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$3 Million Restoration of Silent Film Studio Gives Chaplin a Second Life

By Benjamin Woodard | November 12, 2012 5:56pm | Updated on November 20, 2012 4:47pm
 St. Augustine's College showed off plans for a $3 million renovation of Essanay Studios.
Essanay Silent Film Restoration
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UPTOWN — Charlie Chaplin would be proud.

St. Augustine's College, tucked away between West Argyle Street and St. Boniface Cemetery, drafted plans for a $3 million renovation of Chaplin's old stomping grounds, Essanay Studios.

The college moved into the former movie studio lot — where Broncho Billy westerns and Chaplin's "The Tramp" were filmed — in the early '80s, at 1333 W. Argyle St.

"It's one of the last remaining silent film production studios anywhere," said Gary Keller, the project's manager.

The studio had moved to the location in 1908 before eventually closing in 1917. The site was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1996.

Not only is it the last of its kind, it was also one of the first.

"They built a silent film studio when there was no premise for it," Keller said.

The actors, directors, stage hands and cameramen that once worked at the studio helped to not only build the motion picture industry, but also the Uptown community.

While most of the studio has been converted into classrooms, Studio A, Chaplin's personal auditorium, is still intact, although dilapidated.

Keller said the college still needed investors for the project, but he hoped the restoration would lead the resurgence of the Uptown Entertainment District.

Jim Harper, of Evanston, has familial ties to Essanay, as his father, William Harper Jr., was a child actor there.

After his stepmother died, Harper found in her attic in a disregarded box filled with a collection of photos taken at Essanay in the early 1900s. One photo shows his father with an actress lying in a bed, another shows him wearing a sun-hat with a wide smile.

"We didn't really know what these were," Harper said. "It was a mystery."

And his father didn't talk much about his childhood career.

"The only thing he said [about those times] was that he sat on Wallace Beery's knee," Harper recollected. (Beery was a renowned silent film actor at the time.)

When St. Augustine's College is done with its restoration plans, the building at 1333 W. Argyle St. will get a second life as a performing arts mainstay. Keller said the college will host private events, dance performances and live shows, possibly turning a forgotten, sleepy street in Uptown into a bustling entertainment destination.