A Glimpse Into Palisadian History

Bison Archives Founder Marc Wanamaker Shares Presentation on Inceville at Pierson Playhouse

The Pierson Playhouse was packed wall-to-wall for the February 26 presentation by Bison Archives Founder and “Early Poverty Row Studios” co-author Marc Wanamaker and Pacific Palisades Historical Society President Eric Dugdale on the silent film colony of Inceville, which once stood in Santa Ynez Canyon at the site of the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine.

Marc Wanamaker speaks to a packed house

Inceville, founded by filmmaker Thomas Ince in 1909, was established on 460 acres of land leased from the Santa Monica Water and Power Company. The first of its kind, Inceville had its own silent stages, production offices and printing labs, and was home to over 200 members of the Sioux tribe that were part of the Miller Brothers’ 101 Wild West Show in Oklahoma.

The Sioux attended school in Inceville, participated in the production of the films and even set up their teepees in the canyon. Filming ceased at Inceville in 1922, and the buildings burned to the ground in 1924, after which point Bison Film Company moved to Culver City.

“I had traveled down Sunset my whole life—it was familiar to me,” Wanamaker told the Palisadian-Post. “When I saw pictures of this motion picture world, Inceville, in the Santa Ynez Canyon, I thought, ‘Wow.’ It really grabbed my imagination.”

The Bison Archives, founded in 1971, are a series of photographic collections focusing on the history of motion pictures. The archives, an affiliate of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library at the Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, include some of the rarest and most unusual photos from film history.

The Bison Archives also offers consultations for filmmakers striving for historical accuracy. Wanamaker has worked as an historical consultant on dozens of famous films, including “Day of the Locust” (1975), “Mommie Dearest” (1982), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Ed Wood” (1994), “LA Confidential” (1997), “The Aviator” (2003), “Gangster Squad” (2013), “Ed Wood” (1994) and “Hail Cesar” (2016).

Wanamaker, who has presented several times for PPHS, is a published historian as well as a world-class expert and consultant in film history. He taught film history at UCLA Extension for five years and has worked in many facets of film production, exhibition and research.

He assisted in forming the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills in 1969 and is a founder of the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, also known as FILMEX.

The origin story of the Bison Archives comes right out of the pages of a movie script. During his time at the American Film Institute, Columbia Pictures was moving from its original studio lot in Hollywood to create a new studio lot: Burbank Studios.

During the move, Wanamaker got a strange call.

“One day, many years ago, a woman called me from the publicity department at Columbia while I was general manager at the AFI, and she was very distraught,” Wanamaker said. “She explained they were moving off the lot, and she was told she could not bring with her the Columbia photo collection—thousands of photos were going to be left there to be dumped.

“I told my boss about this and suggested we take them as a donation to the institute, and he agreed on two conditions: one, that I get the pictures and two, that I catalogue them. It took me two years to catalogue the whole collection.”

In his research to catalogue the collection, Wanamaker came across pictures of a small movie studio—the Bison Film Company (for which the archives would later be named)—which operated out of Santa Ynez Canyon. Fascinated by their story, he delved deeper.

“After that, I got hooked on studio history,” Wanamaker explained. “Over the years, I started to meet and network with historians, memorabilia collectors, flea market vendors and, of course, members of historical societies across California, including Randy Young and Eric Dugdale in the Palisades.”

Wanamaker sent Dugdale shots from the archives, which he assembled into a PowerPoint for the presentation.

“Eric loved the Inceville story as well,” Wanamaker said. “It’s something that really captivates people. Not to boast, but I’ve probably collected the best history on Inceville in the world. There’s nothing like it.”

On the evening of February 26, Palisadians gathered in the dark at Pierson Playhouse to see the pictures curated by Wanamaker. Some of the most striking images, like those of the Sioux teepees or bustling Inceville with its bridges, homes and roads, elicited oohs, ahhs and even laughter from the audience who couldn’t believe their eyes.

Wanamaker’s lecture, rich with historical anecdotes and fascinating information, offered a complex portrait of Inceville and the Sioux that called it home.

“You don’t do stuff like the archives for the money,” Wanamaker said. “Just like these little studios 100 years ago on their shoestring budgets, you do it because it’s what you love.”