Tucked in amidst the two-flat buildings, elaborate courtyard constructions, and other bits and piece of Uptown’s landscape sits the historic Essanay Film Studios complex. A century ago, the place was fairly abuzz with a veritable cavalcade of producers, directors, bit players, and early stars of the silver screen.
A History with Ties to Charlie Chaplin
The name is a bit curious, so it’s worth noting that the studio was started in 1907 by one George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. After starting life as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company they later changed it to “S and A”, which of course is an homage to their surnames sounded out as “Essanay”. Sounds rather fancy, I would say.
Spoor and Anderson eventually packed up their kit and moved from Old Town to Uptown in 1908 and built this elaborate sequence of buildings (designated a Chicago landmark in 1996).
From 1908 until 1917, when they decamped for California with the promise of better weather and more diverse topography, the studio made hundreds of short films that ranged the gamut from melodramas to mini-westerns to the standard slapstick fare which one associates with early sound films. Along the way, they picked up a number of notable stars, including Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, and other future luminaries.
Essanay Today — and Future Plans
Today, Essanay Studios (1333-45 W. Argyle Street) houses the tiny St. Augustine College. Fun fact: this modest higher education institution is the only one in the United States whose curriculum is bilingual through and through (Spanish and English, in case you were wondering).
There are plans to restore parts of the building used for the Essanay Studios. In the meantime, while the school doesn’t offer formal tours, you are welcome to take a look around the building, visit their chapel, and take a moment to think about this lesser known moment in Chicago history.
Exploring the Uptown Neighborhood
There’s plenty to do in the Uptown neighborhood, and I’d recommend walking over to Argyle Street for some of the best pho in the entire city. Top honors here go to Pho 888, which has a wonderful broth that has hints of clove and cinnamon. Afterwards, you're just steps away from the Red Line's Argyle stop, which is perfect as you probably have another Chicago adventure up next.
This is part of an ongoing series exploring Chicago from A to Z, highlighting a unique place for each letter of the alphabet. Stay tuned for more entries!
Additonal photo credits: Max Grinnell