Silent Movie Capital
Essanay Film Company
During the early era of silent films, Chicago was the moviemaking capital of the world. One fifth of the silent films produced in America were produced at the Essanay Film Company, an outfit that expanded from a one room studio at 501 Wells Street (renumbered to 1300 N. Wells) to its final location at Western and Irving Park roads. The studio was founded in 1907 as the Peerless Film Company. On 10 August 1907, the name was changed to the Essanay Film Company, which reflected the initials of its founders, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson (S&A). The success of the studio allowed them to move to 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in 1908, where the 72,000 square foot building remains today. The Chicago studio produced about 200 films.
Two advertisements for Essanay’s first movie, “An Awful Skate”, which was filmed in Old Town in July 1907. Fortunately, this fllm still survives, though unfortunately, only about a third. This copy is in the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY and not available on to the public.
The fllm’s inspiration was natural: a roller skating rink occupied the ground floor below Essanay (501 Wells Street renumbered to 1300 N. Wells) and skating was a latest craze. Simply said, the comedy featured hobo Ben Turpin careening down streets on roller skates, bumping into moving men and outraged pedestrians, who were later paid two dollars each for their inconvenience. Cops and kids take chase and catch the hobo.
As the popularity of Essanay’s movies increased, Spoor and Anderson undertook the construction of the large Argyle Street studio. The complex is comprised of several one- and two-story, common brick buildings housing the various activities necessary for filmmaking. The street elevations of the four buildings fronting on Argyle Street conform to designs for light manufacturing and warehouse buildings of the period. Each facade is divided into six structural bays articu- lated by brick piers and is capped by a simple parapet with a stone coping. With the exception of the two-story westernmost building, the structures are one story in height. Construction of the first of the buildings was begun in November 1908, and the erection of the other structures occurred intermittently through 1915. The utilitarian character of the building designs is offset by the decorative entrance on the westernmost building. The doorway projects from the building and is formed of glazed white terra cotta. It has a pediment overhead with “ESSANAY” in the tympanum, and on the blocks flanking the entrance are two Indian head profiles. The Indian head, which was the Essanay trademark, was designed by Spoor’s sister when she was a student at the School of the Art Institute. The trademark was visible in every frame of an Essany film. It was stuck under a chair, or some other inconspicuous place. This was a common practice for the studios to help stop print piracy.
1333-45 W. Argyle Street
Essanay attracted a quality roster of stars including Ben Turpin, Francis Bushman, Wallace Berry, Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. Mr. Anderson, himself, was an actor, known as “Bronco Billy”. Charlie Chaplin’s first and only movie made entirely in Chicago was His New Job. Spoor and Anderson seemed to lack the ability to spot talent. In 1908 a mother brought her young daughter, an out of work Broadway performer, to the studio, but left without a contract. Her name was Mary Pickford (8 April 1892 – 29 May 1979).
1333-45 W. Argyle Street
Essanay made over 2,000 films, with most being produced in their west coast studio located in Niles, California. The 200 foot long studio opened on 11 June 1913. On 16 February 1916, the Essanay Film Company in Niles closed its doors. Changes in the movie industry, the defection of Chaplin as the company’s star performer, and disputes between Anderson and his co-founder led to the collapse of the company in 1917.
When Chaplin’s Essanay contract expired in January of 1916,he left for New York. He has many offers with his “big salaries” attached, to appear in various concerns, it is said. So long Charlie. When Essanay refused to meet his new salary demand of $10,000 per week, Chaplin was signed to Mutual where he went on to achieve greater fame. Essanay, meanwhile, was among the companies sued by the United States Justice Department for violating antitrust laws as part of the Motion Pictures Patents Company. During this time, most of the country’s filmmaking talent permanently settled in southern California where the moderate climate and diverse geographical terrain was ideal for year-round shooting. In 1918, Essanay closed its doors for good.
On 4 November 1907 Chicago becomes the first city to censor movies-the start of fear of movies’ effects on public morals
Group photograph of the Essanay Eastern Stock Company in Chicago in 1911
Top row, left to right: Joseph Dailey, F. Doolittle, Inez Callahan, William J. Murray, Curtis Cooksey, Helen Lowe, Howard Missimer, Miss Lavalliet, Cyril Raymond.
Middle row: Florence Hoffman, Harry Cashman, Alice Donovan, Frank Dayton, Harry McRae Webster, Lottie Briscoe, William C. Walters, Rose Evans.
Bottom row: Eva Prout, Bobbie Guhl, Jack Essanay (dog), Charlotte Vacher, Tommy Shirley
The cast and crew of Chicago’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1912.
Seated on Floor: Eleanor Kahn And Jack, The Bulldog Mascot;
1st Row: Charles Hitchcock, Whitney Raymond, Eva Prout, Baby Parsons, Ruth Stonehouse, William Mason
2nd Row: Lily Branscombe, Frank Dayton, Dolores Cassinelli, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne, William Walters, Mildred Weston;
3rd Row: Joseph Allen, Eleanor Blanchard, John Stepping, Martha Russell, Harry Cashman, Helen Dunbar, Harry Mainhall;
Top Row: E. H. Calvert, William Bailey, Howard Missimer, Fred Wulf
The cast and crew of Chicago’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1914
Ben Turpin is in the back row, far left. George K. Spoor in the center, front row. Bryant Washburn is in the row behind Francis X. Bushman and Ruth Stonehouse with the white blouse in the same row as Bushman. A young Wallace Beery is in the photo as well.
The Essanay building in Chicago was sold to Wilding Pictures, a subsidiary of Bell and Howell formed by two former Essanay Studio employees. Then it was given to a non-profit television organization, WTTW Corporation, which sold it. One tenant was the Midwest office of Technicolor. Today, the Essanay lot is the home of St. Augustine College and portions of the two buildings were occupied by Essanay Stage and Lighting Company, another film industry company.
A form rejection slip from Essanay Studios
Burlesque on Carmen is Charlie Chaplin’s thirteenth and last film for Essanay Studios, released in 1915 and then later recut into a different version in 1916.
Charlie Chaplin’s last production for Essanay, “Police,” is arguably his best for the studio.
Moving Picture World
20 May 1916