The history of Chicago’s legendary Essanay Studios is well known—Charlie Chaplin’s time in the city, its discovery of Gloria Swanson. It was also a pioneer in technical experiments, as George K. Spoor led the studio into experiments with 3D and an immense 65 millimeter format, though both were financial boondoggles (Spoor spent an estimated $4 million on the former). Not as well known was Essanay’s venture into animated movies, featuring the work of local cartoonist Wallace Carlson.
Carlson arrived in Chicago as an 11-year-old, took a job as a copyboy for the Inter-Ocean, and by the age of 15, was the paper’s sports cartoonist. Shortly thereafter, the then-20 year old created his first animated cartoon, Joe Boko Breaking Into the Big League, the same year the legendary Windsor McCay—to whom Carlson owes an obvious debt—created the first animated cartoon character, Gertie the Dinosaur, which premiered in Chicago in 1914. Carlson’s work caught the eye of Essanay, and he began creating “Canimated Nooz,” a “burlesque on the news weeklies,” which no longer survives.
The next year, Carlson debuted his cartoon character “Dreamy Dud,” perhaps the country’s first afterschool special:
But Carlson was quickly lured away in 1917 by Bray Studios, which, though just four years old, already specialized in animation and allowed Carlson access to its library of backdrops. He put those to use in his extremely McCay-indebted, much more sophisticated “Us Fellers” cartoons: