St. Augustine calls off Essanay fundraising program

After two intense months of capital campaign fundraising to preserve and renovate parts of the original 106-year Essanay Studios – one of the last silent film structures in the world — the effort was squelched Friday by the president of property owner/occupant St. Augustine College.

College president Andrew Sund said that it was impossible for the small non-profit college to continue its fundraising efforts as results had not kept pace with expenditures.

“Although the College was committed to honor the historical value of the location through these centers, the fiscal reality is that we can no longer support them,” Sund said in a letter to the Essanay Advisory Board of 40.

St. Augustine president Andrew SundSund complimented Gary KellerVP/Essanay Centers & Strategic Initiatives, who led the fundraising efforts, saying, “He worked tirelessly during the past two years to convert our old multipurpose room into a charming space that honors its history.”

The Advisory Board set a goal of $200,000 to renovate the “multipurpose room,” formerly Essanay’s Studio A and the college’s present Charlie Chaplin Auditorium, and restore the original terra cotta façade over the doorway of the school’s entrance at 1345 W. Argyle.

The auditorium would have become the Essanay Centers for Early Film Studies and Cultural Performances; available for digital film production and community arts programs.

Fundraiser/preservationist Gary KellerKeller, an expert in the launch of new initiatives, has two decades of experience in the preservation and reutilization of the historical aspects of Uptown, was disappointed in the school’s decision for not giving their efforts sufficient time to pay off.

He pointed out donations would have accelerated in the next two years, with Essanay star Charlie Chaplin’s film centennial in 2014 and his 100th year at Essanay, where he had made 15 comedies, in 2015.

Funding momentum accelerated in October

Keller and his prestigious board of 40, spent their first 18 months doing the preliminary work of writing the historic structures report and grant submissions, developing partnerships, setting up a Facebook page, a TV station, merchandising products for sale and a series of events.

Entrance façade would’ve been repairedAfter some delays, the campaign kicked off Oct. 10 with a lighting ceremony outside 1345 W. Argyle, followed by an Indie GoGo campaign, gala event and holiday party.  Those activities garnered $23,000 towards the $200,000 goal.

“While we were not successful in reaching our goal more quickly, in spite of all the momentum we built, we did add visibility and awareness to the historic landmark,” Keller said. 

What he appreciated most during this experience was the Advisory Board’s commitment to Essanay’s renovation and preservation.

“They rallied for this effort and it’s unfortunate that at this time the college can’t sustain the effort to make the Essanay Centers possible.”

Essanay’s long history as a film studio

Essanay Studios had a long run as a film facility, from 1930 to 1996, with a few years interruption.  Wilding Studios, one of the biggest industrial (corporate) film companies in the US at the time, owned the studio from 1930 to 1971.

Change began in 1971 when movie projector manufacturer Bell & Howell purchased Wilding and a year later donated it to WTTW as a tax write-off.  Unsure of how to use it, the station divided the physical facility. The Chicago Board of Education purchased the 1345 building, and Channon, a stage drapery manufacturing company, bought 1333.  

The Board of Education sold 1345 to St. Augustine in 1980.

The film tradition was revived in 1981, when Channon leased part of its building to the independent equipment company of late Ernie Lukas and co-owners Jules Tomko and Wayne Kubacki, who rmained their company Essanay Lighting & Grip in homage to the studio.

When Channon ultimately sold his building to St. Augustine college in 1996, Essanay Studio Lighting & Grip, which was never associated with the college,  moved  to their present location in Goose Island,  where they remain in business.