Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry

When California was still all about oranges, Chicago ruled when it came to movies—a brief but glorious decade where local girl Gloria Swanson earned money as an extra to pay for pickles (of all things) before moving on to stardom, becoming Joe Kennedy’s mistress and then later the fading actress in the classic Sunset Boulevard. Charlie Chaplin came to town to film as did child star Jackie Coogan and heart throb Francis X. Bushman who lost his adoring fan base when it turned out not only was he married with five children but he was also having an affair with his co-star in the The Plum Tree which was filmed, in part on Miller Beach.

It was during these early years of the 19th century when two Chicago power house studios, Essanay and Selig Polyscope, churned out thousands of serials and silent movies.

“Almost 99% of those movies are gone now,” says Adam Selzer, who with Michael Glover Smith, wrote Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the US Film Industry (Wallflower 2015; $25). “But between 1907 and 1917, Chicago was the place to make movies.”

Not all is lost. Remnants of that time remain including the studios themselves. Essanay is part of the St. Augustine College campus and the Selig Polyscope Company, its S encased in a diamond still above the entranceway, is now condominiums.

And every once in a while, a gem reappears including the 1916 film Sherlock Holmes produced by Essanay Studios which had disappeared for decades only to be found a year or so ago in a French film archive.

“We’re gong to be hosting a screening of the film a century after it was first made at the old Essanay Studio,” says Selzer. For more about the event which is the same date as their book signing at the Chicago Public Library, visit Selzer’s Website, mysteriouschicago.com. Tickets can be purchased through eventbrite.com and be sure to dress in your best Sherlockian attire.

There are of course anecdotes as well.

“When you drive through the entrance to St. Augustine,” says Selzer, “you can see a cemetery across the way. One day George Spoor, the owner of Essanay, saw actor Ben Turpin walking over to the cemetery carrying flowers. Spoor said Ben, I think that’s a great thing to do, we should always take the flowers we used in the movies to the cemetery. And Ben said ‘sure boss, that’s where I get them.’”

Likening their research to a treasure hunt, albeit a time consuming one, the two not only compiled a trove of information on those early days by reading microfilm editions of now defunct Chicago newspapers at the Harold Washington Library and locating relatives of the Selig family many of whom live in and around Chicago and were willing to share their extensive scrapbook collections. The two also perused the Website, mediahistoryproject.org, a digitized collections of classic media periodicals.

“I like to say that I’m a Chicago historian who knows a bit about films,” says Selzer who also operates ghost tours in the city and has written other books about Chicago. “While Mike is a film historian who knows a bit about Chicago.”

What made the Windy City so attractive?

According to Selzer, it was far enough west to stay under Thomas Edison’s radar.

“Edison had—or claimed he had—patents on the equipment and if film makers didn’t pay royalties, he’d send his goon squad to wreck the equipment,” says Selzer. “The studios didn’t stay here for long, a lot of people say it was because of the cold weather but they may have moved further west to get even further from Edison. But I think the the movies got to so big they needed their own town.”

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What: Book signing and chat with Adam Selzer and Michael Glover Smith

When: 3:30pm, Saturday, March 12

Where: Bezanian Branch Chicago Public Library, 1226 W. Ainslie Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: 312-747-4300; chipublib.org

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