Saving and Restoring Historic Essanay Studios: Interview with Gary Keller at The Essanay Center


Interview with Gary N. Keller at The Essanay Center

Essanay Studios is currently running an Indiegogo Campaign to raise money for the preservation and revitalization of their historic film studio — the first and last remaining silent film studio. CMH is a huge fan of Essanay and their efforts, and is very pleased to be able to present this exclusive interview with Gary N. Keller, Vice President, Essanay Centers.

Essanay cast and crew.

CMH: I understand that Essanay Studios originally started out as Peerless Manufacturing Company. Can you tell us how it evolved from that into the country’s premier silent film studio of the early 1910’s?

Keller: Well, it started with  George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Spoor was in the business of selling equipment and was a technology guy. From his first exposure to film and projection technologies, he knew there was money to be made in the film industry. Anderson was a vaudevillian/film actor who had played one of the four bandits in the landmark film The Great Train Robbery. He saw the potential in film, especially the Western, as a story telling medium and wanted to be more involved in the behind-the-camera production aspect of filmmaking.

G.M Anderson

In 1907 Anderson approached Spoor about forming a film production company and thus, Essanay Studios was formed. They were originally called Peerless but soon renamed the business to Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, “ess” for Spoor and “ay” for Anderson.

G.K Spoor

So, basically Spoor wanted to be more than just an equipment guy and Anderson wanted to be more than an actor. By coming together, and using their complimentary skills, they were able to create something bigger than themselves. It’s like the left side of the brain and right side of the brain. One knew business and technology as a whole; the other knew production and was creative.

CMH: Charlie Chaplin made fourteen films for Essanay Studios. Can you explain how his time at Essanay helped shape his career? What other famous stars worked at Essanay?

Keller: As I’m sure most of your readers know, Chaplin was one of the first  global celebrities. In the 1910’s, there was Chaplin-mania. Magnets, books, pictures, dolls – all sorts of merchandise and Chaplin paraphernalia was being eaten up by the public. And you know what, it’s Essanay Studios that helped start and foster that level of stardom. They pretty much ushered in Chaplin-ism by heavily focusing on marketing Chaplin to the world and embarking on a marketing campaign that was beyond the scope of what any other studio in the world was doing at that point. Because Spoor had a brother in Europe that worked on Essanay’s European development, Chaplin’s appeal went worldwide while working at Essanay. So, a huge part of the Chaplin legacy came from his work at Essanay.

Chaplin wearing a tribal headband, the symbol of Essanay Studios

As for other stars at the Studio, well, Gloria Swanson got her start at the Chicago studio. In fact, she made her film debut in the Chaplin film His New Job. One of the Studio’s very first stars was vaudevillian comedian Ben Turpin. He starred in the studio’s first film, The Hobo on Rollers. Essanay’s roster also featured famed French actor Max Linder, whose daughter, Maud Linder, currently serves on The Essanay Centers for Early Film and Cultural Performance advisory board.

CMH: There is an Indiegogo Campaign currently running to help raise funds to preserve and revitalize Essanay Studios. There’s a lot planned for the space beyond restoring the historic Terra Cotta entrance way. Can you elaborate on some of the restoration/renovation plans? I’m sure our readers will be very curious to know about how the space will be used. 

Keller: One aspect of restoration includes The Essanay Center for Early Film (ECEF). This will act as a historical repository for archival materials, references, and artifacts. The center will be used to educate the public on early film. The Charlie Chaplin Auditorium will be used as a screening, performance and multimedia exhibition space for film related activities. I am particularly excited for the “Essanay Alive” Series. Essanay Alive is a prototype project to provide the history of Essanay Silent Film Studios in Chicago through multimedia digital imagery set to music and presented to audiences in Essanay’s original production studio space. The content of the exhibit will be displayed on scrims that are mounted to the walls of the auditorium or the exiting production backdrop as well as possible columnar or horizontal scrims for display.

This was inspired by the exhibit Van Gogh Alive.

This combination of state-of-the-art technology and historic display is very much in-line with the spirt of Essanay Studios, a leader in innovation during the silent film era. We are very excited to used modern digital technology to create an immersive but also educational experience for the public. We’ve spearheaded this project with online broadcasts of our film catalog at With widely accessible projects like this, we are creating a history that is FOR something, instead of simply ABOUT something.

Studio A/Chaplin Auditorium

One thing I am happy to say is that part of the studio will be used for production again. The Center is redeveloping Studio A/Charlie Chaplin Auditorium to use for digital photography and filming to support education, the use and presentation of historical content with digital technology, and to conduct programs and courses on silent film and public history.

We will also develop The Essanay Center for Cultural Performance. This space is designed to accommodate the use of the historic Essanay Studios for the performing and visual arts including film, music, dance, theatre and exhibition.

CMH: The Indiegogo Campaign stresses the importance of Essanay Studios in the context of Chicago’s history. Can you speak a little about that?

Keller: Before there was Hollywood, there was Chicago. Its location between New York and Hollywood literally places Chicago at the center of silent cinema history. Essanay was one of first silent studios to open outside New York and helped to bring movie stars and entertainment to the Uptown community, forever transforming the area. The creation of Essanay helped evolve that space into something more – into an entertainment capitol of the silent era.

Cameramen outside Essanay Studios

This initiative seeks to preserve and revitalize one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios and a unique piece of a great city’s history.  The 1996 City of Chicago Landmark report for the Essanay Studios describes the history and significance of the company and property as follows:

“ ‘Essanay Studios is the most important structure connected to Chicago’s role in the early history of motion pictures. Essanay was one of the nation’s premier movie companies, producing hundreds of motion pictures, featuring such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and cinema’s first cowboy hero — and a co-founder of Essanay – G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson,’ states the Chicago Landmark Designation plaque on façade of 1345 West Argyle St entrance. This terra- cotta entrance (the façade) is adorned with the fanciful Indian heads that served as Essanay’s logo.”

The restoration and rebirth of the Essanay Film Studio Complex will provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and experience the magic and mystery of early film-making and Chicago’s unique role.  It will also extend and expand the studio’s cultural legacy by providing a community space for the performing arts. Last, but far from least, it will enhance the educational mission and prestige of St. Augustine College through its stewardship of this historic site, and as a community partner and anchor of the historic Uptown Entertainment District.

CMH: While watching the Indiegogo Campaign video I couldn’t help but notice the iconic ‘pie in the face’ clip. I understand that this is in the tradition of Chicago’s long relationship with comedy. Can you tell us more about that?

Keller: Today Chicago serves as a global center for comedy and especially improvisational comedy. Essanay was a silent film studio that had a real focus on comedy. And silent film comedy really is the father of improv. Think about it. The pace of it all. A comedian, usually wide shot, has to make ‘em laugh and do it in one take. Quick, funny, one gag after another, this is improv. Chaplin was certainly the expert at doing this successfully, as demonstrated in His New Job filmed in Studio A. And today Chicago boasts a number of places for improv like Second City TV, where many of the world’s leading comedians got their start.

CMH: How will the new developments at the Essanay Centers be used to showcase the studio’s role in both film and local history?

Keller: The story of Chicago’s role in the development of the motion picture industry is largely untold, as well as the development of Hollywood by leading Chicagoans.  Having the precious resource of one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios is the perfect place to tell this story using digital technology to create experiential public history, and access to rotational and permanent exhibits and displays. We believe the further back you look, the further ahead you can see; the only way to understand a place’s future is to understand its past.

CMH: I understand that the studio recently managed to acquire some interesting early silent film artifacts. I’m curious to know what they are and if they will be on display at the new Essanay Centers.

Keller: One of the greatest items we have is the George K. Spoor NaturalVision Prototype. The NaturalVision camera was a project Spool spent years developing and was one of the first 3D cameras. Unfortunately for Spool, the technology never caught on; he destroyed 11 of the 12 cameras he made.

The camera prototype

So, you see, this piece is truly a one of a kind. Absolutely amazing. We also have recently received a collection of original Essanay Stills and autographed photographs from Jim Harperthe son of Billy Harper and nephew of Jimmy Harper, two Essanay child stars.

CMH: What’s next for the Essanay Centers? Are there any upcoming events on the calendar or recent developments that you can share with us?

Keller: We just had a media brunch on November 19th for key members of the press, radio, and news. And, we are currently planning a number of events for next year and are exploring an event to highlight Chaplin’s 100 years in film next summer.

Of course our on-going focus is to continue to outreach for funding support for the restoration and reuse of Essanay Studios as the Essanay Centers for Early Film and Cultural Performance at St Augustine College.  Because, you see, the time is now. With the world rapidly changing, we need to preserve historic sites like this one before they are forgotten. So here is a chance for people who love film to step up and help preserve a precious resource for all those who love film and its history.


You can help save one of the first and last remaining silent film studios in the world. Act now and donate to the restoration and reuse of the historic Essanay Studios. Click here to visit the Essanay Indiegogo Campaign page.


Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub


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