When Frederick Russell Clark began his mission to create wholesome films for children, he knew he wanted to make them as accessible as possible. So, rather than seeking out children with film experience, he sought out the Chicago Children Players.
The Chicago Children Players had formed under the Junior Dramatic League, and served as an opportunity for children who loved to act to get on stage and act for their parents and children their own age. Their love of acting out fairy tales inspired Helen Hamilton to pen The Modern Mother Goose, and they performed it for standing room only audiences. When their play caused such a sensation, Clark was inspired to capture the play on film so that children across the country could enjoy it. Instead of hiring new actors to fill the roles, though, he hired the CCP themselves.
150 kids between the ages of 3 and 16 were involved in the film adaptation of The Modern Mother Goose. Scenes were shot all over the city, including at the Fort Dearborn Photoplays studio and in the Elizabethan Room at the Congress Hotel. Although it was produced in the interest of creating better films for children, it raised some issues and questions with film industry officials. On at least one occasion, Chief Factory Inspector Oscar F. Nelson summoned Fort Dearborn’s officials to explain the presence of children in their studio. Of the 7 children present, 6 were under school age, and none were reportedly being paid for their services.
One way or another, the situation was resolved, and the film was released in the Midwest. It received a warm reception, and eventually (though gradually) made its way across the country, making a notable stop in Portland, Oregon in March of 1917.
Other filmmakers tried to recapture the success and magic of The Modern Mother Goose, with varying levels of success. In September of 1917, the Wholesome Film Corporation teamed up with Helen Hamilton to produce Cinderella and the Magic Slipper. By this time, the Children’s Auxiliary of the Red Cross had been formed by Hamilton as an outgrowth of the CCP and boasted 500 members. The children had performed Hamilton’s version of Cinderella at the Strand Theater during Baby Week, and, once again, filmmakers saw an opportunity. Casting 100 children in the various roles, including Anna Spahn as Cinderella and Walker Wynekoop as The Prince, director Guy McConnell filmed the story in and around the Rothacker studio on Diversey and in Lincoln Park, Jackson Park and Garfield Park. The 4-reel film was well received by critics and audiences, with critics noting that the children were energetic and seemed to truly enjoy themselves. By the following year, though, the charm and novelty seems to have worn off.
In January of 1918, the Wholesome Film Corporation released a production of Little Red Riding Hood. Director Otis Thayer had managed to stretch the film to 5 reels, but only the last reel bore any resemblance to the titular story. Although filmgoers themselves seemed to have a pretty positive reaction to it, film critics panned the picture saying that its good photography couldn’t overshadow the fact that it had poor acting, poor direction and no story. The children who were lively and having fun in their previous production were now largely artificial and self conscious. Shortly after this, both the Wholesome Corporation, and the Chicago Children Players disappeared form the Chicago film industry.