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The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope

It’s Selig Polyscope week! Today’s post is the first of three in which I will be examining one of the most significant film studios, not just in Chicago but in all of America, during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Selig Polyscope week is a collaborative effort between White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable – their first post of the week concerns the first Wizard of Oz movies (shot by Selig in Chicago) and can be found here: Chicago Unbelievable: The First Oz Movie.

The following was written in collaboration with Adam Selzer.

“Colonel” Selig and a smoking chimpanzee:

One of the most colorful motion picture pioneers of the 1890s and early 1900s was William Selig, a native Chicagoan and traveling magician who conferred the title “Colonel” on himself while touring the minstrel show circuit. After seeing one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes in Dallas, Texas in 1894, Selig became obsessed with moving pictures – and with finding his own way to create and exhibit them (and, hence, get around Edison’s patents). Selig eventually formed the first major movie studio in Chicago, Selig Polyscope, and set up shop at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. (in the neighborhood known today as North Center/St. Ben’s).

A true innovator, Selig produced such notable films as a re-creation of Theodore Roosevelt’s African Safari (during which a real live lion was shot and killed in the Chicago studio), the first Wizard of Oz movies and The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first popular cliffhanger serial. A movie he made about Columbus even earned him a medal from Pope Pius – a singular honor for a protestant!

Selig also worked tirelessly, using all of his old vaudeville showmanship, to raise the public’s opinion of movies, which were still seen as terribly low-class in the early 1900s – he envisioned a day when movies would enrich the lives of everyone in a day when most people still thought of them as novelties. In 1907, Selig began a massive publicity campaign in an attempt to make movies acceptable entertainment for people outside of the working class. The Chicago Tribune had been vocally against them, fearing that they would lead children down a path to degradation. “There is no voice raised to defend the great majority of the five cent theatres,” one Trib staffer wrote, “because they cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad.”

Selig fired back with a five-page ad in which he took on a voice like that of Professor Harold Hill to tout the educational virtues of movies. One day, he claimed, movies would keep children in school, off the streets and out of the dance halls and saloons. Rather than leave their idle minds to the devil’s hands, he wrote, they would be in the theatres, filling their minds with knowledge about exotic travel, ancient history, and great literature. Years later, Selig finally won the Tribune over by contracting with them to print the “novelization” of The Adventures of Kathlyn, which not only catapulted the cliff-hanger serial to new heights of popularity, but greatly raised the Tribune’s circulation as well. The Tribune’s embrace of movies in turn helped the film medium to become more acceptable to the middle and upper classes.

In 1909, Selig became the first film producer to establish West Coast operations, opening a second studio in Los Angeles with director Francis Boggs. Among the significant Selig Polyscope films made at the California studio were the earliest westerns starring legendary cowboy Tom Mix. Around this same time, Essanay, Selig’s chief rival studio in Chicago, made a comedic star out of their cross-eyed janitor Ben Turpin. Selig didn’t have the same luck – his janitor tried to murder him in a drunken rampage that killed Boggs and left Selig with a gunshot wound in the right arm. Selig recovered and hired a new janitor. He eventually turned his California studio into the “Selig Zoo,” a sort of prototype Disneyland. During the Depression, it drove him to bankruptcy and he switched gears to become a literary agent instead.

William Selig was given an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering film work in 1947. He died the following year at the age of 84. Today the southeast corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. in Chicago is occupied by a BP gas station with no indication that hundreds of movies had ever been produced there.

The Selig Polyscope studio at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. circa 1914:

The corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. today:

The only original Selig Polyscope building still standing today is located at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Byron Street. It has been converted into condominiums:

The original Selig Polyscope logo (an “S” inside of a diamond) can still be seen above the building’s main entrance:
Photographs by Michael Smith

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope

  • Libby Cornforth

    I’m still learning from you, while I’m trying to reach my goals. I actually love reading all that is written on your blog. Keep the stories coming. I loved it!

  • suzidoll

    Good for you for bringing this important part of Chicago history to light. So few people know about it. I was just at a film fest in Florida where I saw a documentary devoted to Jacksonville’s early days as a film center. The whole town is behind making the most of their unique history and preserving important sites related to it. Too bad we can’t say the same for Chicago.

  • michaelgloversmith

    Someone needs to open a Chicago Film History Museum! Maybe they could use one of the condos in the 3900 N. Claremont building for such a purpose (I think they start selling around $200K – know anyone who’d like to invest?). Anyway, I took a tour of the building and recorded a podcast about it. Will post it later in the week!

  • Jim Ziegler

    Hi, I’m trying to locate the Selig movie Chicago Fire Boats in Action from 1903. Do you have any idea where I might start? Thank you.

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