Last month, Essanay Studio and Lighting Company co-owner Wayne Kubacki retired from the nationally recognized company that he co-founded decades ago. Widely admired for his extensive knowledge, punctilious care, and conversational efficiency, he leaves a vacancy that will reverberate far beyond the company’s Goose Island facility.
“I’m going to miss him,” says Jules Tomko, Essanay’s other co-founder. “I’ll miss our conversations and, of course, his precision and attention to detail.”
Fortunately for Tomko — and the rest of the film industry, for that matter — Kubacki’s legacy includes a framework of business practices and governmental policy that will serve Chicago’s motion picture community for generations.
Besides helping to build two fully equipped soundstages and a fleet of production vehicles located just outside of downtown, Wayne Kubacki was a major player in establishing the Illinois Film Tax Credit. Along the way, he taught a legion of young film professionals how to be successful in the industry.
By Tomko’s estimate, “there are about 41 people who are now working in the industry who kind of started their careers in our company.”
“Wayne is very meticulous and he explains every detail,” he continues. “It’s not just the equipment, but also how to behave and how to act on set. There are a variety of different ways to do things. There’s a certain way to teach young kids how to paint and sweep the floors.”
One of those kids was Jim Shearer, who was hired in 2001 and “started out as a PA, did a little bit of camera, a little bit of art department” before becoming Essanay’s third partner in 2010.
“Wayne, as you know, has been a giant in this industry for a long time,” says Shearer. “It’s big shoes to fill, and I miss him already, but he’s also trained me appropriately, so I think we’ll be fine.”
Wayne Kubacki’s career began in the late-1970s and grew in lockstep with the Chicago film industry. He was working as an executive producer for Lucas Productions when the owner, Ernie Lucas, asked him to devote some time to Studio and Lighting Company, another business that Lucas owned.
At the time, Brad Matthys was working for Lucas as a general helper. He remembers Kubacki’s first day in the industry “like it was yesterday.”
“Wayne came in wearing engineer boots with the buckle, a white t-shirt with the cuffs rolled up, and the Marlboros in the sleeve,” says Matthys. “He was obviously very intelligent, and also very particular and very articulate. He’s called ‘Wayne the Brain’ for a reason, and he became Ernie’s right-hand man.”
Although Matthys left a short time later when he got accepted into IATSE Local 476 Chicago Studio Mechanics — where he would eventually advance to the office of President — he never stopped relying on Kubacki’s expertise.
“Wayne knows more about the business of motion pictures and commercials and the equipment than any other person on the planet,” says Matthys. “He was always like a human resource for us.”
Another coworker who recognized Kubacki’s superior knowledge at Studio Lighting was Jules Tomko. Describing himself as “an up-and-coming gaffer,” he had been hired to help Ernie Lucas build a grip truck shortly before Kubacki came on board. Tomko noticed that his skills set complemented Kubacki’s from the get-go.
“Wayne is so meticulous about business and paperwork and things like that, and I am not,” he recalls. “I am the guy who likes to get creative and lighting and configure on-location scenarios. In retrospect, we were the perfect pair.”
The birth of Essanay Studio and Lighting
In 1980, Studio and Lighting Company relocated from its location at Devon and Clark to a building on Argyle Street that had formerly housed the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
Named to phonetically represent the first initials of the last names of its founders — George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson — Essanay was a film studio that had produced, among other things, a series of Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915.
After deciding that he didn’t want to deal with Chicago’s weather, the Little Tramp relocated to Hollywood, and the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was absorbed into a series of mergers.
By the time Studio and Lighting moved into the building, all that remained of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was the Art Deco inscription of its name above the Argyle Street doorway.
Three years after Studio and Lighting relocated, Tomko approached Lucas about purchasing the grip truck — the one that he had helped to build — because he had been renting it so often. Lucas had a different idea in mind.
“Ernie says, listen, why don’t you buy the company,” Tomko recalls. “In 1983, I bought 75 percent of Studio and Lighting, and Wayne took the other 25 percent.”
Wayne Kubacki and Jules Tomko renamed their new venture Essanay Studio and Lighting Company and immediately got to work on “fulfilling our potential and building a reputation,” says Tomko.
One of the clients that they would eventually land, STORY Company Executive Producer Mark Androw, describes the company built by “the perfect pair” as “the Ritz Carlton of film stages.”
“I’ve worked all over the world — from LA to Prague — and I had never encountered a stage that is as well organized and clean as Essanay,” he explains. “Most stages are like warehouse type spaces, but they keep it spotless and super organized.”
Creating the Illinois Film Tax Credit
Besides relying on Kubacki’s film expertise at Essanay, Androw benefitted from his governmental knowhow while working with the Independent Producers Alliance (IPA).
The IPA was an organization that helped convince lawmakers in Springfield to establish the Illinois Film Tax Credit. Androw, Kubacki, and a handful of other industry leaders formed the group in response to an unfortunate fact about a blockbuster musical.
“When the movie Chicago was made in Toronto, all of us said, ‘oh sh—t we’ve got to do something,’” Androw recalls. “A group of us got together to figure out what to do.”
They prepared a pitch during a series of meetings at the Screen Actors Guild and Essanay Studios, and Kubacki’s input was crucial to the process.
“Wayne Kubacki is the most politically savvy person I have ever met,” Androw says. “He knew exactly who to talk to and he was the one who went down to Springfield.”
Essanay became the preferred location for some of Chicago’s highest-profile commercials during its first decade of existence. Among them was the first Nike spot featuring Michael Jordan, which was filmed before the future superstar played a single game as a Chicago Bull. But they only rented half of the building on Argyle.
The other half of the facility was occupied by its owner, St Augustine College, and the landlord decided to take the whole thing in the early 90s.
Relocating to Goose Island
Kubacki and Tomko found a new location on Goose Island — a quasi-industrial strip of warehouses and small factories in the Chicago River near Halsted and Division. They moved Essanay into a building that formerly housed a company called National Byproducts, and Kubacki once again put his incomparable knack for business to work.
“The biggest thing that Wayne had to do with the company was when we built the studio on Goose Island,” Tomko recalls. “Paperwork and lawyers and one of the first TIFs involved in the city of Chicago, which we converted into infrastructure improvements like sewers and roads. Wayne read through every contract, and that’s where he shined. He was the whole brains behind the loans and everything like that, and we paid the loans off two years early.”
The 100-year-old National Byproducts structure was converted to house a garage and a pair of production areas and situated in the center of Essanay’s newly built facility, which opened for business in 1996.
Since then, the business has flourished. McDonald’s, Apple, and Winnebago are just a few of the brands that have shot commercials on Essanay’s custom-built soundstages. The Showtime series Shameless films exteriors multiple times per year with vehicles rented from the Essanay fleet, which includes three 10-ton and two 8-ton grip trucks as well as a Mercedes sprinter van package.
Goose Island has gotten fancier along the way. “Now we have Wrigley and Mars and Lexus and Mercedes,” says Tomko. “The R Squared Company owns a building across the street and they bought the old Morton Salt building on the other side of the river.”
Keeping customers happy
But according to Independent Producer Mo Wagdy, the quality remains the same. “There’s an automatic feeling that Essanay will take care of you from start to finish,” he explains. “That’s a really difficult job, to not only have gear but to also have management and dedicated trainees.”
Wagdy shot the 2017 Winnebago-branded miniseries, Meet the Maddons, at Essanay. Starring former Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and created by rEvolution Sports Marketing, the job was a homecoming of sorts.
“Wayne Kubacki was one of the first people I talked to when I tried to get into the business sixteen years ago,” he recalls. “He told me all of the dos and don’ts — how to be a good PA, how to act on set, what to do, and what not to do. He gave me guidelines on how to succeed, and I took them to heart. I’m getting teary-eyed thinking about it — if it wasn’t for him, I probably would not be where I am today.”
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Pretty much everyone who has ever dealt with Wayne Kubacki feels the same way. Fortunately, as Tomko notes, they’ll still be able to enjoy his companionship as well as his expertise.
“Wayne and I are parting in business, but we remain friends,” he explains. “And he said he’ll be happy to come in and help when we’re real busy.”