Before Hollywood There Was Chicago

    Gloria Swanson




By Megan McKinney


More than a century ago Chicago’s North Side was home to the nation’s movie capital, with stars, moguls, directors, and everything that would later be a part of Hollywood–everything, except a great climate. Gloria Swanson was little more than a bit player then, but she would later have her day as a silent film superstar. Working beside Gloria in Chicago films and usually in the starring role was future Hollywood Oscar winner Wallace Beery.

In 1916, the 17 year old Gloria and Wallace, age 30, eloped and soon were off to Hollywood careers together.

Wallace Beery would be 1932 winner of the Best Actor Oscar for his lead role in The Champ.

The MGM of Chicago was Essanay Film Company, named for its founders George K. Spoor (S) and Gilbert M. Anderson (A).   Essanay,  then one of the “most important film studios in the United States,”  was housed in an interesting looking building at 1345 West Argyle Street, which, post Essanay,  became a part of St. Augustine College and, in 1996, was made a Chicago Landmark. Within it is Charles Chaplin Auditorium.

 Essanay co-founder Gilbert Anderson was quite a guy. He was an actor as well as a mogul , with an alter ego widely known as Broncho Billy Anderson. In 1903, four years before his mogul era,  Broncho Billy starred  in “The Great Train Robbery,” the film some believe was the first ever Western.

Broncho Billy

Another major Essanay star was Ben Turpin, whose trademark was his crossed eyes—so essential to his sucess that a Lloyd’s of London  insurance policy would pay him $25,000 if—horrors—those  eyes should un-cross.

Ben  Turpin

                     Photo Credit: Chicago History Museum

A great romantic lead of the silent era was Francis X. Bushman, left, with Broncho Billy Anderson, right, and the greatest star of them all Charlie Chaplin in the center.

Charlie Chaplin

Here’s the great vintage star in Essanay’s stellar film of 1915, “The Tramp,” which Chaplin wrote and  directed. It was an important “turning point” in the career of an actor who would soon become film history’s  first international star. 

Essanay had been able to coax Chaplin away from Hollywood and Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios with big money and his own production unit, but they couldn’t change the Chicago weather, which Charlie abhored.

After the remaking of his career with “The Tramp,” Chaplin was out of Essanay and Chicago, to return to the sunshine. But Chicago will always have its pre-Hollywood glory.


Author photo: Robert F. Carl

Cover photo: