Big things are in store for what originally had been the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company when it opened in 1907. It was one of the first silent movie studios and now it’s the last one standing in the country. A movement is underway to maintain its legacy by raising the $3 million needed to renovate and restore one of Essanay’s original stages for use as performing and visual arts resource center, open to all.
When partners George Spoor and Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson (the “S” and “A” in the name) opened the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company at 1333 W. Argyle it soon became one of the early giants of the new fangled “photoplay” business. Comedians Charlie Chaplin and Ben Turpin, teen drama queen Gloria Swanson, character actor Wallace Beery and leading man Francis X. Bushman were among its biggest stars. Louella Parsons, the future movie columnist, ran the scenario department.
The block long physical studio was massive, even by today’s standards. It boasted three large shooting stages, a film processing and editing area, a carpentry shop, prop shop, wardrobe storage, stars’ dressing rooms and offices for the many departments.
Essanay’s glory days of churning out westerns, comedies and dramas lasted a single decade, ending when Spoor and Anderson pulled in different directions and the studio system began to solidify in Hollywood.
The Argyle Street studio had more glory days ahead, fortunately, when film producer Norman Wilding bought it in 1930. Over the next 35 years Wilding Studios was one of the country’s biggest producers of “industrial films” – the corporate films of today.
Now, more than 100 years later, Essanay Studios – owned by St. Augustine College — has embarked on creating the Essanay Centers for Early Film and the Center for Cultural Performance. A renovation of Studio A/Charlie Chaplin Auditorium will open its use to the community for film-related activities and events and house archival materials, references and artifacts.
An upcoming fundraiser, the Studio’s Gala and Masquerade Ball, Saturday, Oct. 26, in Studio A/Charlie Chaplin Auditorium, will be MC’d by actor Will Clinger and will feature a VIP reception, music, dining and dancing and midnight unmasking Ticket price is $200 and may be purchased here.
Sidebar: Read the fascinating history of Essanay Studios in “Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies,” by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein, published by the Chicago Review Press.