November 2011

Architecture and Film and History and Uptown22 Nov 2011 04:46 pm

Later note: I was unaware that the Chicago History Museum has a Chaplin in Chicago exhibit taking place right now. Check out this blog post!

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company building is part of Chicago’s faraway past as a film capital. Established first on Wells Street, in 1908 the company moved to 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in the neighborhood of Uptown. The main building, now a part of St. Augustine College, isn’t particularly striking, save for the entryway, a gaudy little structure in white, topped by two relatively politically correct Native American heads and the company name (which was formed by the last initials of founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Yippee Ki Yay. Broncho Billy in full regalia.

Essanay produced multiple films of varying quality, many of which are lost, and were noted for producing silent films, early cartoons like the forgotten and weird Dreamy Dud (seen here psychologically scarring the children of 1915 into not smoking), and introducing the first real cowboy star (Mr. Anderson, in case you couldn’t figure that out through his nickname). The studio also gave performers like cross-eyed vaudevillian Ben Turpin and Chicago girl Gloria Swanson their big breaks, though Turpin had to serve as both an actor and the studio’s janitor at the time. See him here in the Essanay short Mr. Flip humorously molesting sundry women with unusual hairstyles.

Ben Turpin will see you in your nightmares tonight.

Essanay was most famous for employing up-and-coming genius Charlie Chaplin as an actor, writer, and director, starting with the comedic short His New Job, filmed with Ben Turpin as second banana.

Chaplin didn’t stay long, owing to financial and creative differences with the management (they failed to pay him a promised $10,000 bonus and frequently chopped up his films to make them more marketable). Nevertheless, it was an opportunity for him to expand on his skills, learning the tricks of this business called show which he’d use to better effect in future films. Eventually, according to this article, he finally left the Windy City. The weather was too changeable to suit Chaplin’s perfectionism. Furthermore, it was, in the Little Tramp’s words, “too damn cold.”

Ben Turpin with two of Mack Sennett’s “bathing beauties.”

Architecture and Art and George Grant Elmslie and Irving Park and Louis Sullivan08 Nov 2011 05:04 pm

Last Friday, I took my kids out to visit the park, a church off Western where my great uncle served as assistant pastor, and two buildings connected with Louis Sullivan’s former chief draftsman, George Grant Elmslie. As a father I am slightly unusual, I know.

Mr. Elmslie stuck with Mr. Sullivan through the Lieber Meister’s exceedingly lean final years. Sadly, Sullivan was unable to afford to keep him on staff and had to let him go. Elmslie landed on his feet by partnering with William Purcell, forming the firm of Purcell & Elmslie in 1909. After turning out several lovely Prairie School style buildings across the Midwest  together, personal problems, including his wife’s tragic death at age 31, took their toll on Elmslie. Despite being a full partner, he chose to move back to Chicago to live with his sisters, while Purcell ran the firm from Minneapolis. Steeped in misery, Elmslie nonetheless pressed on, producing several more works—including his masterpiece, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, IA—before financial matters eventually caused the firm to dissolve.

If his work seems “Sullivanesque,” it’s because Elmslie is responsible for much of Sullivan’s fancier ornamentation. He’s probably best known for  his designs on such large scale structures as the Carson Pirie Scott facade and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna, MN. Luckily for the city, Elmslie created smaller structures as well, lending a bit of Sullivanesque charm to our neighborhoods. My favorite would have to be the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road. Peoples Gas Stores were actual stores selling only products employing the full benefits of that exciting new energy source, natural gas. Check out the 1920s ads below.

If you ever drive or walk by the building (which appears to be a church or similar religious institution now) be sure to look up, otherwise you’ll miss its delightful decorations and windows. Wish I could have had either a clearer day for taking photographs or direct sunlight. I’ll go back and try again some day.

Looks like one of the ads features the addresses of every store in Chicago. There’s a field trip for you!