By Jill Diamond
If you thought motion pictures were only made in Hollywood during the early days of film, you’d be sorely mistaken.
In fact, the city of La Mesa was on the radar of more than one studio in the early 1900s to mid-1920s as a great place to make some early silent films, especially Westerns, according to historians.
For example, on Aug. 12, 1911, the American Film Manufacturing Co.’s “Flying A” troupe decided to make La Mesa Springs its new home. During its time in the area, it produced many short films (12-14 minutes each which were known as one-and-two reelers) such as “The Poisoned Flume,” “Bonita of El Cajon,” “Mystical Maid of Jamacha Pass,” and “Bandit of Point Loma.”
While Flying A successfully produced these films among others, it moved its productions to Santa Barbara in 1912 for better working conditions.
Then, in 1922, a local businessman thought he’d have his own go at jumping on the moviemaking bandwagon. East County real estate entrepreneur Ed Fletcher initially attracted Arthur H. Sawyer with his plan to start Sawyer-Lubin Studios (S-L Studios) in the Grossmont area.
According to La Mesa historian and author of “La Mesa Images of America: California Series,” James D. Newland, S-L Studios started off with a bang but fizzled after just a few short years.
“In 1922, Sawyer approached Fletcher who was busy investing in promoting the Grossmont area. Fletcher had a lot of land and Sawyer wanted to open a studio near Grossmont Pass — near where Anthony’s Restaurant is today,” Newland said.
Fletcher’s big adventure
As the story goes, Sawyer talked Fletcher into the venture and, along with some other San Diego investors, started to build the S-L Studios on more than 200 acres of land, according to the Ed Fletcher Papers (a collection of correspondence, photos, documents and more that document his career, currently held at UC San Diego).
“It took a year or two to build the studio, but almost as fast, a year later Sawyer wasn’t producing anything,” Newland said. “Fletcher approached some other businessmen and said he thought Sawyer was blowing smoke — it turned out this guy Sawyer didn’t know what he was doing, they realized he was all talk.”
But Fletcher didn’t give up so easily — he formed a new group of other investors that he knew and was able to revamp S-L in 1925 renaming it Grossmont Studios.
“It turns out Grossmont Studios and Fletcher produced somewhere around eight to 10 films that were considered mostly ‘educational films’ — some were said to be biblically-themed,” Newland said. “They were acting scenes out from the Bible from what I understand. There are some stills that have survived and one was a Western with the name ‘The Beloved Bandit.’”
Newland added there are old photos showing an Egyptian set, and some others with actors dressed as cowboys. However, as far as the films go, they don’t exist anymore — typical of most silent-era films.
About three years after Fletcher started Grossmont, the studios unfortunately went out of business. But rather than close the studios altogether, Fletcher had the old buildings converted into a roller rink and a restaurant, but a fire burned both down in 1934.
According to a San Diego Union newspaper clipping dated 1934 that is also part of the Ed Fletcher Papers, “the fire caused $75,000 in damages to the old studios and started a 15-acre brushfire that took three hours to extinguish …”
The article also states: “The building was built 15 years ago for $175,000 and the structure was occupied for six months by a motion picture company. Stars of wild west pictures were featured in the films made at the studio until 3 years ago the building was vacant.”
The Union article further mentions the building remained vacant until 1931 when it was converted into a skating rink, which also failed, as Newland stated. It was then turned into a dining and dance hall owned by Walter Trudeau, according to the article.
“It is believed that the studios were located near the natural pond behind Anthony’s Fish Restaurant,” Newland said. “A recreational indoor soccer arena and other buildings are there now.”
Newland said that some rumors suggest the original studio building had three different “false fronts” and was turned into a house. However, he was not sure if this was true or just hearsay by locals.
“S-L Studios, as well as Grossmont Studios, was just one more attempt to bring the movies to La Mesa,” he said. “But it just didn’t fly because LA was where the action was and San Diego just didn’t have the infrastructure to compete for making movies. Everyone consolidated to LA eventually and this [Grossmont Studios] was just one more attempt to bring the industry to San Diego.
“La Mesa and San Diego in general were just too small, and too remote,” Newland continued. “Companies like Flying A, S-L Studios and Grossmont Studios simply didn’t have the wherewithal to make it.”
Newland said La Mesa was a great area for moviemaking initially because of its climate, and wide-open spaces, as well as being a place where studios could film year-round, but “LA had the better transportation, commercial connections, and more varied site locations.
“In the end, La Mesa and San Diego kind of played second fiddle because they weren’t as built out as LA, or Hollywood, and that’s what the studios needed to make a go of it,” Newland said. “They had the bigger airport, railroad, and so much more. I think they whole idea of successful moviemaking, especially in La Mesa, just didn’t pan out.”
— Jill Diamond is a Southern California freelance writer with a penchant for interesting historical pieces. Reach her at JillDiamondHistory@gmail.com.