Moving Picture Plant
|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:
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….
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:
Moving Picture Plant
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.
|In Chicago, even city sexton (cemetery manager) got in on the act of digging up bodies to sell, and people were always getting caught with wagons, barrels, and sacks full of corpses. This seems to have happened in most of the local cemeteries, but for this podcast, we’ll be talking about the big City Cemetery that was the city’s main burial ground from the 1840s until the late 1860s. All but a handful of grave markers were removed over a century ago when the space was converted to Lincoln Park – but it’s well known that plenty of the bodies were never moved. You know that little parking lot near the south end of the park that you use during Green City Market (when it isn’t full)? When they dug out for the lot in the 1990s, they found dozens of bodies.
Next week (starting April 4th) is Grave Robbing Week here at Chicago Unbelievable – we’ll be telling tales of grave robbing from Chicago history all week long! We advise you not to check the blog too close to meal time for
For more about City Cemetery, see Pamela Bannos’ Hidden Truths Website.
Above: the Couch tomb in Lincoln Park – the oldest surviving
structure in the “fire zone.” But who’s inside?
a part of the
|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 acalixtoATstaugustine.edu . See staugustine.edu for more info.
Here’s Chaplin’s one film made here at Essanay in Chicago, HIS NEW JOB. Click the embedded link below for commentary from Mike!
What better way to celebrate a re-branded site than with a podcast? When Hector and I went to Bachelor’s Grove last fall, I thought we were recording the LAST Weird Chicago podcast (I hadn’t worked for/with that company in nearly a year at that point). I now realize that it was really the FIRST Chicago Unbelievable podcast! To start things off, I’ve remastered and remixed that episode in MUCH higher quality and broken it into a couple of episodes, including much more of the trip than you ever got to hear before. You can download it from archive.org or wait a little bit until it hits iTunes.
There’ll be a couple more “remixed and repurposed” episodes, but I promise you that we’ll be bringing you BRAND NEW EPISODES very soon! I’ll add a “subscribe” button for iTunes here as soon as one is available.
Hector and I didn’t ake many pictures (at least on my camera – Erin took more, I think, and we’ll have them up soon). In the mean time, here are my favorites of the few Hector took:
The ghost in the woods – first such thing I’ve seen at Bachelor’s Grove!
Zachary falls down the well:
CLICK HERE to hear the podcast, or right-click to download (it’s about 37mb). It’s also now available for free on iTunes!
It’s been some time since we posted an episode of the Weird Chicago podcast (available on iTunes for free!), but at least a couple will be coming VERY soon, including:
Updates on what’s been going on, ghost-wise and research-wise, at the places we’ve featured on other podcasts. There’s a lot of catching up to do!
2. The Old Criminal Court – in honor of the publication of FATAL DROP: TRUE TALES OF THE CHICAGO GALLOWS, we’re finally releasing our long-delayed podcast recorded during out overnight ghost hunt at the old Criminal Court building, adjacent to the site of the old gallows itself!
We made recordings for a podcast during the zombie new year’s party, but actually USING it might not be the wisest thing I ever tried. It’s mostly me impersonating Captain Hook and picking on the hitchhiking hipping we picked up.