Chicago's biggest and most prestigious company
1333-1345 W.Argyle Street
Essanay was not Chicago's first, and not it's last, but while it lasted it was Chicago's 800-pound gorilla producing over 2,000 movies between its three studio locations.
The company was founded on April 29, 1907, in Chicago, Illinois, by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Originally called the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company on August 10, 1907, the name was changed to Essanay Film Film Manufacturing Company (“S and A” of Spoor and Anderson).
Production was expensive, so they began by shooting on the streets of Chicago. When the weather was bad they didn't shoot. They also hung canvas backgrounds in the yard behind George Spoor's other company, National Film Rental Company, and later that year they built their first studio at 501 Wells Street (modern numbering: 1360 N. Wells).
Essanay's first film was An Awful Skate or The Hobo on Rollers (July 1907), starring Ben Turpin (the cross-eyed, mustached Turpin went on to a long, steady career in silent movies, and retired a wealthy man by the time talkies came along). The "flicker" was popular and very profitable for the company. This first film was very popular and very profitable.
The company prospered, a film cost a few hundred to make and produced a few thousand in profits. Production was scaling up and the 2,400 square foot studio on Wells was just too small to handle the public demand for more Essanay movies. In 1909, Spoor bought a big tract of land, and in early June Essanay moved to its more famous 3 1/2 acre studio at 1333-1345 W. Argyle St in the Uptown area of Chicago where they expanded the facility over the next several years. In 1909 they added another studio and offices at 435 N. Clark St.
The company's mainstay was the over 800 westerns starring owner "Broncho Billy" Anderson but it was best known for a series of Charlie Chaplin short comedies made 1915. Its first star was Ben Turpin, Essanay's janitor, who starred in Essanay's first move "An Awful Skate, or The Hobo on Rollers" made in 1907 on the streets of Chicago.
In 1909 Spoor and Anderson moved much of its production to the sunny environs of California after making a stop in Colorado. Their famed Niles (Fremont), CA studio is where Chaplin spent a year making short subjects. They also set up shops briefly in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
By 1918 Essanay's single decade of dominance was over. After a failed partnership and merger with competitors Vitagraph, Selig, and Lubin by 1920 and they ceased production and were absorbed into Warner Brothers as a part of its buyout of Vitagraph.
Both Spoor and Anderson went on to more success in the movie business, both receiving honorary Oscars for their contributions to the business.
Essanay left a legacy: Its studio building still stands and has become St. Augustine College. Essanay's main entrance accompanies by its logo and two Indian head mascot symbols still adorn for of the College's entrances.