S & A and the Windy City
Though not the first film studio to be built and based in Chicago, Essanay grew to be one of the largest and most popular of the Chicago-based studios. The sheer number of photoplayers, directors and screenwriters that it discovered, nurtured and propelled to stardom makes it one of the most important studios of the period. Although its time at the top was short-lived, its legacy lives on.
Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was founded in 1907 in Chicago, Illinois, by film vets George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson, originally as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company. Spoor was inspired to join the film industry after seeing the Kinetoscope, while Anderson, an actor, had the honor of being a part of one of the earliest and most popular silent films of all time — “The Great Train Robbery.” Both men joined forces to establish Peerless, but on August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay.
The Essanay studio complex was originally located on N. Wells St., and it was at this location that the studios first films were produced, including “An Awful Skate (The Hobo on Rollers)” which starred cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin in his film debut. The studio prospered and moved to its more famous address at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. in the Uptown neighborhood.
During the studio’s early years, it counted the likes of Turpin, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne and G.M. Anderson himself as its stars. As the studio grew, Anderson established a western branch in California and began to focus on producing westerns and overseeing productions in California.
Still based in Chicago, Spoor continued to oversee the eastern branch’s productions. Mostly, the films consisted of dramas and light comedies that were shot in the studio or, if the weather was favorable, in nearby outdoor locations. Anderson and Bushman were, arguably, the biggest stars of the studio, until Anderson and Spoor brought in a little fellow by the name of Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin made several films during his stay at Essanay, only one of them, “His New Job,” was made at the Chicago studio. Made in the dead of winter of 1914/1915, the experience was enough to drive Chaplin to California for good.
In its later years, the studio counted Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, Henry B. Walthall, and French comedian/film pioneer Max Linder among its stars. Although the studio spent many years near or at the top of the industry, it began to falter following Chaplin’s and Anderson’s departures. Spoor kept pushing forward, promoting films starring child star Mary McAllister and handsome Taylor Holmes and Bryant Washburn, but by 1918, the company has ceased making films.
Although Anderson and Spoor both continued to work in the film industry, neither was able to equal the success they’d seen as part of Essanay. Even though they weren’t able to recreate the heyday of the studio, they weren’t forgotten by the industry they’d helped build. Both were given honorary Academy Awards in recognition of their contributions to the film industry, and in 1996 the remaining Essanay complex was designated a Chicago landmark.
–Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
Thank you to Janelle for this wonderful Silent Film Series. You can read more of Janelle’s articles about Silent Film and Chicago history-related topics at Chicago Nitrate or Curtains, or you can follow Janelle on Twitter at @SpookyJanelle .