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Essanay Studios Fundraising Campaign Aims to Restore Film History Gem

By Adeshina Emmanuel | October 25, 2013 11:19am
Essanay Indiegogo Campaign
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Essanay Studios

UPTOWN — Gary Keller already has a plan to restore Essanay Studios — now he needs to find the money to do it.

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was a hotbed of early film talent and a premier movie studio with locations in Uptown and in California that produced hundreds of motion pictures from 1907-1917, in the heyday of the silent film era.

Charlie Chaplin's "His New Job," was shot and produced at the Chicago Essanay site in 1915, and he made a series of comedy shorts at both the Uptown studio and California location during a one-year contract with the company, which also produced "Broncho Billy," Westerns and helped launch the career of actress and fashionista Gloria Swanson.

 St. Augustine's College showed off plans for a $3 million renovation of Essanay Studios.
Essanay Silent Film Restoration
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The Uptown complex was designated a Chicago landmark in 1996 to commemorate its role in the history of the film industry.

Keller, vice president of Essanay Studios and strategic initiatives at St. Augustine College, is leading the charge to restore the diminished silent film studio complex at 1333-1345 W. Argyle St., on the college's campus on a quiet street in Uptown.

Most of the complex has been converted into classrooms, but Studio A, Chaplin's personal workspace, is still intact, though dilapidated.

Keller, 49, said the complex will be reborn as a performance arts venue offering dance performances, live shows, hosting for private events and a space for community gatherings. It would also be a film production studio and education center focused on Chicago's role in the early film industry.

Keller's vision of restoring Charlie Chaplin's old stomping grounds is a $3 million dream and a two- to three-year mission. Phase one is a $250,000 first step aimed at restoring Essanay's terra cotta entrance on Argyle.

When revelers dressed as Essanay characters enter the complex for a masquerade ball this Saturday, their $200 ticket will go toward the effort. So will whatever funds Keller can cull through his other fundraising vehicles, including a crowdsourcing campaign via Indiegogo, and any money he can get from the $750,000 in grants he said he's applied for.

"The next phase is to really build stronger ties to leadership within the film community on the West Coast and the silent film community internationally, because there's a very large international movement, very interested in the history of film," he said.

Keller, who lives in Douglas Park on the South Side, said that the revamped film studio could boost Chicago tourism.

For Chicago to "achieve its full potential in tourism, it needs to be able to develop new attractions," and Essanay could be one of those attractions, he said.

"The fact that Chicago was the birthplace and the center of the film industry before Hollywood isn't told," Keller said. "And most people don't know we have one of the last remaining silent film studios."

Keller isn't alone in his crusade. He's working with 40 people in the film, digital media and business world to make his dream a reality.

One of those supporters is Chuck Stepner, a former NBC executive who produced the 1991 Emmy Awards and won an Emmy himself for producing the show "One to Grow On." Stepner, who is in his late 60s, helped create the Indiegogo campaign.

He said the restoration "is such a worthy project," and will bring a lot more excitement to "a residential block that you wouldn't drive down unless you had to see somebody."

Ellen Szalinski is a 51-year-old Uptown resident and self-declared "Charlie Chaplin aficionado" who lives next door to Essanay. Szalinski, who plans to dress as Chaplin at the masquerade ball Saturday, recently learned about the project and approached Keller to see how her background in fundraising and communications could potentially help the project.

She has a particularly soft spot for "The Little Tramp," one of Chaplin's most-loved characters.

She sees the character as a shabby but gentlemanly little guy who gets kicked around a lot but is resourceful, creative and holds himself to high-class standards — with an almost blind optimism that better times are just around the corner.

The character is "Uptown's mascot," she said, explaining that she sees a lot of people in Uptown who "are the underdog characters, down and out on their luck."

"But I guess like the little tramp and this old dusty space at Essanay, they've got a lot of life in them, and will fight for their sunny day," she said.