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:
- Netflix vs The World (2019)
- Through the Ashes (2019)
- Killing Eva Braun (2014)
- Starman (1986) – at Los Gatos High School
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.