Essanay Studios: “The MGM of the Silents”

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Today it’s just a quiet brick building that houses part of St. Augustine College, a couple blocks from the Argyle Red Line stop in Uptown. The only allusions to its history as an American film hot bed are the golden letters spelling “Essanay” above one entrance. But for one decade in the early 1900s, Essanay Studios was the hub of the silent film industry, “the MGM of the silents,” as Evanston movie historian William Grisham describes it.

Between 1907 and 1918, Essanay (in Chicago and in its sibling studio in California) produced over 2,000 feature films and shorts. A couple you’ve surely heard of were the first Sherlock Holmes and The James Boys of Missouri, the first Jesse James movie. And let’s not forget several Charlie Chaplin hits. It was a decade of bliss for Chicago film lovers — we had more theaters per capita than any other city in the U.S. during this time — and many Chicagoans don’t know much about the studio that fueled the rage.

It all started when pioneering producer and Highland Park native George Spoor started a company to sell movie projectors. He got a taste of the industry’s rich profits and saw potential for more. All he needed was a partner to expand his business and help him crack into the filmmaking process. Enter vaudeville actor Gilbert “Broncho Billie” Anderson. Anderson’s previous claim to fame was his appearance in the first known American movie with a plot, The Great Train Robbery, in 1903. He picked up the “Broncho Billie” nickname from his work in silent Western shorts (he would shoot one per week for 376 straight weeks with Essanay). Spoor and Anderson partnered in early 1907 and created the studio that was originally called the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company. It was renamed in August 1907 to Essanay, the phonetic spelling for the creators’ initials (S and A).

Their first film in Chicago, An Awful Skate, or The Hobo on Rollers, featured the now famous Ben Turpin skating ineptly down Wells Street by the studio’s original location at 501 N. Wells Street. It would move to its next spot in Uptown in 1908. The following years saw a rush of talent through Essanay. Francis X. Bushman joined in 1911. And one year later Bevery Bayne — the brunette beauty from Hyde Park — jumped on board, ultimately fulfilling the third tier of the famous Charlie Chaplin quote: “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” She was the “pretty girl” alongside her romantic lead co-star (and future husband) Bushman in over twenty films.

Essanay’s most well-known alum walked through the doors in 1914. Charlie Chaplin only spent one year on contract here and only one of his 15 short comedies, His New Job, were actually shot in Chicago. The rest were in the sister studio in California. (As he told the Los Angeles Times, Chicago was “too damn cold.”) But that one year was the peak of the Essanay’s popularity. Chaplin left in 1916, and by 1918 the studio was out of business. The film industry was shifting to its current home in southern California, and the biggest stars were riding the wave out West. And, of course, there was the 1917 Supreme Court ruling against the Motion Pictures Patent Company, which essentially gave independent filmmakers a more prominent stake in the industry (and made business that much more difficult for studios like Essanay). All these factors plus George Spoor’s growing exhaustion of vying for celebrities’ loyalties led to the permanent shutting of those doors.

Now St. Augustine College students and Uptown residents often unknowingly pass by the building that was once home to an exhilarating era in American motion picture history. It’s a pretty cool local landmark, whether you’re a film junkie like myself or just a curious Chicagoan.

About Cheryl Thomas

Cheryl grew up in rural northern Indiana, where everyone is somehow related to a farmer and horse and buggy stations are in the Wal-Mart parking lots. She moved to Chicago a few months after graduating from IU and has since fallen hopelessly in love with the city. She likes trying new deep dish places, exploring used bookstores and dive bars, chatting with strangers on public transit, and all sorts of writing - especially fiction and playwriting.

One Comment

  • April 25, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    A great article about the historic Essanay Theater, a well kept Chicago secret in the Uptown Neighborhood located on Argyle near Clark Street, right off the south end of the Andersonville shopping Strip! Known as “The first Hollywood”, Chicago’s Essanay Theater is a hidden treasure that is currently housed in what is now St. Augistine College.

    I had the pleasure of managing a large multiunit residential property for 6 years located directly across the street from St. Augistine College, the former Essanay! The history of the former theather and the landmark status it brings to the neighborhood, definitley adds to the charm & flavor of the area! A little piece of history in your own backyard!

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