Montecito is home to celebrities and royalty, with mansions hidden behind tall hedges, long driveways and locked gates. But a century ago, the actors and film crews making movies set in tropical islands, Ancient Rome and elsewhere were ready to welcome back.
Author and local historian Betsy J. Green found 65 silent movies that were shot in and on the multimillion-dollar Montecito estates in the glory days, and compiled her research in a newly published book, “Movies and Million Dollar Mansions: Silent Movies Made in Montecito.”
In addition to the Santa Barbara “Flying A” studio, as many as nineteen Hollywood studios also filmed in Montecito during the 1919s and 1920s. In the early decades of filming, before the big-budget years, it was more profitable to find an existing mansion than build one or create a realistic scenario. Montecito’s proximity to Hollywood and wealth of luxury properties made it an attractive solution.
The films were befitting their settings, beginning with religious themes in 1911, later turning into melodramas and adventures; 1928 saw a jazz age movie based on a Broadway musical. The book is structured with a chapter for each film. Each contains an animated synopsis, behind-the-scenes information, plus photos from the movie and its million-dollar set, with more than 450 images in all. The cover of the book contains a scene from a movie that was filmed in the first mansion of “Bellosguardo”.
Green, who also writes The Independent’s Great House Detective column, will present his book at Chaucer’s Books on August 29 at 6:00 pm, as well as other nearby local locations.
We sat down to ask Green about the inspiration behind his efforts.
What led you to choose this particular topic?
While I was writing my Long ago series for 1914-1919, I was impressed by the number of movies being made in our area. I focused on Montecito because it was interesting to see how haciendas were used to represent Ancient Rome, France at the time of Louis XIV, etc. It was also interesting that so many haciendas were open to movie studios shooting on their properties, compared to today when most properties are hidden.
Did you have a passion for silent movies before this project?
He had no special interest in silent movies before he began researching Santa Barbara history at age 19. While looking at old newspapers, I became curious about the movies that were playing in local theaters and started searching for these movies online. Watching old silent movies is a way of traveling to the past.
What was something that surprised you while researching for the book?
I started out thinking that the “Flying A” studio in Santa Barbara did most of the shooting in Montecito. But I found out that more than 15 studios from the Hollywood area traveled here to shoot at the Montecito properties.
Do you have any upcoming projects in the works for the future?
There’s a lot of interesting film history in our area, so my next book (for next year) is about the 200+ silent movies shot in the Channel Islands, and then another book about the interesting behind-the-scenes happenings in the ” Flying A”. and the other studios that filmed here.
Betsy J Green He has been a writer for over 25 years. She was editor of “Reader’s Digest” and “World Book Encyclopedia” and has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines around the world. She specializes in history, architecture, and the environment. She has written seven books on the history of Santa Barbara, including the “Way Back When” series and “MESApedia.” In her spare time, she writes “The Great House Detective” column for The Santa Barbara Independent.
August 29 – Chaucer Books
September 10 – Montecito Library
September 28 – SB Historical Museum
Groups or organizations that are interested in Betsy presenting a talk or slideshow can contact her through her website at betsyjgreen.com
Signed copies of the book are available at Chaucer’s Books and the Mesa Bookstore. Copies are also available here on Amazon.com.
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