Selig Polyscope week: The First Oz Movie

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Selig Polyscope Week is a collaborative effort between Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema – their first post of the week, is right here: The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope. It provides a great overview of the history of Selig and his Chicago studio.

While Col. Selig made hundreds of movies at his Chicago studio, the best-remembered today is probably The Fairylogue and Radio Plays – even though it no longer exists. This was the first Wizard of Oz movie.

It was not a movie (or radio play) in the traditional sense of the word – the “radio plays” were a series of short Oz-based movies that were hand colored and projected during L. Frank Baum’s touring show, during which he interacted with the movies. This show rolled into Chicago to play at Orchestra Hall in October, 1908. The mulitmedia show was years – decades, really – ahead of its time. However, while critics generally loved it, they didn’t seem to take much notice of it as being anything more than a childrens’ show.

As the Tribune put in its review:

The Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and a number of other pleasant characters returned to Chicago Thursday evening under interesting circumstances.

In the first place, they brought with them their creator, L. Frank Baum, who wore a lovely white frock coat and won the affections of a good sized audience of children and grownups. In the second place, they added two perfectly good new words – “fairylogue” and “radio-play” to the vocabulary of our already overworked press agents….
A fairylogue is a travelogue that takes you to Oz instead of China. A radio-play is a fairylogue with an orchestra…in a radio play there is the added advantage of having a cast of characters before you and knowing just who impersonate the people on the stereopticon screen. The idea is a new one, and with Mr. Baum’s charming whimsicalities as its basis proved to be well worth while.

Exactly what Baum meant with “radio play” himself is not known. At one point it was claimed that the clips had been colorized by a man named Michael Radio in France, other sources say that “radio” was a buzz word for “high tech” at the time. In any case, it would be over a decade before anyone thought of “radio” as an audio communication device.

Baum himself had supervised the casting of the show and selected Romola Remus as Dorothy. In 1977, when she was living in Uptown “with a menagerie that includes several cats, a parrot, and 35-year-old Pete the Turtle,” she remembered the experience in an interview with the Tribune. “I was very young,” she said, “but remember my mother taking me to the studio that day and saying ‘It’s just another movie.’ I never would have dreamed that it would have amounted to anything more.” When asked if she regretted not moving to Hollywood with the rest of the movie industry a few years later, she said she didn’t. “What if I had made it as a star? It probably would have meant endless cocktail parties, which I think are boring because of all the phonies.”

A couple of years earlier, she spoke about Baum and Selig: “The privilege of knowing Mr. Baum was a happy and rewarding experience for me. I, also, portrayed the role of Dorothy in the first ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie. I believe it was the very first colored moving picture. It was produced by Selig’s company. I remember Mr. Baum was always on hand offering encouragement or constructive criticism to all his workers. When the film was shown at various theatres, he would lecture about his various books. I recall some proud and joyous moments standing beside this tall, gentle, dignified gentleman on-stage after each matinee. The little children would clamor for his autograph, with cheers of joy!”

Just about every researcher who looks up The Fairylogue winds up falling down a rabbit hole researching Romola Remus (later Romola Dunlap). Her father, George, became a bootlegger, ended up murdering a lover, and is sometimes said to be the inspiration for The Great Gatsby. In her later years, she often reminisced in newspapers about turn-of-the-century Chicago, once writing about meeting Robert Todd Lincoln with her father on Michigan Avenue.

The Fairylogue clips to not survive. Some say that they were incorporated into a later Oz movie that Selig made the next year, after Baum went bankrupt touring with the show (it was successful, but too expensive to produce to make money), but this doesn’t appear to be the case. Like 99% of Selig movies, they are lost artifacts. Here is a still that circulates:

Wikipedia entry on the Fairylogue
The 535 Cleveland Blog is another that became fascinated with Romola.
Mike sent over a link to Selig’s 1910 Oz movie.

Podcast: Selig Polyscope Studios

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Colonel Selig’s
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While Essanay ruled Uptown, Selig Polyscope was operating the largest film studio ever built not far away, on a complex covering an entire block at Irving and Western from 1907 until about 1920. Colonel Selig was a fascinating guy. He saw Edison’s kinetoscope and was unimpressed, but inspired. He began to experiment with cameras and projectors of his own. In 1907, he made the first “Wizard of Oz” films (in color, no less), and was soon making some of the first, if not the very first, full-length feature films, the first adventure serials, and a whole lot more. In the middle of the block the company made outdoor films, so people going by on Western were liable to wander past recreations of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, a Civil War encampment, and a street from the old west.  We and our sister blog, White City Cinema, will be hosting a whole week of articles on cool things about Selig Polyscope next week, starting with this podcast of our adventure in the building.  Here’s their extensive overview of Selig Polyscope.

Here’s an artist’s conception of the studio lot as it appeared at the time:

And another, which, oddly features a blank space where the surviving buidling ought to be:
Here’s a photo the main building at 3900 N. Claremont – notice the “greenhouse” on top. This was used to get the maximum amount of natural light in the days when interior lighting hadn’t quite come into its own.
Selig sold the block in 1920 for $400,000, but 3900 N Claremont survives. It’s easy to see by the lighter color of the bricks and the ledge halfway up which parts are original.
The door still features Selig’s trademark “diamond S”
Up on the top portion, you can still see a triangle of darker bricks that were added after the glass portion was removed some time after 1929. See up there on the top right?
As far as we can tell, this is the only building in the area that remains. Various online sources suggest that the auto shop, or the garage behind it, were part of the studio, but, while the garage DOES look like a brick version of Selig’s stable (in which he kept lions, tigers, and elephants), those buildings seem to be from around 1930 – well after Selig’s time.  However – in addition to what you see on the outside, there are still places where you can see the stiches. Here’s the bricked-off entrance to the tunnel that once connected this building to the one next door:  
And the water works in the building are certainly impressive – clearly a relic of the days when this studio was developing film in-house (there was a hydrant in the middle of the block that was probably used to fill the artificial lake):
This is the second of these. 
And here’s the block as it appears today from the roof. Quite a change from that scene above, with the artificial hills and lake! Most of the houses on the right were built circa 1923-24.
And here, for good measure, is Colonel Hector Reyes with our film correspondent, Mike Smith, at the Lincoln Lodge. The size of Hector’s lemonade made Mike feel…inadequate.

PODCAST: Inside Charlie Chaplin’s Vault

It’s one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets: we invented Hollywood. Full length movies, color movies, mockumentaries, the ratings systems, the first paid movie theatre, and a whole lot more all came out of Chicago between 1893 and the the 1910s. Heck, the first studio in Hollywood was even started by Chicago outfit. For a brief period around the 1910s, Chicago was the film capitol of the world. The north side around Essanay Studios became a sort of prototype for Beverly Hills. Francis X. Bushman, an early matinee idol, would cruise around in a purple limo with a spotlight on the dash so people could see his famous face. Even Chaplin made a movie here.

We knew that Essanay was still standing (though out of business for nearly a century) and Hector and I thought we’d go stand outside it to tell stories about those days for a podcast with our friend Michael Glover Smith of White City Cinema. We found more than we ever DREAMED in the space. Chaplin was only here in a few weeks (they moved him from California to Chicago in the dead of winter, and, well…you can predict the outcome!), but he sure made his mark. Having previously just used stuff from around the Keystone lot, he purchased the first Tramp costume he ever owned right on State Street.

At the time, Uptown was full of great spaces – the Green Mill (in its pre-gangland days), the Aragon Ballroom, the Uptown Theatre (which we mistakenly call The Century in the podcast). People in the neighborhood got used to seeing movie stars around the area and hanging out at Al Sternberg’s for lunch.

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The studio space he and the other Essanay stars (including Broncho Billy, Francis X. Bushman, and Ben Turpin) used is still basically intact (see pictures below) – currently being used by the culinary arts department of St. Augustine College. Meanwhile, down in the basements, the film vaults are still intact, and still recognizably vaults. The films are long gone, but the sign saying “Safety: Film Only” remains on the heavy metal door. We couldn’t believe our luck in getting to see this stuff!

(Update: we now think that Al Sternberg’s, the diner where the casts and crew would hang out for lunch, was at 5000 N Broadway, where the New Saigon restaurant is today. We have this as an address for Albert Sternberg as of 1928. But this isn’t necessarily correct – it was over a decade later and there’s no indication that it was a diner or tavern in the directory. However, having Al Sternberg in a building at exactly the right intersection is a pretty solid clue).

St. Augustine College is looking to secure funding to convert the old studio space into a multimedia cultural center where films and plays can be produced – it’s still a great space for filming! For information, contact Alfredo Calixto, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement. Call 770-eight -seven-eight – 3569, or email . See for more info.


Hector in the studio space

The hallway leading to the auditorium/studio.
You can see by the cut-off arch that the ceiling was
much higher then.

The rising double doors that were used to get scenery and large 
equipment into the studio in Chaplin’s day.

The basement. The furnace-looking equipment
is said to be old film-processing stuff, but exactly
what’s what is a mystery we’re still solving!

The old film vault. Is this cool or what?

Because we knew you’d ask: The inside of the vault! The shelving
is thought to be original.

An upstairs vault with a heavy combination. I noticed
an “escape device” on the inside, so you can’t
be locked in, like this guy I just saw on Columbo.

Here’s Chaplin’s one film made here at Essanay in Chicago, HIS NEW JOB. Click the embedded link below for commentary from Mike!

Mike’s commentary:
Michael Glover Smith on “His New Job” by adamselzer

First film footage of Chicago – 1896

Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer refers to a gay pride parade as “that mustache parade?” Well, back in 1896, Chicago had a police parade that featured more mustaches-per-row than any other parade!

Filmed by the Lumiere brothers (who invented a projector that many American inventors copied), Policemen’s Parade is thought to be the first movie ever filmed in Chicago. I haven’t been able to get many details about it – was it filmed at the Chicago Day parade in October, 1896? A few references I found to people filming in Chicago seem to indicate that it must have been earlier in the year than that (if it is, in fact, the first film footage of the city, which is certainly open to debate).

And where in the city is this? My fist thought was that they were marching past the Coliseum on Wabash, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Based on the pictures I’ve dug up, the closest match to the building in the background is Bridewell Prison, which was at 26th and California (where the court building is now), but I haven’t found a real smoking gun that would establish it. Anyone recognize this?

The First Movie Theatre in Chicago

The 1893 World’s Fair introduced a lot of things to Chicago, and acted as a sort of preview for the 20th century. Many attendees had never actually seen a light bulb before.

But a debate rages as to whether the world was introduced to movies at the fair.

There had been sporadic demonstrations of moving pictures before, but Thomas Edison planned to use the fair to introduce a new machine that he considered a novelty: the kinetoscope.

The kinetoscope was also called “peep show,” because to see the moving picture inside of it, one had to peep through a whole in a box. Inside, one would see a “movie” ranging in length from about 15 seconds to about a minute. The early hit was a short entitled “Fred Ott’s Sneeze.”

Edison intended for 25 of them to be on display in the fair, but there was a bit of a setback: WK Dickson, the staff member who was responsible for most of the actual work, suffered a nervous breakdown some months before the fair began, and Edison had to scrap the display.

However, it has long been rumored – and the evidence suggests it may be true – that one single kinetoscope was on display on the fair. The main evidence against it are an advertisement from their introduction in London in 1894 (which may have been simple hype) and a conversation Edison had with a patron of the fair talking about the kinetoscope as a new project, not one that was on display. However, reminisces of fair goers and a couple of mentions in Scientific American seem to back the idea that one was there.

The first official “kinetescope parlour” (an early movie theate, of sorts) hit Chicago in May of 1894 in the Masonic Building at State and Randolph – right across the street from the current location of the Siskel Center (next door to the Chicago theatre, in the exact spot where that Walgreens used to be). 10 different kinetoscopes were on display – one could see half of them for a quarter, or all of them for fifty cents. Gross receipts for the first month surpassed $7000.

Suicide Bridge: The Movie! (very early indie film in Chicago)

In 1916, members of the high-society Casino Club decided to make their own photoplay – “Cousin Jim and the Lost Fraternity Pin.” It was a story of a country boy who comes to the big city, and was to end with two characters plunging from “suicide bridge,” the high bridge over the Lincoln Park lagoon.

A professional swimmer was brought in as a stunt man and offered $250 (a heck of a lot in 1916 money) to take the jump, but he determined that it was impossible, the water being only 10 feet feep. The two stars, however, figured they could just do it themselves and ran up to the top of the bridge. A squirell set up shop nearby, leading a man below to remark “That’s a wise squirrel. Coupla nuts up there.”

The two men made the drop and calmly swam to shore, one of them remarking (quote) “Where in blank is my hat?”

The movie is listed in various movie guides as simply “Cousin Jim,” but we can’t seem to find a surviving copy. Got one?

Like going back in time

Last night, we had something on the tour that sure doesn’t happen every day: A Johnny Depp sighting.

One of the blocks down which we often travel has been rebuilt to look about as it did in 1934 for the filming of Public Enemies, a movie about John Dillinger, who was shot and killed on the block in the alley near the Biograph Theatre. I wasn’t on the tour last night, but apparently the bus went by and got a brief glimpse of filming in the infamous alley.

I’ve gotta say, the attention to detail on the set is FANTASTIC. They even went to the trouble of printing up old menus to put in the windows, and the barber shop has old detective story magazines sitting around! We rounded up a whole slew of set pictures this morning:

See our whole set of set pictures on flicker!