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Essanay supporters working to fulfill dreams, plan to unveil their restoration report at Oct. 6 gala

By Patrick Butler


Johnson Lasky Architects has been hired to draft a renovation plan for the century-old Essanay Studio buildings,1333-45 W. Argyle, according to Gary Keller, who is spearheading the campaign for St. Augustine College, the properties’ owner.

On June 30 Keller told supporters about the restoration experts’ report which will be unveiled at a Oct. 6 “black tie gala” at the college. The Xomix Ltd. CEO got his start as a local preservationist by reviving the Uptown Historical Society to boost efforts to restore the Uptown Theater.

The Essanay Studios, where early silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery and Lake View native Gloria Swanson worked, helped establish Uptown as a premiere entertainment district in the 1910s and ‘20s.

Keller believes that could happen again with the the long shot resurrection of the Uptown Theater and his own effort at the Essanay Studios.

Johnson Lasky will do three different designs, renderings, cost estimates, and an estimated time frame, said Keller. “It’s the equivalent of a business plan.”

“Any serious donor is going to want to know this,” said Keller, who is also “working to build strong relations with key organizations like Essanay Studios Silent Film museum in Niles, which is a separate organization from the historic Chicago studio.

The Chicago studio won’t duplicate Niles’ offerings, but will instead “concentrate on being a performance center with theater and dance facilities, classrooms and silent film screening rooms,” he said.

“There’s no point in restoring old buildings unless you have something going there,” Keller added.

One way of enhancing the Essanay’s revenue stream when the facilities aren’t being used for activities of St. Augustine College or the Essanay center would be to “rent out space to smaller theaters,” he said.

“If you start offering space for smaller theaters, you’re going to be deluged with interest,” said the Prop Theater’s Paul Peditto.

“On any given night in Chicago there are more than 250 plays you can see. There aren’t nearly enough venues, so if people can’t buy their own building, they rent somewhere else,” added Kris Schramm, another Essanay supporter. “If you want to rent the Raven Theater [6157 N. Clark St.] it’s about $1,800 – $$3,000 a week.”

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs will weigh in with their own ideas at a July 28 meeting at the Essanay Studios. This year, the Chicago Architectural Foundation will include the Argyle Street landmark in its Oct. 13-14 open house, Keller said.

The studio was founded in 1907 in Old Town originally as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company. On August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay and in 1908 moved to its more famous address on Argyle St. The mainstays of the organization, however, were studio co-owner G. M. Anderson, starring in the very popular “Broncho Billy” westerns, and Charlie Chaplin. Due to Chicago’s seasonal weather patterns and the popularity of westerns, Gilbert Anderson took part of the company to California.

The Chicago studio continued to produce films for another five years, reaching a total of well over 1,400 Essanay titles during its ten-year history. The Chicago studio produced many of Essanay’s famous movies, including the very first American Sherlock Holmes (1916), the first American A Christmas Carol (1908) and the first Jesse James movie, The James Boys of Missouri (1908). Essanay also produced some of the world’s very first cartoons (Dreamy Dud was the most popular character).

The Essanay building on Argyle St. was later taken over by independent producer Norman Wilding, who made industrial films. Wilding’s tenancy was actually much longer than Essanay’s.

In the early 1970s a portion of the studio was offered to Columbia College for a $1 but the offer lapsed without action. Then it was given to a non-profit television corporation which eventually sold it. Today the Essanay lot is the home of St. Augustine’s College and its main meeting hall has been named the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium.

The Essanay buildings were bought in 1980 by St. Augustine College, Illinois’ first bilingual (English/Spanish college. The studio restoration “is very much backed by the school and we want to make sure what we have is properly used by the community and the students,” said Elena Mulcahy, chairman of St. Augustine’s board of trustees.

Keller, incidentally, said he not only needs financial donors, but volunteers to help with publicity, serve as docents, run the upcoming silent auction, do marketing, and help raise still more funds. He can be reached at

  • by admin
  • posted at 6:26 am
  • August 3, 2012

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