write it in chronological order, or how did you figure out how to write it?

Andrew Erish: With the first book, I decided against a chronology. There was so much happening, and I felt like I needed to try to stick to a genre or try to stick to a major development. For instance, there’s a separate chapter on the Western. There’s a separate chapter on the development of the feature film. There’s another chapter on documentaries and those kinds of films. So grouping like that made it a lot easier. And what are the stories that I would like to tell? With the second book on vitagraph? I decided it would be easier with them to go in a chronological order. And it was a challenge to try to make that flow when there were so many, all kinds of amazing things happening simultaneously. How do you maintain a continuity and an easy flow for the reader and everything and to keep that comprehension because you’re throwing names and ideas out that no one’s ever heard of.

Steve Cuden: Right.

Andrew Erish: Can they track with you through this thing?

Steve Cuden: I had heard of Vitagraft, but I knew nothing about Sealig at all. Yeah, I’d never even heard of him. And that just boggled my mind because, like I say, I’ve been at this for decades. And how do I not know those names?

Andrew Erish: It’s nobody’s fault. I didn’t know these guys either. And it’s the fault of, the people that came after them. Because they took credit for everything. The conquering army takes credit for the achievements of the people they’ve conquered.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Andrew Erish: And the first histories of the movies that were widely disseminated. Were written right after these guys took over and the pioneers were gone. So these books are telling the stories. That everyone else has cribbed off of ever since then. Well, this book was published in 1924, and this one is 1931. So they’re the earliest ones. They must be the most accurate. And those two books are about as wrong as you can get in most of what they’re telling.

Steve Cuden: Once they started to make movies, and they didn’t think very highly of them as an art form in those days. It was just a form of commerce of some kind. They were trying to make a little money off of them. They didn’t think about,

Andrew Erish: I would disagree with Steve.

Steve Cuden: Good.

Andrew Erish: They were absolutely wanting to make money. But in terms of Sealig and the two vitagraph partners that started vitagraph, they had come from a background as entertainers. And they wanted to entertain. They wanted to make money. But they also did have a concept of art. And one of the vitagraph guys in 19 nine, he wrote an op ed piece for a New York newspaper. And it was headlined, what is art? And for a guy that owns a studio, not only does he own the studio, but he’s also making films at the studio. And he happens to be the guy that invented animation, the animated film animation. He’s asking kind of these big questions and everything. And because in these cases, these are poor immigrants that started with nothing. And they aspired to the american dream. And they aspired to doing more than just make money or entertain. They wanted to be considered as a new kind of artist. It was important to them. So they had different ways of going about it, wouldn’t you say?

Steve Cuden: In general, the public and the critics and so on. Did not, in those days, think of it as an art form.

Andrew Erish: Yes.

Steve Cuden: It was a trifle to them. It was a trifle, yes.

Andrew Erish: And especially this is a weird thing. The, fellows that ran theaters, the Nickelodeons, which the first one started in.

Steve Cuden: Pittsburgh, right here in Pittsburgh, named,

Andrew Erish: Harry davis, I think in 19 five. The Nickelodeon operators who got really big were the guys. There’s a written record of all this stuff dating back all those years. Who didn’t think of film as art, who thought of it purely as commerce and said to the pioneer filmmakers, no more long films. No films in excess of ten minutes. How dare you? And then it was no more long films in excess of 20 minutes. And then eventually it was 2 hours. And then these guys were the ones that ended up taking over the business and taking credit for feature films, whereas they were the ones that were trying to stop it initially because of the movie going habits of the audience.

Steve Cuden: Why do you think they wound up at 2 hours?

Andrew Erish: Oh, I think for a couple of reasons. One very big reason is that was what people were used to seeing in a theater. Plays were generally 2 hours long. And when they were making the first two hour long feature films, if you have a little storefront Nickelodeon, and you’re charging five cents, and your clientele is used to paying five cents, and you can only see it, 100 people in there, no one’s going to make their money back. So the guys that were making these two hour long films in the beginning were renting out legitimate theaters to show their movies in. There is a symbiosis, I think, between theater and cinema, in that sense, in terms of how it gets presented and the parameters and things like that.

Steve Cuden: Can I tell you my understanding of how it got to 2 hours?

Andrew Erish: Sure.

Steve Cuden: I’ve always been told the two hour length, which may be why plays are 2 hours long, is that’s about the average length of a human’s bladder to withstand.

Andrew Erish: Years ago, I would have agreed with you, but I’m much older now, and, I’m all for the five minute film at this point.

Steve Cuden: But that’s what I was always told, that it had to do with just human nature.

Andrew Erish: That sounds very plausible.

Steve Cuden: So when you are putting the book together, did you outline your way to your book, or did you just sort of put things together and later assemble.

Andrew Erish: A very general outline, very broad categories, let’s say, for the first book and in the second book, a general outline in terms of some key points that I wanted to hit chronologically and then try to work within those points to get from point A to point B. And this is the difference between writing movie scripts and, writing a book. Other people mess with your script. In writing books, it’s kind of like the theater. The writer is respected, and the writer is responsible for pruning his or her work. So it was up to me, and you have to make some tough decisions and you kind of kick yourself afterwards about some of the things that got left out. But it was your call and you have only yourself to blame, and there are page limits when you’re dealing with academic publishers. So I turned in on the sealig book. The original manuscript was twice as long as what the book ended up being.

Steve Cuden: Is that right? Twice as long, yeah.

Andrew Erish: And the vitagraph book was, going, looking like twice as long. And I had written the first half of it and sent it in. And I realized, no, they have the same kind of limit because I was using a different publisher. And so for the second part of the book, I realized I need to really try to adhere to that and prune the first part.

Steve Cuden: When you got into it and you had a publisher, were you then on a deadline?

Andrew Erish: I had the entire Selig book written before I sent it out. And with Vitagraph, our good friend Robert Crane said, when you get to the halfway point, send it out to these guys. I’ll bet they’d go for it. And I did. And they did go for it. But I started to get bombarded with emails and questions, and I said, look, I’m in a zone. I have a second half of this book to write. Let’s just have these discussions at the end of this. I need to finish writing this thing first. And they were very patient. And probably two years later, a year and a half later, I finished it and sent it off. There had been a regime change in that time, so I was dealing with completely new people at that publisher, but they had know the earlier regime had made the commitment, and, folks that took over didn’t have a problem with that.

Steve Cuden: So, for the record, when you bring up Robert Crane, we’re talking about a former guest on StoryBeat, Bob Crane, which is fabulous writer and a really terrific man to deal with. So, beyond the notion of early Hollywood, do you think that there are themes in your work that just keep coming up time and again? Are there themes about people, about work ethic, about business that keep coming up?

Andrew Erish: Absolutely. Not only about the people that are involved in the business, but the stories they tell. You just see kind of history repeating itself again and again. The one thing that seems to distinguish the pioneers was that they weren’t business people. They didn’t come from another area of business into cinema, other than just being entertainers. And this is a new form of entertainment that they literally got in on the ground floor of. They weren’t trained in business, they weren’t trained in anything, and they had to learn these skills as they went along. M and I don’t know if it’s just true of those guys or it was true of the era, but there were no contracts. Their handshake and their word was their bond. And as you got deeper in and new people were coming into the business, they’re taking talent away and things like that. And you didn’t have a contract, you didn’t have this, you didn’t have that. And all of a sudden, the movies became a little more of a cutthroat industry.

Steve Cuden: It’s very much a cutthroat industry right from the get go and still is today.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, from the get go. In terms of guys like Thomas Edison.

Steve Cuden: My goodness, he was a cutthroat in many different, disciplines. He was a cutthroat to poor, dear Nikola Tesla. And as well as the motion picture industry and elsewhere, he just was a very tough guy. So let’s talk about sealig for just a minute.

Andrew Erish: Sure.

Steve Cuden: Tell us about the creation of the sealig polyscope company, and what kind of firsts did they create?

Andrew Erish: Well, when these guys started, it was all in the 1890s, and Edison’s company was there first. Even though Edison himself didn’t invent anything, people working for him kind of invented basic components of what cinema is based on, what motion pictures are based on. And the first way to see movies was looking into a cabinet in individual viewing. So Selig looks into the kinetoscope cabinet and sees these moving pictures and says, I’ve got to be a part of this. I have to do this. He has to figure out, how do you make a camera? How do you make a projector? What do you do with. Literally. I know Mel Brooks used to tell this joke, but it was true of Selig. He literally, on his first movie, had to punch out the sprocket holes along the side of the film, because you could not buy sprocket hole film back then. You could only buy it in strips. There was no movie business with sprocket holes and developing the negatives in your parents bathtub at night and then selling the movie outright to a vaudeville house the next day. There wasn’t a name for the industry yet. It had a lot of different names, and it seemed to be called by each company’s movie projector. So there was the american mutoscope and biograph company. The mutoscope was the projector. The Edison Kinetoscope company. Vitagraph was living pictures. Sealig polyscope is like the mutoscope or multiscope companies different way of naming your product. So people would say, let’s go to the polyscope tonight, or, let’s go to the mutoscope tonight. And they didn’t really settle on a particular name for years. you were known by your brand, not necessarily by the people in your films. That didn’t come until about 19, 719. Eight, you were known by the company brand. So that’s what he named his projectors. He’s making projectors to sell to vaudeville theaters and other places. And because he was located in Chicago, he had been an entertainer out west. He had traveled extensively out west as a, magician and as a minstrel show operator. And he was operating mixed race minstrel shows, black and white entertainers together. And he discovered Burt Williams, among other people, and George Walker for his minstrel show. But because he knew the west, when he saw the great train robbery, he said, it’s a great idea, but it’s New Jersey, and these guys don’t know how to ride a horse. He had been making documentaries since about 1919, one in Colorado. And let’s start to make story films with the cowboys. I know. And the real stage coaches, the real western towns, they didn’t need to build sets. They didn’t need to build the props. They didn’t need to go to western costume. The last vestiges of the west still existed. So in his fictional films, there is a layer of authenticity there that you don’t get in any other western. And he made a movie about the battle of Little Bighorn. And three of the Native Americans were actually Sioux warriors that participated in the original battle of the Little Bighorn. So he single handedly creates the western genre.

Steve Cuden: Oh, my goodness.

Andrew Erish: There were other genres at the time that came and know you’re old enough. I’m old enough to remember the surfing genre and the motorcycle genre, and on and on. The, Edgar Allen post cycle genres come and go. And had the western state in New Jersey and Staten island in Brooklyn, it would have died pretty quickly as well. And Sealig just opens it up to, an entirely different world. And because it has that veneer of reality, it informs other movies, too. We want to believe what we’re watching as an audience from day one to today in the 21st century. So we need to shoot it in places where we believe we’re actually in Rome or we’re actually in Japan or whatever. Sealig really started that with the western. It’s crazy.

Steve Cuden: He perfected the notion of narrative film storytelling.

Andrew Erish: He did, along with Vitagraph and Griffith doesn’t come along until, I think, 19 eight. And Vitagraph and Sealig had already been kind of laying all the groundwork for that stuff. And Griffith was great in terms of honing that and adding some new wrinkles to it and everything, each person brought their own vision and innovations.

Steve Cuden: Was Sealig the first contributor to the notion of a cliffhanger?

Andrew Erish: He was. He was indeed. He made the first adventure serial film in America called the Adventures of Kathleen. Most people have heard of something called the Perils of Pauline.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Andrew Erish: And we think, okay, that must have been the first movie serial. And that didn’t come until a, lot of other serials had been made, but it was financed by William Randolph Hearst, and he promoted the daylights out of perils of Pauline. So that’s why it’s known to this day. Sealig’s Adventures of Kathleen was made in 1913, and he combined this idea of a serial with cliffhanging chapters, episodes, with something else that he developed single handedly, the jungle adventure film. Edgar Rice Burroughs’dream was to write jungle adventure films for Sealig. And he submitted a couple of scripts, and Sealig didn’t like them as much as Burroughs did. He, bought a couple of them. but Burroughs went back and wrote Tarzan, made his fortune that way. But he continued to aspire to write for Sealig anyway, even after Tarzan, I.

Steve Cuden: Spent many years living in Tarzana, which is where ranch was.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, yeah.

Steve Cuden: So Tom Nicks was part of the Sealig organization, and he was, what, the first real western star?

Andrew Erish: Yes, the first real western star. He kind of started around the same time as Bronco Billy Anderson, but Bronco Billy had been one of the extras in. He played three roles in the great Train robbery, had never been on a horse before, just did not have any western skills. Whereas Tom Mix grew up in western pa. He was born in 1880 and saw a buffalo bill show when he was like ten years old and said, I want to be one of these guys. And this is before there’s movies. He had real western skills. He worked as a marshal in Oklahoma, he worked on ranches, he worked in Wild west shows, and he worked in rodeos. He helped organize the Calgary rodeo. That’s still going strong. And Tom Mix really defines what the movie cowboy is and what we expect in westerns. The athleticism, the stunt work. He did it all himself. And they used real bullets back then. So when there’s know, these are real bullets that are whizzing by and hitting the ground in front of him and the walls behind him and everything, it’s a whole nother world back then.

Steve Cuden: That is a whole other world.

Andrew Erish: Amazing. If you’ve ever seen back to the future, part three is the one where they go to the old west, right? Just about every single stunt that you see in there, and they hit. All the cliches in that movie can be traced back to particular films that Tom Mix made for Sealig, where he did the first riding up on a horse and transferring to a moving train, things like that. Every stunt you see in that film, it’s almost an homage to Mix’s sealig films without even realizing it.

Steve Cuden: So he’s like Buster Keaton doing his own stunts all the way through, or Harold Lloyd, which today, of course, other than Tom Cruise, nobody is doing.

Andrew Erish: Right.

Steve Cuden: None of the big stunts, anyway.

Andrew Erish: I always think of Jackie Chan as the last one that really, Jackie Chan put his body on the. Sure. Time after time after time. But even Jackie has gotten older like the rest of, you know.

Steve Cuden: It’s an unfortunate thing that happens, though. I suppose the alternative is not, as, you know, it’s good to live a nice, long, healthy life. Sealig also famously created a zoo.

Andrew Erish: Yes.

Steve Cuden: Which came first, the zoo or the jungle pictures?

Andrew Erish: The jungle pictures came first. If you want to hear the story about the first jungle picture, it’s crazy.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Andrew Erish: Teddy Roosevelt, when he was leaving his presidency, they said, what are you going to do? And he says, I’m going to go on safari. I’m going to Africa. I’ve always wanted to kill my own lion. And I want to bring back specimens for the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History. So Teddy Roosevelt’s real popular. It’s a big deal when he’s taking off. Selig got a meeting with Roosevelt before he left and said, can I train your son, Kermit, who was going along with Roosevelt on the safari, to operate a sealig polyscope camera to take photographs of your safari? And Roosevelt initially said, yes. And then he gets back in touch with Selig and says, I’m sorry. The sponsoring agency, which is the Smithsonian, said they won’t allow it. I’m so sorry, but we can’t have motion pictures. And then Selig finds out after Roosevelt’s left that they had hired a british documentarian to come along and photograph. So Selig was a little ticked off, he decided, and it took a long time to get to Africa and then get in deep into safari and all that. And Teddy Roosevelt had famously said, from the dock, as the ship is pulling away, know I’m going to bag my lion. And everyone’s thrilled. So this know number one on his bucket list. Sealig says, I’m going to recreate a teddy Roosevelt safari on my back lot, and in my studio, and I’m going to put it out like it’s the real thing. And he did. He waited for the news to reach America that Roosevelt had finally shot his lion and then put his film out, and it played all over the world. The movie was a sensation two years later because Roosevelt’s on safari for a little over a year, and the documentary film finally comes out a couple years later. It’s an anti climax, and it’s boring compared to how Selig staged his thing. And Kevin Brownlow has always said that that was the moment when people said, yeah, we don’t really like documentaries. We’re going to stick with story films from now on. Success with that one film, he rented some animals from a circus that was wintering in Wisconsin. The circus, a year or two later, goes belly up. They go bankrupt, and they owe Celie some money. He had lent them some money to keep going, and he inherited a circus, a circus animals, and he decided, I need to put them in a proper zoo, and I think I can do something with this and make more jungle adventure films. So he moved all the animals out to Los Angeles and ended up buying 30 acres of land to build a second studio in Los Angeles and a zoo. So it was the first movie land theme park. It was the first zoo in Los Angeles. It was the first place where people could go watch movies being made. And then Carl Lemley kind of jumped on that idea and created Universal City and all that. And he’s given the credit for Movieland theme parks and stuff like that.

Steve Cuden: So Selig was way ahead of his time in so many different ways. Let’s talk for a moment about vitagraph, because that’s your second book. How did they become such a powerhouse studio in the early days? How did that come about?

Andrew Erish: I think because there were three partners initially. There were two. A third guy came in, and I think each one of them brought something different. Selig was by himself, and I think the Vitagraph guys drew strength and inspiration and were able to delegate things in a way where they were able to accomplish an awful lot. They were probably the first studio to really engage in nepotism to a huge extent. It’s always a big knock on Hollywood, and, so many of the, film moguls have been guilty of it. But vitagraph probably started that trend, because Albert Smith, who was one of the two partners, original partners, I think he had eight brothers, and seven of the brothers were on the payroll and in very key positions. One of them was operating the London sales office, one of them was operating the Australia sales office, and his best friend was operating the Paris sales office. He had a vision for an international reach. When Edison was suing everybody, in the very early days, there were so many french and italian films, flooding America, and that was what people were going to see, because Edison was suing everyone, and they didn’t have the money to make the movies they wanted to make. And I think the Vitagraph guys know, if people are going to see their films, I’ll bet the french people and the italian people and the british people and everybody else might want to see our films. And sure enough, vitagraph, more than anybody, I think, and celebrate, to a lesser extent, were responsible for creating an audience for american film around the world. It’s amazing reading old letters from theater operators from 1912 saying, give us more Tom Mix films. Or in Vitagraph’s case, they had the first big matinee idol, Maurice Costello and Florence Turner, who was called the Vitagraph Girl. She was really the first movie star, and she was known around the world. That alone, the first American that was well known motion picture actor to go outside of the country was a guy named John Bunny, biggest comedian in the movies until Charlie Chaplin came along. Bunny goes to England in 1912 to make his dream project of the Pickwick papers. The guy looked just like the illustrations of Pickwick in the original editions from Charles Dickens. And he goes to England, and he’s mobbed all over the place, everywhere he goes. He goes to Ireland on the trip to make a few movies. He’s mobbed in Ireland. He goes to Paris, and he goes to Berlin, and he’s mobbed everywhere. And then Maurice Costello does an around the world trip for vitograph, and he’s mobbed everywhere he goes. They know who these people are through these vitagraph movies. They’re playing everywhere. It’s interesting to me that there are movies that they would make in America about foreign places, and they didn’t seem to bother the people in those places, that they were made in America, and they weren’t authentic, made on the vitagraph backlot, because they were respectful to those people and places. And that was another key, I think, to their success. They could make a film about a subject that was honoring the subject, and they would also make a film that satirized the subject. So kind of no one was off limits in terms of satirizing, but no one was off limits in terms of making kind of a heartfelt, dramatic story.

Steve Cuden: About or whatever these guys that started vitagraph. So you had James Blackton, Albert Smith. And ultimately, they were joined by pop rock. William T. Pop rock. Correct.

Andrew Erish: Yes.

Steve Cuden: And Interestingly, Blackton was, I think, Smith, too. They were magicians, like Sealig. They did all kinds of entertainments. And so they understood what it was to please a crowd.

Andrew Erish: Absolutely. Because they came up during vaudeville, and the whole idea of vaudeville was, as that took root was create entertainment that you can reach the most people with, and not that you have to do it every moment in every act, but if you can diversify the acts and be able to, over the course of a, two hour entertainment, reach every segment of your audience, then you’re going to reach everybody. You’re going to do good business. It’s good business sense, but it kind of reflected an idea back then about America as the melting pot, or in all this together, and trying to be respectful of each other. It was such a great, I think, both a great business model and a great aesthetic model that the later companies didn’t follow as well. And I wish we could get back.

Steve Cuden: To something like, you know, they try. These guys also understood the precursor to movies, which were magic lanterns, projected imagery.

Andrew Erish: The, projected imagery. Something that Edison, I don’t think Edison ever left his house or his laboratory or whatever. He never thought of projected images.

Steve Cuden: But what I find very interesting is the notion that the founders of what we think of as movies today came from both magic lanterns and magic itself, stage magic. And we still call it the magic of movies.

Andrew Erish: Yes, we do. Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: And we are still creating special effects more and more realistically every day. And it’s still magic.

Andrew Erish: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: And so these magicians created an industry based on something that is magical.

Andrew Erish: Absolutely. And think of George Miguel’s, which most people have heard of him, and Scorsese makes the film and everything. He was a great magician himself in France, and for a little while, for maybe four or five years, he was the most popular filmmaker in the world.

Steve Cuden: Of course. Well, he made the earliest and most important special effects movies. Really?

Andrew Erish: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: What was it called? Journey to the moon.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, trip to the moon.

Steve Cuden: Trip to the moon.

Andrew Erish: I love the one with the four disappearing heads or something, where he pulls his head off of his body and sets it on a table and it’s magic.

Steve Cuden: It’s stage magic.

Andrew Erish: Amazing.

Steve Cuden: But put into motion pictures, and you alluded to earlier that Blackdon basically created animation.

Andrew Erish: Yeah, he really did. It’s indisputable. If you see the films, it’s there, and you can see the progression in each film as it turns into animation. And maybe the earliest animated film that a lot of people might have seen is Gertie the dinosaur.

Steve Cuden: Windsor McKay.

Andrew Erish: And Windsor McKay made Gertie the dinosaur at the Vitagraft studio in Brooklyn with help from the people in Brooklyn. How do you do this? And then Vitagraft distributed the.

Steve Cuden: So that’s exactly it. And how interesting is it that one of the major animation studios in LA now for many years, 30 years or so, is called Nickelodeon?

Andrew Erish: Right.

Steve Cuden: It’s all sort of of a piece, isn’t it?

Andrew Erish: It is. I used to work for Nickelodeon, and none of the people I ever talked to there knew where the term Nickelodeon came from. They had some kind of. Some of them had a vague idea and a lot of them didn’t. So these ideas just keep moving forward in history and they lose the context, the meaning, the original meaning and stuff. But it’s still there. You watch movies today and you can see where. Okay, this is an idea that Selig introduced, or, oh, man, the vitagraph guys were on top of this thing 100 years ago.

Steve Cuden: Well, we all know that there really are no new stories. Stories have been around since the Greeks, right? And we’re just sort of repackaging them in some interesting new take on them. But the stories themselves have been around forever, including going back to the origins of Hollywood. I am curious. Want to cover teaching for a moment before we close the show out today? You teach film history, correct?

Andrew Erish: Well, I used to. I’m, retired now.

Steve Cuden: You’re retired? So when you taught, what would you say were the common mistakes that novice film students and scholars, they make about the business of motion pictures that you saw repeatedly? What mistakes would they make that can be avoided?

Andrew Erish: I think one is that they’re not aware of the films that have been made before their lifetimes. By and large, I’m talking about students at this point when I would teach, I would pass out an index card first day of every class, and, I’d say, write down your three favorite movies. I wanted to just gauge where each of the people were. And if they wrote down a movie that I hadn’t seen, I wanted to see that movie just to get the tenor of the class and the individual. After going through every semester, going through the cards, I’d say, okay, listen, you have some favorite films that are near and dear to your heart right now, but if you take both semesters with me when I’m done with you, some of these movies aren’t going to be on your list anymore, and there are going to be movies you have no idea exist right now that are going to rock your world and kind of change the way that you’re thinking about movies and maybe tweaking some of your dreams about where you want to go. I think it’s so valuable to at least know the great films and why they’re great. I don’t think any film class in the world shows gone with the wind or sound of music, and those were the two big money makers in the sound era for decades. But there are other key movies that are just so important or that still move people to this day in a profound way. And those are the movies worth looking at and then analyzing why are we moved? Or why is this such a dazzling cinematic expression and understanding what that is and then getting inspired? Well, you’re not going to make their film, but you’re going to make yours. And maybe they took ideas from this person and that person, and maybe you can take something from them. And the bigger the palette you can work with, the better your films are going to be. If you have, just a narrow idea of what movies are, it’s going to turn into narrow output from you.

Steve Cuden: The old cliche about creation and going on generation after generation is that each generation is standing on the shoulders of giants from the previous generation.

Andrew Erish: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: And in this case, you’re talking about many generations of giants. And it’s good if students know what they’re coming from to go toward so that they don’t repeat what’s happened in the past.

Andrew Erish: Exactly.

Steve Cuden: That they get creative.

Andrew Erish: Exactly. Don’t make the mistakes that other people made with best of intentions sometimes. Be careful about the stories you’re telling. You want to make something entertaining, and you want to make something that’s going to last, that people aren’t going to walk out of in the middle of the film that maybe your kids or your grandkids will say, hey, that’s a pretty good movie indeed. I think we all secretly aspire to that, whether we admit it or not. Some of the tools are right there in terms of learning from movie history. Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: Well, nobody wants to go to a movie and be bored by something they’ve seen before. Even if they’ve seen a movie before and they really want to see it again, they know the movie at that point, but they don’t want something made new that’s exactly like something in the past. I think that’s why so many remakes fail. is that you’ve seen it before. So I’ve been having this absolutely fascinating, wonderful conversation with Andy. Erich, we’re going to slow the show down a little. And I’m just wondering, in all of your experiences, can you share with us a story that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or maybe just plain funny?

Andrew Erish: Can I give you a couple?

Steve Cuden: Sure, please do.

Andrew Erish: Okay, Steve. Thank you. When I was writing the Sealig book, I walked the ground where the studios were in Los Angeles, and he had three different studios. Just fascinating kind of imagining what’s happening here a hundred years earlier. But it was important to me because he started in Chicago. I got in touch with one of his descendants, the great great nephew. And his father had met Sealy when he was a boy with his mother, who was Sealig’s niece. And so I wanted to talk to this guy, and he had some family scrapbooks and stuff. It was a delight. Great guy. Jeff turns to me and says, well, how would you like to go to the Chicago studios and check them out? And I’m like, let’s go. And he said, I haven’t been there in a few months, but it’s really know. Most of the buildings are still up. We get there and all but one of the buildings had just been torn down. There was rubble all over the lot. And I can’t tell you how downcast we both were and like to have just missed it. But I noticed where the original 19 seven studio was. They were digging a foundation for a new building on that property. It was a Sunday and there were construction fences around. I said, let’s jump the fence and poke around. We jumped the fence. We walked down into the foundation for the new building that was going up. And at about eye level, there were different layers. I remember in social studies, seeing the films of Dr. Leaky going through the different layers in Africa and finding things at an eye level layer. I saw film sticking out of the ground. I started to tug on this, and there’s more film and more film and more film. And I’m like, Jeff, get over here. I found something. I pulled out quite a quantity of film that was probably 2ft below ground level. Unfortunately, almost all of the emulsion had come off of the film, except for one of the strips still had the Sealig diamond s logo on a few frames at the end of it. But finding that film, I think I actually did a jig like Walter Houston in Treasure of the Sierra Madres. I mean, it was just, for a film geek, this was it. it was a fantastic moment. I had an interesting experience with Vitagraph when I moved to Los Angeles. I moved into a house that a friend of mine had been renting in the Los Felis neighborhood. an old film school buddy, Rich Nathanson Rich, said, you know, in our backyard is the ABC TV complex, and it used to be an old movie studio. Do you know which one? And I said, rich, if I don’t know which one it was, it couldn’t have been that important. Talk about Gaul. I’m so ashamed of myself. And it turned out that was the photograph studio in Hollywood. It was the biggest studio for a long time. It, ah, is still in operation. So you could make an argument that from 1915 to the present, this has always been a working studio in Hollywood. I just learned so much about that place and was so humbled by my arrogance of, wow, I would have heard of this place. And it was in my backyard. And I’m actually delivering a lecture about movie history in your backyard to Missouri Southern State University in April about that very topic and telling these kinds of stories.

Steve Cuden: And that’s now the ABC prospect studios.

Andrew Erish: ABC left it in the early 2000s, so now it’s just called the prospect studio, but they still shoot General Hospital there. And they shot American Bandstand and Lawrence Welk. And, let’s make a deal. And it’s got a big TV history to it. In addition to being the backlot to Warner Brothers, where they shot anything in the Warner backlot for a long time, was shot on that property. So crazy stuff. And then there’s one more thing. I went to the Portinone film festival in Italy. When I got there, the PR person for the festival said, a couple of people would like to talk to you. Okay, great. A woman from the local newspaper, regional newspaper whatever, interviewed me about Colonel Sealan. And, wow, this is really cool. And then I find out there’s a news crew from Slovenia that would like to interview you. And I get introduced to the producer, and I said, why do you want to talk to me? And she said, I read what you wrote about Sealig in the catalog for this year’s festival, and I’m just blown away by this guy. I’ve never heard of him. And these films sound amazing, and I would love to talk to you about it for our show. And I said, what’s your show? And she said, it’s 60 minutes. It’s the Slovenia version of 60 minutes. And she said, you’re from LA. You’re used to millions and millions and millions of people. And we’re just a small country. We’re just 2 million people. But, everyone gets the same TV service and 60 minutes is very popular show. So I can tell you. I said, hold on right there. More people in Slovenia will know who Colonel Sealig is than in M LA and all of the United States when you get done with this. So that was quite a thrill, I must say.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s really fascinating that they know more in Slovenia than we do in Hollywood. All right, so last question for you today, Andy, you’ve already given us a lot of very interesting things to think about and tips to chew on a little bit. But I’m wondering if you have a solid piece of advice or a tip that you like to give to those that are starting out either in the motion picture business or in the writing business of film history, or perhaps they’re in a little bit and trying to get to that next level.

Andrew Erish: Well, there’s a couple of things. One is the people at the motion picture Academy library said, if, the next person that comes in saying, I want to write about gone with the Wind, I’m going to shoot my brains out. Don’t write about the same thing that’s been written about a million times. There is so much virgin territory out there about film that hasn’t been explored. Get creative and think about the stories you’d like to be able to tell and dig. Find out where those stories are and do the work. You have to make a commitment to know. It does take years to write something like this, so you need to make a commitment pretty early on to see this through. And there’s going to be days when you hate it and days when you love it, but you also have to have faith in your project. And Howard suburb, in your interview with him, talked about faith, and he talked about it coming from a non religious idea of just have faith in what you’re doing. And I would say, if you’re a person of faith, of religious faith or something, pray about what you do. It won’t hurt. Blaise Pascal said, doesn’t hurt if you try it. I need all the help I can get, so do the work, get the help that you need, when you need it, and see it through to the end. There are no guarantees. I’ve written both of my books on spec, I’ve written all my articles on spec, and I’ve been fortunate to sell everything. But you come to the point where you say to yourself, if no one bothers to read this, if no one buys the book or the article or whatever it is, I at least want to know this for myself. And it’s got to be that important. It’s a win win. At that point. It’s icing on the cake if someone else wants to publish it or read it. And I’ve heard from people all over the world, and it’s so exciting to know that people are reading the book. The books will outlive me, and maybe people will start to tell a little bit more of a responsible film history going forward with the information that I have here.

Steve Cuden: Well, for sure. The truth is, it’s very hard to create any kind of art, whether it’s narrative film or documentaries or writing history. Ah, of Hollywood, it doesn’t matter. You need that passion in order to actually do the work. Otherwise, you’re just not going to follow through both of Andy’s books. Just so you all recall, the links will be available on the website. It’s Colonel William N. Selig, the man who invented Hollywood, and also vitagraph, America’s first great motion picture studio. Andy Erich, this has been an absolutely wonderful hour on StoryBeat, and I can’t thank you enough for your time, your energy, and especially for all of your wisdom about Hollywood and its past.

Andrew Erish: Steve, you’re very kind. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an, honor, seriously.

Steve Cuden: And so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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