Selig Polyscope Week: What Ever Happened to Colonel Selig?


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Selig Polyscope Week continues both here and at White City Cinema.

Of all the early Chicago filmmakers, Selig is the one I end up respecting the most. Spoor, of Essanay, got so complacent as a part of Edison’s trust that he pretty much gave up on quality and innovation (though he redeems himself at the end, spending his later years in his north side apartment, spending his money on new inventions). Selig was a born innovator, even when he was in “the trust.” He made some of the first color films, some of the first full length films, and, towards the end, he took the first shot at making a combination movie studio/theme park with the Selig Zoo in California.

More than anything else, though, you really get the impression that Selig loved his work. He loved setting up his studio for a recreation of the Ft. Dearborn Massacre one day, and as a jungle the next, with a street scene on the other side of the lot. “It’s a fascinating business,” he said. “Once it, you can’t leave it alone.”

In a 1916 interview, he looked back in awe at the wonders he had created. “I guess I was one of the three real beginners,” he said. “And of all the other, smaller concers that started in about that time (circa 1895) there are none left now except we three: Biograph, Edison, and myself.”

He also realized the importance of star power better than Spoor (who let Chaplin slip away) and Edison (whose refusal to sign up major stars is a large part of why his phonographs ended up being trounced in the market by Victrolas.” Selig’s biggest star at the time was Kathlyn Williams, who starred in the “Adventures of Kathlyn” serial (another “first” for Selig – the first successful adventure serial) and was one of the first actresses, if not the first, to say “I really want to direct” (and, when she did, she became one of the first female directors).

“I’ve seen some of them (movie stars) looking pretty unhappy,” said Selig. “They ought to remember that their company spent a lot of money in making them…Miss Williams, for instance, owes a great deal to us, but she is loyal to us, and so are we to her. We will always keep her, even when she doesn’t play much anymore.” He gave both Williams and another employee, Tom Sanchini, a Selig symbol set in diamonds to celebrate five years of service.

Selig also spoke enthusiastically of where he was going – he was planning to film “The Crisis,” a Civil War drama that was intended as a response to “Birth of a Nation” (it should also be noted that he leased space in his studio complex to black director Oscar Mischeuax, who filmed his own response to “Birth of a Nation,” “Within Our Gates,” there). He spoke of his plans for his new studio in Los Angeles. “Yes,” he said, “I do get a lot of pleasure out of my business – and that’s the main thing that counts.”

And yet, within a few years, Selig would be out of business.

What happened?

Part of the problem was that World War 1 cut into everyone’s profits. Part of it was that he threw entirely too much money into the Selig Zoo, which never really got off the ground. But his fatal flaw was that, despite his innovative nature, he simply lost sight of where the industry was going. The same interview in 1916 reveals his mistake.

“You don’t think,” the interviewer asked, “the day of the little picture is done?”

“Oh, no,” said Selig. “We’ll always have little pictures, just as we’ll always have vaudeville. Some people only want to look at the short pictures and see several in a row, and then other people enjoy the big things, and they have a future, too.”

Selig could have continued to carve out a niche for himself, but, alas, he failed to realize that the future of short subjects would be on the radio, and, eventually, television. It’s easy to speculate that he could have had fun making short subjects for radio, but there was no call for lavish sets and animals in that world. In 1920, he sold the block at Irving and Western to a crooked car company for $400,000.

This concludes Selig week, but we’ll back back with more articles on the subject in the future!

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Selig Polyscope Week: Selig’s Brave New World (Los Angeles)


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We occasionally catch some flack around here for saying that Chicago invented Hollywood. It’s true that it’ll take us a whole book to back up that contention, but it’s true. In fact, the first guy to film commercially in Los Angeles was none other than Colonel Selig, who filmed most of his one-reel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago, but filmed a beach scene in L.A, where he would soon open the first permanent studio in Edendale (which is near where Echo Park is now).

The film survives, but has only been screened once in the last century or so, at Cinecon a few years back. Most describe it as totally ridiculous – the actor jumping into the water is clearly not the same guy who was in the prison.  I did manage to find this still, with what may have been the most obviously phony beard ever photograph. A kid with a bottle of Mr. Bubble can make a beard just about as convincing as this one.

 Still, it’s charming as all get out. Selig’s movies tended to be swashbuckling adventures, animal pictures, and travel films. Far more so than any other producer of the day, he believed that movies were the wave of the future.

In 1911, he took out space in magazines to publish an article entitled “WHAT MOVING PICTURES ARE GIVING THE WORLD:  A Moral and Educational Tonic for Young and Old Alike.” In the article, he sounds like Professor Harold Hill talking up the value of a boys’ band:

“(we) believe that five cent moving picture shows are possibilities for a great deal of good in the community. They do more than fill an idle hour. But did they even do only this they would have to be given the credentials as purveyors of legitimate amusement. Hours unemployed are the devil’s opportunity… they who have had dealings with the young need not be reminded of the far-reaching applications of this observation.  Even now the discovery has been made and amply verified that the five and ten cent theatre with its cinematographic plays is a most powerful rival of the saloon…saloonkeepers have reported that their transient trade has fallen off in districts well supplied with these shows. … Efforts should be made to lift their exhibits to highest planes of instruction…in measure as they will reach out for better effects than mere spectacular and sensational reproductions of casual occurrences they will develop into agencies of great value in the domain of education and culture.”

It goes on like this for quite a while. You can read the whole thing here, on Google Books.

Selig was a man with a vision – far more so than other producers of the era, who got so tied up in being part of Edison’s “trust” that they seemed to stop carrying about quality altogether. Unfortunately, he failed to follow it through, and was soon left behind. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what went wrong.

In the mean time, here’s a wonderful shot of Selig’s train at Northwestern station in Chicago, ready head for California. Present at the station was Major. Funkhouser, the official city film censor (we had of those those in those days, and, in the grand tradition of Chicago officials, he was spectacularly corrupt – but that’s another story!).

Selig Polyscope Week: Col. Selig’s Movie Acting Tips from 1910


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In the process of researching Selig, we found a wonderful article Col. Selig wrote of “tips for motion picture acting.” It was so entertaining that both Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema are posting it today.  


Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:


ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.


LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.


EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.


MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.


LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.


READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.


KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.


GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.


STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.


SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.


IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.


SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.


GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.


PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you owe it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.


MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49″ miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.



BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.


SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.


PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.


USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.


PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employe
r the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.

From Chicago Unbelievable – are there many known examples of actors swearing in silent films that were obvious to lip readers? That’d be a fun database to compile!

Selig Polyscope Week: Hunting Lions at Irving and Western


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Selig Polyscope Week continues both at Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema!

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term as President. Instead, after his second term, he left to go on safari in Africa.  Colonel Selig asked for permission to send a camera crew with him to document the journey, and Roosevelt agreed -Selig planned to train Teddy’s son, Kermit, to operate a polyscope camera. But the ex-president changed his mind when he realized what a hassle it would be. Not much research has been done to document the relationship between Colonel Selig and Colonel Roosevelt, though it’s easy to imagine that Teddy would be annoyed to find out he was the only one of the two who was actually a Colonel.

And yet, in 1909, Selig’s film of Roosevelt hunting a lion became a hit motion picture.

Roosevelt in Africa (also known as Hunting Big Game in Africa and several other titles) was shot entirely in the complex at Irving Park and Western Ave on the north side of Chicago, using a Roosevelt lookalike, “native drummers” found on South State Street, bamboo fishpoles and artificial leaves.  Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that many viewers THOUGHT it was genuine footage of the adventurous former president, and many theatres probably exhibited it under exactly those pretenses.

But Selig made no secret of it being fake;  the filming of the movie was extensively documented, and a handful of feature articles about it were published, including one in the Tribune that went into great detail for the benefit of a public that was still sort of in the dark as to how movies were made.  Selig often had lions in his stable (according to legend, one of them went on to be the MGM lion), but a special one was brought just to be killed in the movie.

The jungle was constructed in a 60×20 cage on the outdoor lot, to the exacting specifications of the producer. “You’ve got to have the real color in a moving picture,” he said. “We come as near to doing the real thing here as it can be done. Get ready for the hunt!”

The lion, according to most accounts, was terrified of the set (never having actually been in a jungle – he was bred in captivity). He spent much of his time hiding in the artificial bushes, but his tracks gave him away.  As the paper put it, the man playing Roosevelt “got down to examine the tracks, made sure it was a lion, then…waved his arms in frantic delight. His (false) teeth gleamed some more, and the native-tracker and ex-president shook hands and Teddy said right out loud “Dee-lighted!”


Mike’s and my 2015 book on silent film in Chicago is now available from University of Columbia Press

By all accounts, “Roosevelt” spends much of the film shaking hands, smiling, and saying “dee-lighted.” And everyone did a lot of frantic waving around.

Between shots, the actor would take out the false teeth and remark that they were a pain to wear. “It must be fierce to have ’em growing on you,” he said.

And the poor lion, for his part, spent most of his time hiding while the crew did their best to scare him into looking fierce for the three polyscope cameras.  The fist shot fired hit him in the jaw, and the lion let loose a might roar and proceeded to scare the living hell out of the crew by jumping for the platform where the cameramen were stationed. The platform was twelve feet above the ground, and it looked enough like he would make the jump that the camera men jumped down and ran like hell. But King Leo (the lion) hit the bars at about the eight foot mark and fell to the ground. The cameramen re-took their positions and filmed “Roosevelt” firing the shot that brought the lion down.

Obviously, no title card would be claiming that no animals were hurt in the making of this motion picture.

The film ended with everyone doing a war dance around the poor lion’s remains, while Roosevelt grinned, shook hands, and said “dee-lighted.”

The lion had cost $300. The film made the company around $15,000.  It’s tempting to call it the first mockumentary, but it wasn’t by a long shot – both Selig and Spoor had filmed Spanish American war footage in the outer suburbs a decade before.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Cherry Kearton did film actual footage of the Roosevelt safari, but it wasn’t nearly as popular as Selig’s film. His footage of the party crossing a river just wasn’t as exciting as a lion hunt, real or otherwise.

Here’s a newspaper shot of a scene being filmed inside of the studio “greenhouse” (see the podcast page for pictures of how the building looked then – and how it looks now!) In the background you can see the top of another buidling, indicating this is about on the third story of 3900 N. Claremont.

The actors with the unfortunate lion. The guy playing Roosevelt doesn’t look too accurate to me, but people in those days wouldn’t have been accustomed to seeing actual film footage of him:

And here’s some actual Selig footage of Roosevelt from the World’s Fair in 1903. Selig had made his name making such “actualities.”

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.