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Movie Industry Boomed In Chicago During Silent Era

Charlie Chaplin

Undated photos from a film representing British actor and director Charlie Chaplin. Charles Spencer Chaplin was born 16 April 1889 in London. His film The Great Dictator (1940) was seen as an indictment of the Nazi regime. In this film Chaplin played a dual role as a Jewish barber who fought in World War I and as the evil Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania. Chapin died 25 December 1977 in Switzerland. (Credit: -/AFP/Getty Images)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Before the movie industry moved west to Hollywood, it got its start here in Chicago during the silent film era.

“The first movie industry was in Chicago,” said Geoffrey Baer of WTTW-Channel 11, an expert on Chicago and its history.

The city has a rich past in the early days of films, Baer points out.

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“On Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood is this really ornate entrance to the old Essanay Studios – it was their soundstage and they had a whole lot there – and all kinds of famous people made movies there – Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin,” Baer said.

Chaplin was hired away from Keystone Studios in Los Angeles in 1914, and made 14 films at Essanay the following year at the Chicago studio and at a second facility in Niles, Calif., now part of Fremont While working in Chicago, Chaplin lived in the penthouse of the Brewster Building, at the northwest corner of Diversey Parkway and Pine Grove Avenue in the East Lakeview neighborhood.

Today, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company building still stands at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. It is now part of St. Augustine College, the first bilingual college in Illinois.

The main meeting there hall is now known as the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium.

Meanwhile, at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue in the St. Ben’s-Northcenter neighborhood stands a building that once housed the Selig Studio.

“Selig made the first ‘Wizard of Oz’ at that movie studio – a silent ‘Wizard of Oz,’” Baer said. “It was way before Judy Garland and her ‘Wizard of Oz.’”

The Selig Polyscope studio was located on the southeast corner of Irving Park and Western. It was demolished many years ago, and a BP gas station now stands on the site.

As the movie industry shifted to Hollywood, Chicago had to settle for just being the backdrop for a handful of movies each year.