Local author’s debut book: Movies & Million Dollar Mansions: Silent Films Made in Montecito

Montecito is home to celebrities and royalty, with mansions hidden behind tall hedges, long driveways and locked gates. But a century ago, the welcome mat was for actors and film crews making films set in tropical islands, ancient Rome and other places.

Local author and historian Betsy J. Green has found 65 silent films that were filmed in and on Montecito’s multimillion-dollar estates in its glory days, and has compiled her research in a newly published book, “Movies & Million Dollar Mansions: Silent films produced in Montecito.

In addition to Santa Barbara’s Flying A Studios, as many as nineteen Hollywood studios also filmed in Montecito during the 1910s and 1920s. In the early decades of filming, before the years of big budgets, it was more efficient to find an existing mansion than to build one or create a realistic set. Montecito’s proximity to Hollywood and wealth of luxury properties made it an attractive solution

Films adapted to their settings, beginning with religious themes in 1911, then turning to melodrama and adventure; In 1928 there was a Jazz Age film based on a Broadway musical. The book is structured with a chapter for each film. Each features a lively synopsis, behind-the-scenes information, plus photos from the film and its million-dollar setting, with over 450 images in total. The cover of the book features a scene from a movie that was filmed in the first residence “Bellosguardo”.

Green, who is also the Independent’s author Big House Detective column, will present her book at Chaucer’s Books on August 29 at 6pm, as well as other upcoming local venues.

We sat down to ask Green about the inspiration behind her endeavors.

What made you choose this particular topic?

As I wrote mine Return When series for the years 1914-1919, I was impressed by how many films were being shot in our area. I focused on Montecito because it was interesting to see how the properties there were used to represent Ancient Rome, France during the time of Louis XIV, etc. It was also interesting that so many properties were open to film studios shooting on their properties, compared to today when most properties are hidden.

Did you have a passion for silent films before this project?

I had no particular interest in silent films before I began studying the history of Santa Barbara at the age of 19. While looking through old newspapers, I became curious about the movies that were shown in local theaters and started looking for these movies on the Internet. Watching old silent movies is a way to travel back in time.

What was something that surprised you while researching the book?

I’m starting to think that Santa Barbara’s Flying A studio did almost all of the filming in Montecito. But I discovered that more than 15 studios from the Hollywood area traveled here to film on Montecito properties.

Do you have any upcoming projects in the works for the future?

There is a lot of interesting film history in our area so my next book (due next year) is about over 200 silent films filmed in the Channel Islands and then another book about the interesting behind the scenes goings on at Flying A ” and other studios that filmed here.

Betsy J. Green has been a writer for over 25 years. She was an editor at Reader’s Digest and the World Book Encyclopedia and has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines around the world. She specializes in history, architecture and the environment. She has written seven books on the history of Santa Barbara, including the Way Back When series and the MESApedia. In her spare time, she writes The Great House Detective column for The Santa Barbara Independent.

Dates of the speech:

August 29 – Books of Chaucer

September 10 – Montecito Library

September 28 – SB Historical Museum

Groups or organizations interested in having Betsy present a talk or slideshow can contact her through her website at betsyjgreen.com

Signed copies of the book are available at Chaucer’s Books and the Mesa Bookstore. Copies are also available here on Amazon.com.

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