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Essanay Studios

June 3, 2012 by JoBe Cerny

Once upon a time (1907), Chicago was the home of a motion picture company that produced over a thousand theatrical releases. The company was created by George K. Spoor of Waukegan, Illinois, who became an Academy Award Winning Pioneer of the film industry. His company was Essanay, and his studio was located on the 1300 N. Wells Street block in Chicago. The company had great success in the early years of the silent film industry. By 1908, Essanay began construction of a larger studio at 1333-1345 W. Argyle in Chicago. Essanay produced films that starred many of the most famous silent film actors such as Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin.
In graduate school at Northwestern, I took a course about silent film and I always found them fascinating. In the early 1950’s, silent films played on television and I watched many of the comedies over and over marveling at how funny the actors could be without saying a word. My first acting teacher, Doc Sitton, made a remark that stayed with me my entire career; “acting is doing”. Acting is a physical craft. Audiences love watching interesting-looking actors do remarkable things. Actors don’t write the scripts; they perform the scripts. Anyone can read a script and understand it, but only a great actor can make a script become interesting to watch.
Once I understood what Doc meant, I realized that words were made more interesting by the actions (i.e. actions speak louder than words). To help us concentrate on movement, he would have us do long scenes from well-known plays without talking; and the acting class would have to figure out which play the scene was from. We would act out some of the scenes to music like they did in a silent film. The longest silent scene I did was fifteen minutes long, and it held the audience’s attention.
At The Second City, I experimented with silent characters with the piano player who improvised music to my silent scenes, and I learned to get big laughs without saying a word. Later in my career, I am sure that my ability to do physical comedy without talking helped me win the role of the silent spokesman in the Cheer Detergent Campaign. At one point P&G experimented with other actors in foreign countries who would watch my American Cheer commercials and try to mimic me. But the thoughts and the movements didn’t connect and all the tests failed. So P&G let me do the foreign commercials, and I sold soap in sixteen different countries. My silent character translated well into any language.
What does this have to do with Essanay? The studio had been shuttered for years. But, it was reopened in the 1970s. I auditioned for an industrial film for Herman Miller Office Furniture, and I got the lead in the film. Ironically, I was the only actor in the film who would talk, but I was thrilled when I learned I would be shooting the first film in the newly reopened Essanay Studios. Knowing I would be working on a film stage that Charlie Chaplain did several movies on was a dream come true for me. The old studio gates were still there, and when I drove through them, I felt like I was going back in time. The studio bordered on a cemetery which seemed fitting, but I couldn’t believe my good luck. In my silent film class, I read Chaplain’s autobiography, and it greatly influenced me. His work ethic was inspirational, and his approach to business was very pragmatic. He invested wisely in real estate and worked harder than he had to because he was always afraid his good fortune as an actor might suddenly end. I took that message to heart.
Charlie Chaplin eventually went on to form a movie company, United Artists, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Mary Pickford. Uniting their star power was a stroke of genius. Charlie Chaplain starred in the Comedies, Douglas Fairbanks starred in the Adventure Films, and Mary Pickford starred in the Romantic Comedies. The concept that the three stars created still works today. United Artists produces Comedies (many by Woody Allen), the James Bond Adventure series, and several different women have taken turns starring in romantic comedies. After leaving The Second City, I started thinking about creating a production company to unite the people I worked with. We frequently did freelance jobs writing, directing, producing and performing together, but we worked out of our homes. I decided to take the plunge and build a studio. When I created the name Cerny/American Creative, a lot of people laughed because the name sounded too global and grand. But to date, we have produced over 8,700 projects. July 26th will be the 26th anniversary of Cerny/American Creative.
But, next week, I will continue my story about the industrial film that reopened Essanay Studios.

Essanay Studios (The Sequel)

June 10, 2012 by JoBe Cerny
Last week, I left you at the front gate of Essanay Studios on Argyle Street where I was about to act in a Herman Miller Office Furniture Industrial Film. Herman Miller has always been a very avant-garde company when it comes to advertising and innovative new ways to capture the public’s attention. I’ve done two projects with them and both projects won awards.

This particular film was about “The Office of the Future”. Every office in America would soon make the transition to computers. At the time, most people didn’t really how big of a change was coming. In retrospect, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the film, but the script was very unusual. This transition would affect everyone. So this film had to be both special and memorable.
John Ewing was the director. He had been a partner is a company called Fire Escape, Ltd., but this film was his first venture on his own. I played the part of a lab technician who had a vision. I wore a white lab coat, and I did all the talking and explaining in the film. Four members of the Organic Theatre Company were my supporting cast. As it turned out, my supporting cast was composed of a group of actors who became famous. I went to high school with one of the actors. Long before I decided to become an actor, I went to see him in all the plays at Morton East High School in Cicero because he was always so great to watch. He also was the lead singer of a band called The Apocryphals, and he starred in “Hair” at the Shubert Theatre. I knew him as Joey Mantegna, but you probably know him as Joseph Mantegna, Tony Award Winner for David Mamet’s Glen Gary, Glen Ross, and many other starring roles in motion pictures, plays, and television series. Another friend in my supporting cast was Dennis Franz, who went to Proviso East High School, and went on to star in Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, winning four Emmy Awards. Stuart Gordon, the artistic director of the Organic Theatre Company was also in the cast, as was Meshach Taylor, a four time Emmy Award Winner for Designing Women.
But, the thing that made the film so memorable was the costumes of my supporting cast. Woody Allen did a very funny movie a couple of years previously called Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask. The final scene of the movie took place inside the human body. In the film, the actors who helped me build the office of the future played futurist “helpers”. No one saw the costumes until the first day of shooting. It turned out they altered the famous sperm costumes from the Woody Allen movie. Essentially, the only alteration the costumer made was to remove the tails off the sperm costumes. We were shooting on a white sweep and the costumes were very white so we sort of built the office of the future in a limbo setting. It put focus on the office furniture. Since no one knew what the office of the future was going to look like the equipment my helpers set up was pretty exotic to the audience. My helpers did lots of great physical bits as they assembled the office of the future. John Ewing used lots of camera tricks to compress time as my helpers built the office, and the action of the installation was sped up to warp speed. To make a long story short, when the film was released, it was very funny and fun to watch. When I bumped into John Ewing a few years later at an audition in Los Angeles, he told me of the great success of the film. The film became a cult classic, and Herman Miller customers actually bought copies of the film to show at parties. When people buy advertising and the product it sells, that goes beyond success.

A few years past, and one day, my agent said a client inquired if I was available to do a commercial in Toledo, Ohio. I had never been to Toledo before, so I agreed, and it turned out to be one of my most surprising Adventures in Advertising. I flew into Toledo, and the production company sent someone to pick me up at the airport. I brought a selection of sports coats, dress shirts, ties, and slacks. I didn’t see a script, and I forgot to ask what the commercial was for. The driver told me we were going to shoot in downtown Toledo which had a quiet pleasant downtown area with little traffic and free parking. Equipment trucks for the shoot were parked in front of the location. The store was closed for the shoot so it was empty except for the crew who were setting up lights. As I walked into the store, I realized I was in a furniture store. A man, who I assumed was the client saw me and hurriedly ran towards me. His eyes were very wild as he looked at me in disbelief. I extended my hand for him to shake, and he vigorously shook it and said: “I can’t believe it! It’s you! The Sperm Man!”

My jaw dropped and I didn’t know what to say so I said: “What?”

He went on to say: “You’re the guy from the film about the office of the future! I love that film. You know the one with the sperm costumes. My customers love that film. My kids watch it over and over.”

I guess I would rate his comment as one of the most unusual off-handed compliments I have ever received.

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  • posted at 6:23 am
  • August 3, 2012

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