William N. Selig ('Colonel')

American magician, photographer, actor, filmmaker, producer

The longevity, prominence, and varied activity of the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago is a vivid example of the geographical diversity of film activity in the United States in the first decade of motion pictures, when production companies, manufacturers, and exhibition services were widely dispersed along the Eastern seaboard and throughout the Midwest. William N. Selig was a magician and later a minstrel show operator who left Chicago in poor health to travel the far western and southern states. In 1896 he saw a Kinetoscope in Texas and returned to his hometown to open a commercial photographic printing studio while trying to make a motion picture projector. A mechanic to whom Selig turned for help had unknowingly made a duplicate Cinématographe for a travelling Lumière operator, and Selig's camera and Polyscope projector were based on the drawings of the Lumière machine. He opened an exhibition service and had begun making local scenes by 1898 with popular Spanish-American war scenes photographed at Camp Tanner in Springfield, Illinois. Selig continued to make local scenes and supply projection equipment for use in several Midwestern vaudeville chains and for sale through the Sears, Roebuck mail-order catalogue. In 1901 he filmed extensively at the Armour & Company meat-packing factories in Chicago, producing some sixty films, and many of his pictures featured prominent leaders of the day, amongst them Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Admiral George Dewey and President William McKinley.

Like other pioneer companies, Selig also duped the productions of others for sale through his own catalogues. His activity attracted the attention of Edison's lawyers, but Selig continued making films across the Southwest; by 1904 he specialized in slapstick comedies and minstrel-themed comic scenes, in addition to producing the first westerns of G. M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, the later co-founder of the Essanay Company. Settling with Edison, Selig joined the Motion Picture Patents Company and in 1913 joined with Vitagraph, Lubin and Essanay to form the V-S-L-E distribution company; prominent among his later productions were the 1909 Hunting Big Game in Africa, a popular studio-made film lionizing Theodore Roosevelt's exploits on safari; the 1912 The Coming of Columbus, an elaborate three-reel production which gained him a medal from Pope Pius X; and the 1913 The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first genuine movie serial starring Kathlyn Williams. Selig maintained studios in Chicago and the Edendale district of Los Angeles, and produced many animal pictures, with the Selig Jungle Zoo near Eastlake Park becoming the largest collection of wild animals in the world with over 700 residents. Selig retired and ceased active film production in 1918, the victim again of the poor health that had sent him on the road to California twenty-five years before, and although he continued to dabble of the fringes of the film world, he devoted much of his later life to sponsoring the expeditions of mountain climbers and explorers. In 1947 he was one of a small group of American pioneers (Thomas Armat, George K. Spoor, Albert Smith) given a special Academy Award for their contributions to the development of motion pictures.

Deac Rossell