David Horsley

1873 - 1933

The late David Horsley’s name will long be enshrined in the hearts of Hollywood citizens, particularly of those identified with the motion picture industry, as he it was who established the first picture studio in Hollywood. Having become interested in the industry in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907, later he was induced to start making pictures on the West Coast, because California sunshine was ideally suited for the making of any kind of pictures, and particularly for “movies” which, in those early days, were not aided by artificial lighting.

David Horsley was born in the County Durham, England, on March 11, 1873. His father, Robert Horsley, was a master mechanic and boss blacksmith over three mines in this mining section of England. His grandfather, on his mother’s side, was John Chaytor, who was a saddle and harness maker, and took care of the needs for some 300 horses and ponies used in the coal mining industry.

When still a young boy, David Horsley met with an accident which required the amputation of his left arm, about two inches below the elbow. This was the indirect cause of his finally becoming the pioneer motion picture producer of Hollywood. The struggle to make a living in the early days, in a small English mining village, was a difficult one, even for a man with two hands, but for one so handicapped as to have lost an arm, prospects were very slim. So, David’s mother sold the family furniture and bought tickets with the proceeds to America, and landed in New York on October 17, 1884. The Horsleys soon settled in Bayonne, New Jersey, and here David helped the family expense account by selling newspapers, and acting as a Western Union messenger until he was sixteen years old. During this time, the owner of a local newspaper took an interest in David, and started him at night school, and he soon had sufficient education to obtain a position as a timekeeper at the Tidewater Oil Works. He continued with this business until he was nineteen years old, and then entered the bicycle business for himself, and in spite of his having only one arm, he carried on a small manufacturing plant for bicycles. About 1903, he opened a pool parlor. Here he did very well until 1907, when the panic of that year put many large and small businesses out of existence, including David’s pool parlor.

About this time, David met one Charles Gorman, a scenic artist, who worked for the Biograph Motion Picture Company in New York. The panic caused him to lose his job, and as the two were now in the same predicament, they decided to pool their interests, and start in the moving picture business, with practically no capital, but much ambition. They called themselves the Centaur Film Company. They secured some lumber and other equipment, including a crude camera, and soon started making pictures. Their first production was The Cowboy’s Escapade.

The Centaur Company had a hard struggle for existence; one of the hardest things was to borrow sufficient money from friends and relatives to buy film and pay other expenses. About the end of their first year, or in 1908, a company was formed known as the Patents Company, for the purpose of buying all the patents then in existence pertaining to the making of moving pictures. Every company in the United States was made a member of the newly formed Patents Company, except the Centaur Film Company, which was not considered of enough importance to be included in the new combine. Ultimately, the Patents Company organized General Film Company to handle the film exchanges and rent films throughout the country. Just as soon as this company began to operate, they opened film exchanges in every large city in the country, and at once cut off the supply of all of those who had been engaged in the film exchange business.

The Centaur Film Company continued in existence in the East with varying success, and operating under difficulties which were imposed by the General Film Company and other combines which were being organized. Finally, conditions became so intolerable that in 1910, every company in the independent field got together and formed what was known as the Sales Company, with headquarters in New York City. Here, every film sold was delivered by the maker, and the Sales Company shipped it out C.O.D. to the buyer at $100 per reel. When the money came in, the Sales Company remitted $95 per reel to the maker, and kept $5 per reel. By this time, the Centaur Company was making three or four pictures per week, but the weather conditions in the early fall of 1911 in the vicinity of New York became so bad that Dave Horsley decided to come to California, and on October 27, 1911, he started the motion picture industry in Hollywood at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, using the old Blondeau tavern for an office, and putting up a platform in the yard, with muslin diffusers, to kill the shadows. Here, he operated his company under the direction of Milton H. Fahrney, and made one single reel Western picture each week. In the same plant, a company under the direction of Thomas Ricketts made a single reel dramatic picture each week, and Al Christie made a single reel Mutt and Jeff comedy every week.

This plant was operated by David Horsley until May 20, 1912, on which date the Universal Film Company was formed, which took over all of the independent companies, including Horsley’s. With the money he ultimately received from the sale of his business, Horsley took his wife and child, and made a trip to Europe. Shortly after his return, World War I had broken out, and this had ruined the business of the Bostock Animal and Jungle Show, then exhibiting in London. The manager of this show made a trip to New York for the purpose of selling the 58 lions, two elephants, and a number of other animals which the show owned. Dave met this man, and purchased all this animal stock. He brought them by ship to Brooklyn, and by railroad to Los Angeles, at a total cost of about $55,000. He leased ground at Washington and Main Streets, Los Angeles, at $600 a month, and spent about $50,000 on grandstands, and opened the show. It was a financial flop from the beginning, as the overhead amounted to almost $225 a day. Attempting to recoup some of his losses from the animal show, Horsley built moving picture studios and made about 200 comedies, and also many dramas. But, by the fall of 1918, he was compelled to close down all his operations. Whereas he had started in 1915 with $400,000 in cash, in 1919 he ended up $38,000 in debt. Such are the vicissitudes of those who pioneer in a new industry.

Hollywood owes to the memory of Dave Horsley more than it can ever repay. From the moment he started to make pictures on the old Blondeau lot in Hollywood, Hollywood began to grow by leaps and bounds, and soon became more famous than any othe
r place of its size in the world. Cameramen, directors, and every art and craft connected with motion pictures owe more to David Horsley than to any other man connected with the motion picture business. His everlasting grit and fighting spirit overcame odds that would have defeated an army of ordinary mortals. On February 23, 1933, he passed away, just 49 years from the time of his coming to America.


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