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 acalixtoATstaugustine.edu . See staugustine.edu 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

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5 thoughts on “PODCAST: Inside Charlie Chaplin’s Vault

  1. Thanks Adam! I'm going to post this for my class. We may be doing a final project about urban legends in Chicago, so I may request your assistance 🙂

  2. Hi Adam! Thanks for blogging about my workplace! A couple of little corrections, if you wouldn't mind:
    * St. Augustine College is the official name of the school (not St. Augustine's college).
    * Freddy's email is acalixto at blablabla (not acelixto)
    We want to be able to brag about our publicity, after all.

    Great post!

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