Chicago Film Grind: Past, Present, Future

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 24, 2007 12:45PM

2007_7essanay.jpg

In 1907 Essanay Studios shot a short slapstick film on the streets of Old Town entitled An Awful Skate. It cost a few hundred dollars but went on to make thousands; perhaps as much as $10,000 (which, adjusted for inflation, would be about $216,000 today). A recent profile in the Trib gives a brief history of the once-booming studio, which had facilities in both Chicago and California. Between 1907 and 1917 Essanay churned out about 2,000 shorts and features.

Less than 250 are known to survive.

Aside from illustrating the dire need to find and preserve what's left of silent era cinema it underscores the fact that Essanay itself is now little more than a footnote in most film history books. If it's discussed at all it's usually because of its most famous alum, Charlie Chaplin. Charlie actually lived in Chicago for less than a month and shot only one major short here, His New Job. Word is he hated the weather and so high-tailed it to California as soon as he could (that's the story of Chicago, isn't it?)

Essanay officially dissolved in 1918 but its old studio at 1333-45 W. Argyle is still there (sort of). The Charlie Chaplin Auditorium of St. Augustine College stands on the site today. There's a cool plaque to mark the spot (image via Russell Bassman).

As far as a full-time, permanent movie studio being headquartered in Chicago it's all been downhill since then, pretty much. Oh sure, your Batman sequel or Vince Vaughn vehicle blows into town for a few months, spreading around lots of money and jobs. But then it pulls up stakes and heads back to L.A. Chicago has hundreds of dedicated men and women in the industry, but the bread and butter work here in the city is all advertising-based.

Maybe instead of trying to be L.A. we ought to aim a little lower. Like the San Fernando Valley. Business at Chicago-based mrskin.com, which was name-checked in Knocked Up, is booming. After plunking down a hefty membership free, you can browse 175,000 photos and clips of movie nude scenes. The site is certainly NSFW but “I’m sure there are many men checking it out only at work versus worrying about their wife seeing them view it at home,” says Jim McBride, the site's CEO. “I see ‘.gov’ and ‘.edus’ all the time.” Apparently the site's membership is 98.4% men (duh) and the average time spent on the site per visit is 13 minutes (which make sense, since that's the average length of time our boss refrains from pestering us). All in a day's work.