Historian William F. Grisham knew secrets of silent film world

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Before he was a silent film historian, William F. Grisham (in white shirt and headphone) worked as a creative director at Chicago ad agencies including Leo Burnett. | supplied photo

A century before “Chi-Raq” and “The Dark Knight,” Chicago was a hotbed of movie production with superstars including Charles Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.

Cinephiles owe a debt to William F. Grisham for preserving the story of when thousands of movies were filmed in Chicago instead of Hollywood, according to Tim Samuelson, the city’s cultural historian, and David Kiehn, a historian with the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California.

Mr. Grisham, 91, died Nov 15 at his Evanston home.

Back in the ’60s, he interviewed people who were involved with Chicago’s early studios, including Essanay at 1333-45 W. Argyle, which turned out more than 2,000 movies between 1907 and 1918. The building became a city landmark in 1996.

William Franklin Grisham, silent film historian. | supplied photo

William Franklin Grisham, silent film historian. | supplied photo

“I think he was instrumental in getting the [landmark] status for the building, and he was interviewing people when nobody else really cared, so he was able to get information that today just would not be accessible,” said Kiehn.

“He knew all the players, he had the historical context and he knew how to really make it alive,” said Samuelson, who praised Mr. Grisham for generous sharing of his research.

When Essanay joined the landmark registry, Mr. Grisham was quoted as saying, “Chicago was one of the film capitals of the world. It turned out well over 10,000 films. Essanay was one of the most important studios in the country — so important that Thomas Edison even visited the studio.”

Essanay was an onomatopoeic rendering of S and A, the studio founders’ initials. The “S” stood for George K. Spoor, a film distributor, and the “A” was for Gilbert M. Anderson, an actor also known as Broncho Billy, who once worked in Edison’s film division, said Kiehn.  The motion picture database IMDb calls Anderson “father of the movie cowboy and the first Western star.”

In 1914, Essanay signed Chaplin for the unheard-of sum of $1,250 a week and a $10,000 signing bonus.  “Even Anderson’s lawyer, who drew up the contract, kind of balked at first,” Kiehn said.

The silent-film giant — who later created his popular “Tramp” persona and filmed the 1940 anti-Hitler classic “The Great Dictator” — wasn’t prepared for Chicago’s winter, something Mr. Grisham teased out during his research for his Northwestern University dissertation on the city’s silent-film industry.

Kiehn said Mr. Grisham interviewed the wife of Broncho Billy Anderson in the 1960s, and “She talked about meeting [Chaplin] at the train and all he had was a little bag and no overcoat.”

A year after joining Essanay, Chaplin was signed by Los Angeles’ Mutual Film Company for an astonishing $10,000 a week and a $150,000 signing bonus, Kiehn said.

Mr. Grisham discovered that Chicago’s burlesque and minstrel shows provided Essanay with seasoned talents such as star Ben Turpin. Other Essanay actors included Wallace Beery, whose bruiser persona made the transition to talkies. Louella Parsons, later a powerful gossip columnist and rival to writer Hedda Hopper, worked on scripts.

Thanks to Mr. Grisham’s work, the Chicago History Museum “has a lot of records and photographs in their collection,” Kiehn said. “He had boxes and boxes of this stuff that he was using for his research. . . It’s priceless material. It all would have been thrown away. Nobody would have been able to see the scope of silent filmmaking without it.”

Born in St. Louis, Mr. Grisham served in a Navy code-breaking unit in World War II, according to his daughter, Therese Grisham, a lecturer on film and media at Oakton Community College whose book on pioneering movie director Ida Lupino is due out this year through Rutgers University Press. She said she’s seeking a publisher for her father’s manuscript on silent film history.

Mr. Grisham studied at Washington University, Cornell and Harvard, his daughter said. After the war he attended drama school at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he met his future wife, Gertrude Sternberger. Mr. Grisham worked as an award-winning creative director at Chicago ad agencies including Leo Burnett. In one campaign for Wilson’s Meats, he worked with Muppets creator Jim Henson. The collaboration survives on YouTube, with Mr. Grisham part of a trio of suit-and-tied ad execs observing the filming, his daughter said.

Later, he studied film history and earned a PhD at Northwestern University. In the 1990s, he taught advertising and marketing at Roosevelt University,

Mr. Grisham’s wife died before him. He is also survived by their daughter Esther Grisham Grimm. Services have been held.

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