A Chicago landmark is working its way back into the spotlight more than 100 years after it became a household name.
Essanay Studios (1333 West Argyle Street) was once at the center of the film world. It, along with other Chicago filmmakers like the Selig-Polyscope company and the American Film Manufacturing Company, brought the film industry to Chicago long before it made its way west to Hollywood.
Established in 1907, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was formed by by two veterans of the film world, George K. Spoor and G.M. Anderson. Their plant was originally located on Wells Street, but as the studio grew and became more and more successful, a new plant was built in 1908 on Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood.
Finished in 1909, the first brick building initially boasted 72,000 square feet of floor space, a manufacturing lab for film technicians, and large film vaults. By 1915, it expanded to accommodate more studio space, offices and dressing rooms. It was in this studio that the Chicago company’s best known films were created, and many future film stars got their starts and honed their craft.
Charlie Chaplin joined the company in 1915 and filmed his very first Essanay comedy “His New Job” at the Argyle Street studio. Gloria Swanson was offered a screen test when she toured the studio with her aunt, and eventually married co-star Wallace Beery in the Essanay parking lot. And Max Linder, the first true comedic star of the silent screen, created his comeback films in the Chicago studio in the winter of 1917.
As the partnership between Spoor and Anderson dissolved, so too did Essanay. By 1918 both the Chicago and Niles branches of the company had closed. Although Essanay left the building, the film industry did not. George Spoor continued to use the space to develop his film projects, including a 65 mm widescreen process known as “Natural Vision.” At the same time, the midwestern branch of Technicolor, industrial film company Wilding Studios and camera makers Bell & Howell all occupied other parts of the complex.
In 1972, the complex’s focus shifted from film to television when the studio buildings were donated to WTTW television, which parceled and sold the property to the Chicago Board of Education and a drapery manufacturer.
Business Screen magazine and Essanay Studio & Lighting rented space in the complex for a while, but today the complex is owned by Saint Augustine College.
Although the college has turned the former offices and studios into classroom space, Studio A, the film vaults and the building’s iconic terra cotta entrance featuring the studio’s name and logo, are still standing. In fact, in 1996, it was named a Chicago Landmark, with Mayor Richard M. Daley declaring it, “the most important structure connected to the city’s role in the history of motion pictures.”
Now, the college has embraced a restoration project to preserve the entrance and Studio A (known as Charlie Chaplin Auditorium) to create the Essanay Centers for Early Film and Cultural Performance.