Plenty of movies have been made about Chicago. Plenty of movies have been shot on Chicago's streets. But the city itself has never been a center of international studio filmmaking, except for one brief golden age that lasted only a decade. That single 10-year span commenced in the summer of 1907, when Essanay Studios was formed to enter the new business of making movies. During those years, Chicago had a studio that was the Disney or Warner Brothers of its day.
Essanay boasted among its contract players 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). The studio was located in the 1300 block of West Argyle Street 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. Spoor had run a newsstand and, later, a film and projector distribution company, National Film Renting. Anderson, a former vaudeville actor, shot to fame playing one of the outlaws in Edwin S. Porter's 1903 hit, "The Great Train Robbery".Essanay quickly became a dominant force in westerns and comedy. Its success was due in part to the well-matched talents of its partners. Anderson ground out "Bronco Billy" short westerns at a formidable rate: one a week for 376 straight weeks. (A few were shot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, the rest at Essanay locations in Colorado or California.) Spoor had a head for business; it was he who introduced Bell to Howell.
Of all the studio's stars, none shone brighter than Chaplin, whom director Jean Renoir would describe as the greatest filmmaker of the century. Chaplin's period at Essanay (1915-16) saw his first real creative flowering. First in importance among the 14 Chaplin Essanay productions was "The Tramp", in which he first endowed his famous character with the combination of humor and pathos that endeared the Tramp to audiences. Other Essanay Chaplin titles include "The Champion", "The Bank", "Shanghaied" and "His New Job", the only film he shot in Chicago.
But if Chaplin gave Essanay its greatest year, his 1916 departure for the Mutual Co. and more money hastened its demise. The defection caused a fatal rupture between penny-pinching Spoor and Anderson. A year later, with the movie industry centralizing in the warmer climes of southern California, Essanay expired. Only the plain brick building on Argyle remains as a reminder of a period when Chicago was at the hot center of world moviemaking.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun