Essanay Studios


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Here is the second in a series of photos I took during the Open House Chicago (OHC) event- Essanay Studios. Essanay Studios, located in the 1300 block of West Argyle Street, is in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. Its peculiar name is an amalgam of the initials of the studio’s founding partners: George Spoor and Anderson. It was designated a Chicago Landmark by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on March 26th, 1996, and acknowledged as the most important structure connected to the city’s role in the history of motion pictures.

Essanay produced silent films and boasted among its contract players with the world’s number one box-office star (Charlie Chaplin), a great matinee idol (Francis X. Bushman), a glamor queen (Gloria Swanson) and the dean of cowboy stars (studio co-founder Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson). Essanay quickly became a dominant force in westerns and comedy. Its success was due in part to the well-matched talents of its partners.

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In late 1914 Essanay succeeded in hiring Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, offering Chaplin a higher salary and his own production unit. Chaplin made 14 short comedies for Essanay in 1915, at both the Chicago and Niles studios, plus a cameo appearance in one of the Broncho Billy westerns. Chaplin’s Essanays are more disciplined than the chaotic roughhouse of Chaplin’s Keystones, with better story values and character development. Chaplin disliked the unpredictable weather of Chicago, and left after only one year for more money and more creative control elsewhere. His departure caused a rift between founders Spoor and Anderson. Chaplin was the studio’s biggest moneymaker, and Essanay resorted to creating “new” Chaplin comedies from file footage and out-takes. Finally, with Chaplin off the Essanay scene for good, Essanay signed French comedian Max Linder, whose clever pantomime was often compared to Chaplin’s. Linder failed to match Chaplin’s popularity in America. In a last-ditch effort to save the studio, Essanay joined in a four-way merger orchestrated by Chicago distributor George Kleine in 1918.

The Essanay building in Chicago was eventually taken over by independent producer Norman Wilding, who made industrial films. Wilding’s tenancy was much longer than Essanay’s. In the early 1970s a portion of the studio was offered to Columbia College (Chicago) for a dollar but the offer lapsed without action. Then it was given to a non-profit television corporation which sold it. One tenant was the midwest office of Technicolor. Today the Essanay lot is the home of St. Augustine’s College, and its main meeting hall has been named the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium.

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Today, the plain brick building on Argyle remains as a reminder of a period when Chicago was at the hot center of world moviemaking.

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