Chicago college trying to restore city’s silent movie magic

essanay_studiosFrom the Saturday, Dec. 7, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee) and The Times (Ottawa) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

If you’ve visited Chicago, it’s likely that you’ve spent your fair share of time in downtown.

But Uptown? Well, that may be a different story.

In fact, unless you’ve attended a concert at the Riviera Theatre or the Aragon Ballroom, or swung by the Green Mill to hear some jazz, the edgy neighborhood just north of Lakeview across the border that is Irving Park Road is probably something of a mystery.

Which actually sounds like the type of movie that could have been produced at Uptown’s long-shuttered Essanay Studios, a fascinating landmark that once rivaled Hollywood for American film dominance and something that a tiny Chicago college is now hoping to restore.

Back in 1907, a pair of aspiring Chicago movie moguls named George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson founded a company on Wells Street that they called the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company.

Within months, however, the men decided to rename the studio Essanay (“S and A” after the first letter’s of their surnames) and produced their first hit called “The Hobo on Rollers,” which starred Ben Turpin, then the studio’s janitor. In 1908, Essanay Studios then relocated a few miles north to 1333 W. Argyle St. in Uptown, where it made history.

Over the coming years, the studio produced a steady stream of silent films, launching the careers of a number of stars while also attracting the talents of perhaps the nation’s biggest one: Charlie Chaplin.

In 1914, Essanay lured Chaplin away from his current studio by offering him a higher salary and his own production unit. Over the next year, his series of 14 comedic shorts became a mainstay for the studio, along with the popular “Broncho Billy” western series that actually starred co-owner Anderson – and in one instance featured Chaplin in a cameo.

Due to Chicago’s harsh winters and the popularity of westerns, Anderson soon took part of the company to California and founded the Essanay-West studio. It was there where many of the Broncho Billy westerns were filmed, as well as Chaplin’s iconic movie, “The Tramp.”

After only one year with Essanay, Chaplin left Chicago due to its unpredictable weather and because he was offered even more cash and control at yet another studio. By 1917, Essanay also had moved all operations to L.A., but not before it had produced more than 1,400 titles over 10 years in Chicago, including the first American “A Christmas Carol” (1908), the first American Sherlock Holmes (1916), and the first Jesse James movie, “The James Boys of Missouri” (1908).

In 2012, St. Augustine College, which now resides in the Argyle Street building, announced a $3 million plan to restore Essanay Studios so the complex can once again produce movies and serve as a center for early film showings, education, cultural performances and other events.

The building, which was designated a landmark by the City Landmarks Commission in 1996, today features an auditorium named in honor of Chaplin. St. Augustine’s proposed first step is to raise $100,000 toward the restoration of its signature terra cotta entrance, and eventually hopes to renovate Studio A – Chaplin’s original workspace – and turn it into an education center.

“The entire building has an opportunity to be renewed as a place for new media and to tell the story of Charlie Chaplin … as well as others,” Landmark Illinois executive director Bonnie McDonald says in a fundraising video. “We are all stewards of what made Chicago great, and Essanay Studios is one of those buildings.”

For more information about the restoration project and how you can donate, visit