FREMONT -- Brady Hormuth spent a recent afternoon researching Charlie Chaplin at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and Theater -- a common activity at the old-movie hot spot.
What's uncommon is that Brady is 9, and his Alameda parents, Carl and Jeanne Hormuth, drove 20 miles south to Niles -- where Chaplin made films a century ago -- to fuel the boy's precocious interest in old movies.
"Watching these old films give you an appreciation for how far the industry has come," Jeanne Hormuth said, standing amid a stack of books and DVDs in the museum gift shop. "This helps Brady get how movies began, and that we had Charlie Chaplin making them here in our backyard."
Film author David Kiehn, the museum's manager and historian, knows the feeling.
Kiehn also discovered the magic of film at Brady's age, when his parents took him to the movies in the 1950s.
Decades later, he says the museum-theater was founded precisely for film buffs like the Hormuth family, giving them a place to learn about film's origins, Kiehn said.
"The museum sparks the imagination," he said. "It's a jumping-off point for people to discover what silent films did and what was done here."
Film history was made in Niles, where Essanay Film Manufacturing produced silent motion pictures from 1912 to 1916, with several shorts starring Chaplin among them.
As film production migrated west during the movie industry's infancy, the Chicago-based studio eschewed Southern California and set up shop along Niles Boulevard, within walking distance of the museum-theater's current location.
A century later, Kiehn and several others lead the nonprofit group that runs the museum, gift shop and theater. The organization has 9,000 films, most of which are stored off-site, Kiehn said.
"For the most part, we draw from our own collection for our Saturday night shows," Kiehn said. "But we don't have everything; sometimes we have to borrow from collectors or other archives."
Since January 2005, weekly screenings have been held in the 120-seat theater, which was built in 1913 on Niles Boulevard. There, museum leaders celebrate the area's rich cinematic history, and that of silver screen legends like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle and Chaplin.
After screenings, film buffs often crowd the adjacent museum and gift shop, which sells silent film-era books, photos and other items. Jazz from the 1920s and '30s usually plays faintly as a cashier wearing a straw hat helps customers.
On the museum lobby walls hang dozens of framed photographs featuring Essanay buildings and several actors and crew members working on a vintage film.
A few projectors circa 1908 to 1912 are displayed in the lobby, next to an antique ticket booth.
The theater occasionally shows movies with a nearly 95-year-old projector, but most there are shown through 1970s-era projectors that technicians modified for film stock from the silent era, Kiehn said.
The nostalgia-heavy museum and theater fit right in with Fremont's charming Niles district, with antique shops and a vintage train that stops there before rumbling through rural Niles Canyon to Sunol.
In Niles, seemingly, everyone is a history buff.
"We're showing movies in this silent theater that showed silent films 100 years ago," Kiehn said. "Charlie Chaplin sat in this theater, and films were made half a block away. That atmosphere is still here in Niles, and there's no place like it."
Out & About is a monthly column that highlights the underrated entertainment scene in the Tri-City and greater Hayward areas.
Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and Theater
The museum at 37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and screens films at 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month. For details, call 510-494-1411 or go to www.nilesfilmmuseum.org.