Making movies in the Tahoe Sierra: Part I

Charlie Chaplin in a scene from “The Gold Rush.”

Lake Tahoe sparkles in the sun 500 miles north of Hollywood. However, world-class movie making in the Truckee-Tahoe region goes back more than 100 years to 1910, when the Truckee Republican newspaper reported that a production company was in town to film winter scenes of an “Alaskan wilderness.”

The movie focused on an 1827 Arctic expedition by legendary British explorer Sir William E. Parry. The film’s director figured that winter conditions in Truckee fit the bill. The cast wore Eskimo-style fur/sealskin outfits and was accompanied by sled dogs and sleighs to portray heroic rescue scenes. The effort was a resounding success and in 1914, three more movies were filmed in the Truckee area: “Goodbye Summer,” “Burning Daylight” and “The Checkako.”

Truckee’s early entry into the movie business came as an offshoot of its annual Winter Carnival when town leaders began pushing winter tourism.

These early flicks are obscure today, but they represent the beginning of the region’s attractiveness for scenic beauty, a feature that has led to more than 120 movies or sequences being filmed on location in this region. And that doesn’t include television commercials or episodes from the popular TV series “Bonanza.”

More recent productions include the 2007 Sean Penn-directed film “Into the Wild,” “City of Angels” with Meg Ryan in 1998 at Fallen Leaf Lake and Michael Keaton in “Jack Frost,” filmed at North Lake Tahoe, also in 1998. Scenes from the 1994 classic “Godfather II” were shot at Henry J. Kaiser’s estate Fleur du Lac on Tahoe’s West Shore, featuring wooden boats, wealthy estates and a character getting whacked. Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger opened his 1994 hit movie “True Lies” with a rousing ski, snowmobile and helicopter chase sequence filmed on Old Highway 40 near the Rainbow Bridge overlooking Donner Lake.

Truckee’s early entry into the movie business came as an offshoot of its annual Winter Carnival when town leaders began pushing winter tourism. As manager of the Southern Pacific Hotel, Wilbur Maynard promoted Truckee to movie directors and Hollywood film companies as a convenient location for shooting films set in the frozen north. With easy access by rail from Southern California, the media exposure expanded awareness of the region’s potential among Hollywood studio moguls looking to avoid transporting an expensive cast and crew to far-flung destinations.

Representing Truckee’s Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Pacific Railroad, Maynard aggressively advertised Truckee’s mountain location and mostly sunny weather, an important combination for both outdoor-oriented tourists and directors looking to film realistic winter scenes. His efforts resulted in dozens of motion-picture companies, along with their cast and crew, coming to Truckee and Lake Tahoe during the 1920s and 1930s.

By 1922, the area had become a principal destination for motion-picture producers and directors. In an effort to further develop its business, Southern Pacific Railroad established a location bureau in Los Angeles to assist directors looking for appropriate landscapes and climates. Conveniently, SP’s line went right through Truckee. When a movie company arrived by train, Maynard was ready to help with any arrangements: providing extras, laborers, carpenters, even the weather forecast. The movie business was welcome because it generated much-needed work and money for local residents.

One of the first major motion-picture directors to use the Truckee-Tahoe region was the famed comedian Charlie Chaplin, who shot a lot of footage for his famous 1925 movie “The Gold Rush,” Hollywood’s most successful and highest grossing silent comedy. Not only did Chaplin and his film crew patronize Truckee businesses, but he hired more than 600 extras from Sacramento to work on the project, which pumped more money into the local economy.

An Alaskan gold rush town was built near what would become the Sugar Bowl ski resort on Donner Summit. Winter scenes representing the 1890s crossing of the Klondike’s famed Chilkoot Pass were filmed near Donner Summit. Truckee Ski Club members not only cleared and packed the snow trail, but they also entertained the film crew with ski-jumping exhibitions.

According to Donner Summit Historical Society historian Bill Oudegeest, Charlie Chaplin was inspired to film “The Gold Rush” near the summit after reading about the Donner Party and seeing images of Alaskan terrain, which he felt he could replicate in the Truckee region.

Chaplin wove starvation, cannibalism —in one scene Chaplin and his co-star ate a boot for dinner — and comedy into a love story in the most elaborate and expensive film produced during the silent film era. Chaplin’s contemporaries claimed it was the movie that he most wanted to be remembered for.

Chaplin became fond of Truckee and over the years he returned often to visit. To accommodate his entourage, Chaplin had six rooms at the Sierra Tavern on Commercial Row permanently reserved.

In the late1980s, Truckee local Rob McCarthy of McCarthy Signs painted Charlie Chaplin’s mug, with his classic derby hat and short-cropped brush mustache on the wall of the Capitol building. Legend has it that Chaplin himself performed on stage there while in town.

If memory serves me correctly, among the many features of its quirky décor, the Capitol Saloon boasted a long, curved hardwood bar that had been shipped in one piece around Cape Horn from the East Coast in the 19th Century. The bar was still there supporting cheap drinks and cold beers when I arrived in the late 1970s, a time when red flannel shirts and faded biker leather were common at Truckee watering holes.

To promote movie making and to handle business arrangements for film companies operating out of Truckee, prominent local residents founded the Truckee Motion Picture Association. In the spirit of Maynard’s can-do attitude, on Feb. 28, 1935, the Truckee newspaper reported: “Otto Brower, director for the Twentieth Century Company, arrived Monday to make arrangements for filming scenes for the picture, “Call of the Wild.” One of the requirements of Mr. Brower was for 30 jack rabbits to be used in the picture and a party under the direction of Karl Kielhofer was engaged for several days near Loyalton securing these jack rabbits.”

Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition of Tahoe Weekly and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

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Mark McLaughlin
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.