In 1896, an upstart producer named William Selig made a little movie called “Tramp and the Dog.” It was about a tramp who stole some pies, then was chased by a dog. That’s about it. It’s under two minutes long, but it marked the beginning of a film production hub on the North Side of Chicago.
The short, now lost to history, was the first film made by the Selig Polyscope Company, one of two local producers of some of the earliest motion pictures. (The other was the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, just a couple of miles away.) Selig’s company took up an entire city block in what is now the North Center-St. Ben’s neighborhood. The last vestiges of this early flicker powerhouse can be seen at #3900 N. Claremont, at the corner of Byron.
Selig’s block of stages, production facilities and outdoor sets now has small apartment buildings, a gas station, and some low-rise commercial space, but the largest structure is still there. What was once a glass-topped silent film factory is now a tiny building of luxury apartments and lofts.
Over the front door is the most obvious sign of the Selig days, the trademark “S” in a diamond. The original glass cap on the building, a requirement of early film cameras and their thirst for light, is long gone, but look to the upper right and you can make out a slightly off-tone triangle of darker yellow, showing exactly where the original top was later bricked in.
Selig was a native Chicagoan, but traveled the country as a magician and fake “medium” in tent shows and minstrel troupes, calling himself a “Colonel” along the way. He was on the road when he first encountered the Edison Kinetoscope, sparking his ambition to make movies. When Edison’s patents got in the way, he “borrowed” some technology from the competing Lumiere Brothers. In 1909, when the lawyers came knocking, he opened up shop in a little backwater out west called Los Angeles, creating the first Hollywood movie studio.
The diamond “S” came along with the Colonel, but Selig Polyscope didn’t make it for the long haul. By 1918 he was out of the film business in Chicago altogether, and in LA was left running a dusty and ragtag zoo and animal rental company.