The Selig Polyscope Company was founded in 1896 by “Colonel” William Selig. Although Selig Polyscope holds the distinction of becoming the first film company to erect a permanent studio in Southern California, Selig got his start in his native Chicago. After spending time in California with a traveling minstrel show, Selig returned to chicago with a wealth of theater management experience and an interest in the Kinetoscope. using drawings of the Lumiere Cinematographie, Selig, along with his machinist, were able to build their own camera, the Selig Standard Camera.
Initially setting up shop on 20 Peck Court, Selig began experimenting with slapstick films that rarely exceed 50 feet in length. He began dabbling in industrial films, and with industrial film came his first big contract. In 1901, Armour & Co., reeling from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was eager to have their meat processing plant shown in a good light, and contracted Selig. The end result was, as Moving Picture World described it, the greatest advertisement the company ever had.
Selig’s first dabble with animal pictures was born as the result of a denied request to join Theodore Roosevelt as he hunted big game in Africa. When Selig’s cameraman was denied permission to accompany Roosevelt on his expedition, Selig did the next best thing. He staged and filmed a hunt using retired circus animals. Released in May 1909, Hunting Big Game in Africa represented a turning point for Selig and the first of many animal pictures.
In addition to being one of the first film pioneers in Chicago and in the world, Selig was also a pioneer in the genres he produced. Widely loved and respected for his thrill pictures, he sent teams of players, directors and cinematographers west to make westerns and animal pictures. Still, he continued to make films in Chicago. He moved his plant to Irving Park Blvd. and Western Ave. and brought popular stories to the big screen -- including some of the earliest film adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Two Orphans (D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm is the best known adaptation of the story). The studio even teamed with the Chicago Tribune briefly to produce newsreels. Selig is also credited as the pioneer of the two-reeler.
Despite a long period of success, and producing stars like Kathlyn Williams, Myrtle Stedman, Colleen Moore and Tom Mix, Selig’s reign was brought to an end in the mid-1910s. The Chicago branch of the studio was closed in 1915 and Selig himself went into independent production until closing shop in 1923. Colonel Selig, like fellow Chicago pioneers G.M. Anderson and George K. spoor, was honored for his contributions to the film industry in 1948 with a special Academy Award.