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Unique old building and former film studio, the Essanay, needs funds to be restored and reused

Unique old building and former film studio, the Essanay, needs funds to be restored and reused
by Inside-Booster & News-Star on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 at 12:51pm ·
By Patrick Butler

A ‘spectacular” fundraiser – probably in late August/early September – will kick off efforts to raise enough money to begin “restoration and reuse” of the 103-year-old former Essanay film studio at 1333-45 W. Argyle.
According to Gary Keller, who is spearheading the campaign, “it would be black tie, early 1900s period, of characters from the Essanay lot. People can choose to become Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Bronco Billy Anderson or whoever.”
“We could show footage from “Sunset Boulevard, (a 1950 musical about a washed-up silent film star) and maybe get people to sing some of the numbers,” Keller told a March 24 luncheon for committee members and potential supporters in the actual studio where Chaplin and other early film stars strutted their stuff.
“We can also do a souvenir film where each of the participants look like silent film stars,” he said. “It would give people something to take with them.”
The idea, Keller explained, is to raise enough money to do a detailed study on the building’s history and future possibilities to show “significant contributors.”
Keller said he expects the study can be done for between $40,000 and $70,000, but won’t know how much the restoration will cost until the study is completed.
“I’m not qualified to make any guesses,” added Keller, who in the mid 1990s resurrected the Uptown Historical Society to help kick-start his dream of restoring the Uptown Theater.
Keller said the Essanay building, which is now owned by St. Augustine College, could be used as a film history resource able to generate at least some of its own revenue in the future.
The fact that the studio is right next to the school’s chapel opens up the possibility of holding weddings and receptions at Essanay, Keller said.
The chapel, incidentally, is non-denominational, explained Elena Mulcahey, chairman of St. Augustine’s board. The two-year college started out affiliated with the Episcopal Church, but isn’t connected with any church today, she said.
The studio, now known as the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium, was where 17-year-old Gloria Swanson married Wallace Beery 96 years ago when both worked for Essanay.
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.
Participants at last week’s luncheon meeting – which included a showing of Melies’ 1902 “Trip to the Moon” – Alexander Ferrer, a teacher at St. Augustine’s who painted a Charlie Chaplin mural in the school’s auditorium became a filmmaker for the first time at age 66; Dwight Cleveland, who is looking for a permanent home for his film poster collection – reputedly one of the world’s largest. Cleveland said he’d prefer a place in Chicago where he’d continue to enjoy “visitation rights.”, and Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago,
“People don’t believe Chicago is the birthplace of film. It’s a story that should be told. It’s just as important as the fire and the birth of the skyscraper, or any of the other parts of our history we like to talk about,” Fine said.

This is one of the original fireproof vaults where they stored the highly flamible films of nearly a century ago. Film was stored in the basement of the Essanay building, which continued being used for cinema-related activities, first by Wilding Studios and later by WTTW until the 1970s. Photo by Patrick Butler

“When I found that the Uptown Historical Society had folded 20 years earlier, I decided to unfold it in the 1990s to help save the Uptown Theater,” Gary Keller told a committee being created to “preserve and reuse” the Essanay building. Photo by Patrick Butler

  • by admin
  • posted at 6:21 am
  • August 3, 2012

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