Matthew Jackett is a junior at Marin Academy, interested in history and writing. As a 2012 summer intern for the Marin History Museum, Matthew wrote a series of blog posts on the mural installed on Youth in Arts refurbished facade at 917 C Street. This is the fourth post in that series. Historic images from the Marin History Museum collection.
Across the mural runs a strip of film, centered around a depiction of the “El Camino” Theater that used to be located on 4th Street in downtown San Rafael. This is a recognition of Marin’s place in the film industry stretching all the way back to the 19th Century, when Thomas Edison mounted a camera onto the gravity railroad car on Mt. Tamalpais in one of the earliest movies made, in March 1898. Eadweard Muybridge was another film pioneer who made many movies featuring the landscape of San Rafael, Sausalito, and Mt. Tamalpais.
The film industry in Marin continued to flourish, and even Charlie Chaplin came to work in San Rafael for a year. In 1912, as the movie business in Marin grew, the California Motion Picture Corporation, decided to form a movie studio in San Rafael. “Salomy Jane” is their earliest and last surviving film. They produced many silent films, centered around Beatrix Michelena, the wife of George Middleton, the studio director. After a few years, the studio went bankrupt and the movies were abandoned in a vault that would one day catch on fire, and most of the films would be lost.
In 1917, Leon Forrest Douglass, a long time San Rafael resident, produced the first colored film in America. He presented the technology to film companies and got a patent for it, but unfortunately, movie studios were unwilling to invest in new equipment. However, with the invention of the Technicolor process a few years later, Douglass’s patents were repeatedly violated and he won a large sum of money as a result.
After the failure of the California Motion Picture Corporation and the other local film studios in San Rafael and Fairfax, the film business slowed down in Marin. While many films were made in the county, the next big name to visit was George Lucas.
Lucas made the decision to film “American Graffiti” in San Rafael, the beginning of his involvement in Marin County. After the success of “Star Wars”, Lucas moved to San Anselmo and made the decision that his new film center would be in Marin. He financed the move to San Rafael and began working on the sequel to his first Star Wars movie. He would later shoot scenes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in Marin, and a scene from “Return of the Jedi” in Muir Woods. Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic bring the modern film to Marin, which has always been at the head of the industry.
El Camino, the theater depicted in the mural, was the premier theater in Marin County, opened in 1928. It had an organ, an orchestra pit, and elegant design, murals and furnishing in its lobby. The El Camino soon became the theater of choice as talkies emerged and the Depression began. As movie attendance went up, El Camino became even more and more successful, and the owners, the Blumenfelds, began building and buying theaters across Marin, including the Orpheus, the Sequoia, and the Lark.
The El Camino was closed in 1953 as television became popular. Some of its architecture can still be seen in the office buildings along Lootens Street (the theater was at Fourth & Lootens).
Film has always been a rich part of Marin’s history, San Rafael in particular. The presence of the theater and the film strip in the mural pays recognition to the rich culture it has given the county.
The San Rafael history mural at Youth in Arts was created with support from the County of Marin, the Fenwick Foundation, the MacPhail Family and the Marin Community Foundation. Youth in Arts will host a public reception and celebration of the mural on Friday, September 14, from 5-8 p.m. The event will include a dedication ceremony at 6 p.m. and the opening of a new exhibit on the creation of the mural by Davidson students.