“The most important structure connected to the city’s role in early motion pictures.”
-City of Chicago Landmarks Commission, March 26, 1996
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, determined to strike out and make a name for themselves on their own terms in the film world, joined forces to establish Peerless. On August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay (“S and A”).
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 Ben Turpin, Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne and G.M. Anderson himself as its stars. As the studio continued to grow, Anderson established a western branch in California and began to focus on producing westerns. He and Francis X. Bushman were, arguably, the biggest stars of the studio, until Anderson and Spoor swooped in and stole a little fellow by the name of Charlie Chaplin out from under Mack Sennett and Keystone’s nose.
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 addition to Chaplin, in its later years, the studio counted Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, D.W. Griffith favorite 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. By 1918, the company has ceased making films and the studio complex changed hands.
Today, the complex is owned by St. Augustine College, and the iconic terra cotta entrance featuring the Essanay logo still exists. In 1996, it was designated a Chicago landmark.