On the Colorful Origins of the Selig Polyscope Company

Today is the birthday of William Selig (1864-1948), best known as the founder of the first Hollywood movie studio, the Selig Polyscope Company.

A Chicago native, he started out as a vaudeville performer, and when still only a teenager he produced a minstrel show starring the soon-to-be-famous Bert Williams. In 1896 he started producing his own films using a pirated version of the Edison equipment, introduced two years before. He produced short films, mostly of a documentary nature, in the Chicago area, for the next 12 years.

In 1909, he became the first movie producer to permanently move his operations to the Los Angeles area (in the region known as Edendale). Among the studios amazing notable successes were the cinema’s first version of The Wizard of Oz, a series based on the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, the first westerns starring Tom Mix, the first comedies starring Fatty Arbuckle, and the blockbuster Alaskan Gold Rush feature The Spoilers, which was to be remade four times.

Like many producers, Selig’s downfall was in overreaching. He’d expanded operations into Europe — which then exploded into the Great War, halting activity there for four years. And he’d also invested heavily in a massive zoo and amusement park, which was undercapitalized and never properly came to fruition.

Entrance to Selig's Zoo
Entrance to Selig’s Zoo

In 1915, Selig joined with  Vitagraph, Lubin, and Essanay in forming a distribution cooperative known as V-L-S-E, organized by George Kleine, founder of Kalem, but to no avail. Selig closed down his movie studio in 1918, and the partially constructed zoo shut its doors during the Depression.

Selig (whose name clearly inspired the title of a certain Woody Allen movie) passed away in 1948.

For more on silent film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss , available in September 2012!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.