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Movies and Los Gatos filmmaking: Lights! Camera! Action!

Movies and Los Gatos filmmaking: Lights! Camera! Action!

Los Gatos filmmaking - book about Los Gatos movies and the Essanay Company with background of Main Street, Los GatosLos Gatos filmmaking goes back more than 100 years. Movies aren’t just enjoyed in town, they’ve been made here! And that is true now, too.

Los Gatos filmmaking – a little history on movies shot in and near Los Gatos

Most residents and visitors are unaware of the quirky Los Gatos history around movies and the making of them. It’s a fun factoid to share! Locals may know that John Steinbeck lived nearby in what is now part of Monte Sereno, and may have heard that Charlie Chaplain sometimes stopped by the Lyndon Hotel to have a drink with him from time to time. But more than that was happening in the local entertainment scene.

Essanay Film Production Company in Los Gatos

In 1910 and 1911 the Essanay Film Production Company took up residence in the Lyndon Hotel for a few months which commending the Los Gatos filmmaking – the start of a long history of movie making, if sporadic. (The “S” and the “A” stood for the initials of the company’s founders.)

This was a highly prolific production company. Essanay at times cranked out a film a week – sometimes more. In 1911, for instance, they produced 99 silent films!  Not all of these were in Los Gatos, however. (This is the same firm that a little later produced so many movies in the Niles Canyon area of Fremont too.)

Looking for the right climate for their outdoors work, Essanay had moved west from Colorado, landing first in San Jose and then moving the 10 miles further west to Los Gatos. They were able to set up their production studio right behind the Lyndon Hotel, where they resided at the time.  Additionally, they discovered the hamlet of Alma (which was flooded in 1952, along with the town of Lexington, to create the Lexington Reservoir) just up the hill into the Santa Cruz Mountains, and many of their movies were filmed there too.

A  bad El Nino year is a wet blanket on Los Gatos filmmaking

Unfortunately for the folks at Essanay, the winter of 1910-1911 appears to have been a particularly bad El Nino year. In one four day period in January, the town received 16 inches of rain.

That much water caused countless problems with accessibility and it convinced the film production company to seek an alternate location after their work ground to a halt for about 5 weeks. So in February of 1911, they left soggy Los Gatos and next went south, toward Los Angeles. Thus ended the brief but prolific history of Los Gatos and the Essanay Film Production Company.

They did not stay away from the San Francisco Bay Area for long, though. Later in 1911, Essanay filmed in San Rafael and by 1912 was esconced in Niles.

Los Gatos filmmaking continues

That was not really the end of the filming location story for Los Gatos, though. At least two dozen films have been shot here. Here are a few of them:


And why should we be surprised? Los Gatos normally has wonderful weather and the beautiful backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains (not to mention our lovely older buildings), which are ideal for Los Gatos filmmaking. Imagine how long Essanay might have stayed if it weren’t for a bad bout of El Nino!


Los Gatos filming locations

Please scroll IN to get a more detailed view of scenic, historic, quirky, or interesting spots in LG that might make a good movie setting. Scroll OUT to see additional pins. This is a sampling of my favorites – I’m sure there could be a thousand more!


Los Gatos, once referred to as the “Gem City”, has so many scenic spots and in nearby it is a little challenging to narrow the list. There are historic buildings in the downtown area especially on and around North Santa Cruz Avenue in downtown. There are great commercial and residential possibilities. The backdrop is the up-close Santa Cruz Mountains, full of redwoods that make the hills green year-round.  The town boasts one reservoir up into those hilsl just a bit (where college students practice crew) and a smaller one in town (think paddle boats and tiny sail boats).  Both of them are along the same waterway.

Film production locations in Los Gatos – some of my favorite spots or areas:

  • For Victorian and other historic homes, this town has loads of options and several historic districts. The Glenridge area is not an historic district, but it does have a large number of historic homes, and many of them are on wide streets, which is helpful for the filming crew. It’s also a little quieter, with fewer cars, than many of the areas closer to downtown. The homes are not usually small, though. If you need smaller houses, there are some (or at least smaller looking from the front) in the Almond Grove neighborhood.
  • Looking for larger homes on a wide street with views of the hills? Try Glenridge Avenue!
  • Need homes across from a scenic park? The Bachman Park area is ideal.
  • Los Gatos High School on Main Street is well known as a great spot for movies – no list would be complete without mentioning it.
  • If wine tasting is in your project, check out Testarossa and the wine cave.
  • A foot and bike bridge crosses Highway 17 between the Old Town Shopping Center and Forbes Mill. It’s got a great view of the pass to Santa Cruz and includes murals painted by kids.
  • Old Town has a small, seldom used amphitheater in the back. So many possibilities – and sadly underused in recent decades.
  • Three unique cemeteries may be helpful to producers, none in town, but close.
    • One of them is the Los Gatos Memorial Park (originally many of the oldest bodies were in LG, but were relocated when the town’s businesses expanded) is in San Jose but close to the border with this town. Some areas have huge trees and nice views of the coastal mountains in the distance.
    • Another is the historic Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga, near the Village (Big Basin Way).
    • Also historic and pretty quirky is the Hacienda Cemetery in New Almaden (which is the old part of Almaden)
  • A red brick road makes up one of Saratoga’s Heritage Lane areas. It’s very cool, very close to Austin Corners in Monte Sereno and not far from LG!
  • Vasona Lake County Park and Oak Meadow Park have great vistas, but also share a carousel and small railroad train (once visited by Walt Disney when planning out Disneyland). Vasona has a large reservoir with sailboats and paddle boats available to rent. (Contrary to what is written elsewhere, the only beaches we have are at the lake, however, Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay are only a half hour away, “over the hill”, as the locals say.
  • Need horses? There are several riding stables in town (and near town) with trails here – no need to go anywhere!
  • Quito Road, straddling Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga, meanders as it follows the San Tomas Aquino Creek and it features surprising suggested speed limit signs with numbers like 19, 22, and 23 to catch motorists’ attention.
  • Nearby Saratoga has several other beautiful venues: Hakone Gardens (Kotani-En Japanese Garden), Montalvo, and the Mountain Winery. The quaint Saratoga Village is much smaller than downtown Los Gatos and it may be just the setting that a filmmaker needs.
  • The broader area offers many more interesting, historic, and scenic place for shooting a movie, all within about 30 minutes of the San Jose airport.

Los Gatos has a large selection of good to great restaurants, coffee shops, breweries, wine tasting venues, dessert spots, and great shopping. There’s even an old style, classic, and renovated movie theater in the heart of downtown. Film crews will enjoy their time here and feel right at home!


Related Reading and More Info on Los Gatos filmmaking:

Inquire about obtaining a business license to conduct business in town

KCAT summer camp – great opportunity to learn how to make movies in Los Gatos!

If you’d like to read more about Essanay, I highly recommend a book I gave to my husband one Christmas, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company. The author is David Kiehn and it was written in 2003. You can order it on Amazon and it is available in some bookstores.

If you’d like more information on which films (older and newer) were made in Los Gatos, The Internet Movie Database has lots of info, both a simple list of movies made here and also details on each one.



Ramohs Pacific Railroad in East Los Gatos

Ramohs Pacific Railroad in East Los Gatos

Graphic with locomotive for the RM Heintz miniature train, the Ramohs Pacific RailroadThe Ramohs Pacific Railroad once ran through the foothills off of Blossom Hill Road in East Los Gatos. Today there are hiking trails in the Heintz Open Space Preserve (behind the Heritage Grove neighborhood put up by SummerHill Homes in about the year 2000).

Recommended reading on the Ramohs Pacific Railroad

If you enjoy Los Gatos history, you will love this in depth look at the Ramohs Pacific Railroad by Derek Whaley on his Santa Cruz Trains website:

RM Heintz Miniature Railroad on the Santa Cruz Trains site.


Related reading on Los Gatos history

Cheeky Los Gatos article from 1892 (on this website)

Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 1 (this site)

Hooker Gulch in the Los Gatos Mountains (this site)

Ming Quong: a Los Gatos Monument (this site)

The Los Gatos History Project (NUMU)



How old are the oldest houses in Los Gatos and nearby?

How old are the oldest houses in Los Gatos and nearby?

Historic Homes in Los GatosIf you drive through the Edelen, Almond Grove, Fairview Plaza, Glenridge and other older and historic Los Gatos neighborhoods, you may have wondered how far back in time these architecturally interesting properties go. What are the oldest residences in town, or close by?

Los Gatos Historic Homes

Are there Adobes?

In the Santa Clara Valley, there are a handful of old adobe homes here and there, such as the Peralta Adobe in downtown San Jose (built in 1797), and the Santa Clara Women’s Club Adobe (built in 1790), and many more. I can’t say for certain if there are any remaining 18th-19th century adobe homes in Los Gatos. If they exist the most probable properties are around the Los Gatos Saratoga border, are private, occupied homes, and have extensive additions and modifications.

Victorian Era: Gold Rush to Gem of the Foothills

When discussing historic homes in the Bay Area, the Victorian undoubtedly comes to mind. And Los Gatos has plenty! A search of county real estate records for Los Gatos homes (in town, 95030 & 95032 plus the mountains, 95033) spanning the era from 1837-1901 revealed hundreds of properties identified as Victorian construction. It displayed about about 375 in 95030, 120 in 95032, and also about 140 in 95033. (more…)

Ralph Heintz’ QSL Card – a little local history

The other day, my husband, Jim Handy, found a photo of Ralph Heintz’ QSL Card on a history website and requested permission for me to share it with our readers here. Permission given – I hope you enjoy this step back in time!

Ralph Heintz’ QSL Card

Ralph Heintz' QSL Card - ham radio signal - Ramos farm in Los Gatos CA

Credit Engineering and Technology History Wiki (used by permission)

QSL cards are postcard sized collectibles used by ham radio hobbyists to record when they have communicated with each other.  Traditionally they will include cartoon drawings related to the ham who sends them out.

Ralph Heintz’ QSL Card has three cartoons: His miniature train (ridden by him, wife Sophie, and their dog, Gilmore, and parrot, Shorty), his observatory, and his home with a big ham radio antenna over it.

The Heintz Open Space in east Los Gatos still has remnants of all three landmarks.

  • There’s grading for the long-gone railroad and a tunnel entrance. The tunnel entrance is closed up for safety reasons, of course.
  • The round concrete foundation of the observatory is still there.
  • And there are remnants of a house next to the observatory.
  • Another part of the trail appears to have been the driveway leading up the hill.

The one thing I’m not sure of is the location of the house when Ralph and Sophie lived there. Previously I thought it was the large farmhouse now within the Heritage Grove neighborhood. It makes sense that the ham radio antenna would be higher up on the hill, though, and if the house was next to that antenna it wouldn’t be the farmhouse lower down. When I find out, I’ll correct this post. If any of our readers have more insight on any of this, please email me and I’ll update this post.

Ralph Heintz’ QSL Card is a fun step back in time. I wish I could have seen his railroad, tunnel, observatory, and antenna.



Related reading:

The Heritage Grove Neighborhood in Los Gatos and the Heintz Open Space Preserve (more photos on the Valley of Heart’s Delight blog)

QSL Cards on Wikipedia

More local history articles here on the Live in Los Gatos Blog

Heintz and Kaufman manufacturing business

Ming Quong: a Los Gatos Monument

Ming Quong Arch appx c.1940

Children playing beneath the arch at the entrance to the Loma Alta Home around 1940.

At the end of Loma Alta Ave in the foothills sits the Los Gatos campus of Uplift Family Services, formerly Eastfield Ming Quong (EMQ) Family First. Tucked away among quiet residential streets, this unassuming establishment often goes unnoticed by locals, but it has deep roots in this Town and across the Bay Area, and especially within the Chinese community.

Origins: “Radiant Light”

Discriminatory laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) took their toll on US Chinatowns. Organized crime took hold in US Chinatowns and with it, human trafficking. Tong kidnaped Chinese women, smuggling them through the Golden Gate and into prostitution and slavery. In the late 19th century, Presbyterian missionaries in San Francisco began an effort to help the victims, women and children, escape to safety.

This undertaking expanded, providing safe houses and orphanages: Chung Mei (“China America”) Home for boys and Ming Quong (“radiant light”) Homes for girls.


Mountain Charley

Mountain Charley's Saloon sign - named after the colorful figure well known in Los Gatos“Mountain Charley” was one of the first non-native settlers to this area and he made his home in the summit area of  the Santa Cruz Mountains beginning in 1851. (In some places, he’s referred to as Mountain Charlie.)

Mountain Charley’s Wild West

Charles Henry McKiernan was an Irishman turned Californian ’49er whose main claim to fame is that he was attacked by a thousand pound, angry mama grizzly bear and managed to live despite losing a chunk of his skull to her.

Mountain Charley lived a full life for more than 40 years after the encounter. He married a nurse who cared for him after his 3rd operation, and together they raised a large family of 7 children. Charley had a variety of other wild encounters from stagecoach robbers to trained elephants, but he was a prosperous businessman in this rough and tumble era and accumulated thousands of acres of valuable land.

His colorful story lives on as part of the town of Los Gatos’ more interesting history – and folklore.

Related Reading

E Clampus Vitus has a page on Mountain Charlie if you’d like to learn more.

Another colorful person in Los Gatos, sometimes confused with Mountain Charley, was Charley Parkhurst, written about in Surprises of the Wild West of Los Gatos on this site.