Gala fundraiser to preserve historic Essanay Oct. 6

Inside what was Essanay Studios in Uptown, actors Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin and other icons starred in silent one-reelers that were churned out in amazing numbers each week from 1909 to 1917.

Present owner of the historic Essanay buildings, St. Augustine College, wants to assure the property’s future and maintain its link to early American cinema by holding an Oct. 6 gala fundraiser at the studio.

Funds will be used for restoration and reuse of the buildings at 1333-1345 W. Argyle built in 1909 and continued as a movie studio and film services into the mid ‘90s.

While Essanay was famous for a short a time, surprisingly nothing has been preserved about Wilding Studios, occupant of the Essanay property for 40 years and its immense contributions to Chicago’s lengthy reign as the industrial film capital of the world.

Norman Wilding, ostensibly a Chicagoan, founded his production company in the old Essanay studios in the early 1930s around the same time that “talkies” became a global phenomenon.  

For decades, Wilding was the MGM of concept-to-completion industrial films, a.k.a. sales and training “trips through the factory,” producer of extravagant live sales meetings, and later commercials, for Chicago’s manufacturing economy.

It was a badge of honor to work at Wilding, to be part of the city’s biggest but tightly-knit permanent staff that worked out of a two-story, three building complex with three sound stages, editorial offices, its own equipment, carpentry shop, prop room and set storage, screening rooms and more.    

It was where local film unions were born and the genesis of future generations of film workers. Local 476’s Mark Hogan’s grandfather worked at the original Essanay Studios and his father at Wilding.

Wilding’s ultimate end in 1972, coinciding with the disappearance of manufacturing and film technology that changed the industry, took several twists and turns. Local projector manufacturer Bell & Howell bought Wilding for a reported tax write-off, one veteran filmmaker recalls, and closed the studio before the year ended.  Bell & Howell donated the real estate to Ch. 11, which in turn sold the property.

(Wilding Detroit, founded in the late 1950s, was also sold to another Detroit company in the late 1970s and the Wilding name disappeared forever.)

Essanay Studio & Lighting a tenant for 16 years

In 1980, newly-founded St. Augustine College bought the east half of the Argyle Street complex and a wholesale draperies manufacturer bought the west half.

Part of the west half was rented to the late Ernie Lukas, who moved his rental company from Rogers Park and set up Essanay Studio & Lighting in the former 70×60-sq. ft. B Stage and offices.

Essanay Studio & Lighting moved to its present quarters in Goose Island in 1996, when St. Augustine raised expansion capital and assumed occupancy of the entire property, remembers Wayne Kubacki, Essanay partner with Jules Tomko, whose father had worked at Wilding.

The original Essanay buildings in 1996 received Chicago Landmark status, acknowledged as the most important structure connected to the city’s role in the history of motion pictures.

During the gala evening, Johnson Lasky architectural firm will present guests with its renovation plan.  The main focus is on revamping the present Charlie Chaplin auditorium (once the 90×60-sq. ft. A Stage) as a possible performance center, a film museum and perhaps a café. 

The evening includes a reception, fine dining of period food prepared by Chef Rafael Perez, and dancing to the music of the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra.  Attire is black tie, dress of the time period of 1907-1917, or as an Essanay movie character.

To attend, contact Grace Valadez, or phone 773/878-7044.