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
Film set for a silent western featuring Gilbert M. Anderson, known as Broncho Billy, at Essanay Film Studios in Chicago circa 1910
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
Spooor’s “Danger Lights” was the first widescreen feature film. However the 62.5mm widescreen prints, which no longer exist, were exhibited in only two theaters, one at the Mayfair in New York City and the State-Lake in Chicago. It was first released in standard 35mm format on August 31, 1930. The 62.5mm widescreen version opened on November 15, 1930.
The Depression and then World War II halted widescreen development for the time being.
New York Times, December 15, 1930
A Railroad Thriller.
By MORDAUNT HALL.
At the Mayfair is “Danger Lights,” a railroad melodrama that was pictured by the Spoor-Berggren wide-film process. It is a triangle romance, with a martinet of a divisional superintendent doing a noble deed during an exciting moment.
There is a good deal to admire about this new wide film, which fills a screen from side to side of the Mayfair stage. It is noticeable, however, that while the persons occupying the centre of the stage are in focus others in the background seem more out of focus than usual. Moreover, the assembling of some of the scenes might be a good deal smoother. But the views depicting a locomotive and one car making a fast run to Chicago are most impressive, for, like other wide-film results in the open, there is an illusion of depth and distance about these stretches.
The story is reminiscent of the good old-fashioned thriller, with a fine realism in the scenery. Steam hisses and locomotives puff, every sound being quite natural. Jean Arthur portrays Mary, and at the showing on Saturday afternoon the microphone was often unkind to her voice. Louis Wolheim impersonates Dan Thorn, the division superintendent, who is in love with Mary. Robert Armstrong officiates as the interloper whose looks put Dan in the shade.
Dan, like the Village Blacksmith, is a mighty man. When he uses his fist the unfortunate victim does not arise for several moments. Dan has a heart of gold. Never for an instant does he think that Larry Doyle is going to steal Mary from him.
For the sake of her dear old father Mary is about to become Dan’s wife, but at the last minute she decides to run away with Larry. It is a wild and stormy night, and in the dash for love and liberty over the railroad tracks Larry’s foot is caught in a switch a few minutes before the limited comes along. Dan comes up to Larry, and after first contemplating thrashing Larry he realizes that his rival’s foot is caught. With a sudden lurch he heaves Larry free and is himself bowled over by the limited as it plunges past.
The race to Chicago aboard the general manager’s car is to take Dan to a specialist. It is presumed at the end that Dan will get well, but in all probability he realizes that looks will count in a romance. Mr. Wolheim gives a thoroughly competent performance, and Robert Armstrong does earnest work.
The Spoor-Berggren wide film is taken on a film 63 millimeters in width. The standard film is 35 millimeters wide. The height of both films is the same. The sound for this Spoor-Berggren process is recorded on a standard width film at the time the pictorial record is made on the wide film.
Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1953
George K. Spoor, 81, who as president of the Essanay Film company pioneered the moving picture industry in Chicago, died yesterday in his home at 908 Argyle st.
Spoor and Gilbert M. (Broncho Billy) Anderson founded the company in 1897. Many stars of the silent films got their start in the studio at 1345 Argyle st. The lot there was closed in 1916 when the motion picture industry invaded Hollywood, Cal.
Many Stars Began Here
In pioneer movie days, Essanay and Selig studios made Chicago one of the major motion picture producing centers. Stars who received their start on the Essanay lot included H. B. Walthal, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, and Charles Chaplin.
Spoor was as prominent an inventor of movie equipment as he was a producer. He made one of the first projection machines that enabled filmed pictures to be flashed on a screen.
He worked for years on a three dimension film process, which he called “natural vision.” In 1930 he produced “Danger Lights” under that stereoscopic process. A fortune was lost, however, in attempts to put the three dimensional films on the market.
November 16, 1930
Lost Money in Crash
Spoor also promoted the construction of an apartment building, on which he lost money in the real estate crash of the late ’20’s at Argyle st. and the present extension of Lincoln Park.
His wife, Ada, a sister-in-law of Billy Sunday, the evangelist, died in 1951. Spoor lived with his daughter, Gertrude, and her husband, Douglas L. Weart, a retired major general who served in the Caribbean and China during World War II.
Services will be held at 2 p. m. Friday in the chapel at 5001 N. Ashland av., with burial in Forest Home cemetery.
All copies of the widescreen (62.5mm) version have been destroyed. The standard version exists in its entirety.