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Chi Lives: Mack Sennett's motorcycle stuntman

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In 1915, Michael Figliulo, who now lives in Streamwood, was hired to work as a motorcycle stuntman in Chicago for Mack Sennett, the legendary creator of the Keystone Kops movies. At that time Sennett's studio was headquartered in Hollywood, but because the young western town could not duplicate Chicago's urban backdrops, many of his action scenes were shot here. But Essanay Studios, which was located at 1345 W. Argyle, still claimed exclusive regional rights to Thomas Edison's original movie camera patents.

"Anybody who made movies using Thomas Edison's equipment--unless they paid a fee or were given permission to use it, like Essanay--was technically breaking the law," Figliulo says. "Of course nobody paid attention to this law, but because of the money made in pictures, the large studios would send out strong-arm men to try and stop independents like Sennett. People dont talk about it, but out in California they had many gunfights over this. And until the courts overruled the patent, all the little guys like Sennett told us to keep everything quiet." As a result, Sennett kept few records of his Chicago shoots.

Still, 1914 to 1915 was Chicago's golden age of silent film. The major studios had only just left New York, and most had not yet discovered Hollywood. "Essanay Studios was, of course, the biggest outfit going at that time," Figliulo says. (The name and building survive as Essanay Studio Lighting.) "They had Chaplin working over there, and they made Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and Ben Turpin into stars. They were all nothing at first. Swanson was a secretary, and I think Turpin and Beery started out as janitors at the studio." Legend also has it that Beery and Swanson were married in an empty field in back of the studio, which is now part of the Essanay Lighting parking lot.

Figliulo, who was raised on the near south side by his Italian-immigrant parents, was hired by Sennett after agents spotted him racing his motorcycle in the Motordome, an arena that was part of White City, an amusement park at 63rd and Cottage Grove. Like the early stunt pilots, motorcycle racers were popular figures who often risked their lives for the crowds.

"The Motordome was like a 30-foot soup bowl," says Figliulo. "You would ride straight up and down the sides--it was kind of like taking a pail of water and swinging it around your sides. Because you were doing it so quickly, no water falls out.

"At that time motorcycles were still considered a dangerous novelty," he says. "I rode a motorcycle called a Thor--which eventually sold their plans to Harley-Davidson--and used to compete in many races and cross-country events throughout the midwest." Figliulo was also a test rider for Thor.

Sennett hired Figliulo for his Keystone Kops films, which were full of chases and stunt crashes. Figliulo says his greatest stunt was riding off the roof of a 20-story building downtown. "They sent me off of the building into a big steel net that was suspended from the window a floor below." An exact replica of the roof had been built on the ground so that Figliulo could practice. The effect of the wind, the weight of the gas and oil, and the bike's inertia were all considered. "We worked at that stunt for days, practicing the jump and having me land in the net. You see, I had to clear the roof--but if I had too much speed, I would have ridden clear past the net and fallen 20 stories.

"It seems like a lot of trouble, but a man's life was involved," he says. "People said Sennett was an eccentric, but when I worked for him, we always had the last word on whether the stunts were safe. So as far as I was concerned, the boss man was OK."

Figliulo's stunt career was interrupted during a 1916 race in the Motordome, when he collided with an inexperienced racer who had slid down the banked course. Figliulo went over the front of his bike, and it landed on him, its handlebar piercing his leather coat and his stomach. The accident didn't slow Figliulo down for long, but the glory days of Essanay Studios--and therefore of the Chicago film world--were waning, and film work was disappearing.

The slide started when Chaplin, who disliked the city's cold weather--all filming was still done outdoors--left town in 1915 for the sunshine and higher pay of California. Other Essanay stars, such as Swanson and Beery, who were by then divorced, soon followed.

Figliulo, too, eventually headed west and in 1920 found a job as a studio artist making sets for Sennett. His assignment was to make many of the I "marble" statues that were used as fodder in Sennett's slapstick comedies. Figliulo had sworn off doing stunts but gave in after being teased repeatedly by a Chicago actor. "I forget his name now," says Figliulo. "But anyway, he used to see me all the time and yell, 'Hey Cookie! Where is the bike?' Then he would tell the other guys, 'You should see this crazy dago ride his bike. He'll kill ya.'" Figliulo began riding a few hours a week.

During these years, Figliulo saw firsthand the wild parties and decadent life-styles of early Hollywood. "You got people who suddenly had the money, and this helped to bring on the cocaine and marijuana," he says. "It's pretty well known that they had these things in the movie colony back then. But I still got a kick out of those young kids 20 years ago who thought they were onto something new."

Figliulo returned to Chicago during the late 1920s and found work as a plasterer and mason. He worked on the Shedd Aquarium and the Regal Theatre, and once helped build a fireplace in a house that Al Capone owned. "I did see him," he says. "One day at about ten o'clock, he and his crew came in with a big pot of coffee and some rolls. They were very nice to us. Probably because we were Italian."

Figliulo, who says he's 101, now lives a relatively quiet life with his wife Erma, who is only 70. He had a recent bout with pneumonia but his health is excellent. He says he still rides his Honda Passport scooter, even though his family disapproves and even though he has severe cataracts in both eyes.

Figliulo is well known in Streamwood for his work on senior citizens' causes, and was honored last year by the Blue Cross-Blue Shield company for that work. He also received a gold medallion from former president and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. "The silent era was a special time," says Figliulo. "You didnt have sound or color, so it took some special acting to get the story across. The people were great, too. The women were true beauties. You didn't have all these makeups and dyes like you do now. Guys like Ben Turpin were truly funny guys. And Wallace Beery, he was the kind of guy who would take in a stray dog or cat."

But not all of Figliulo's memories are warm ones. "Chaplin was a great actor, but offscreen he was a real son of a bitch," he says. "He thought quite a bit of himself. And even though he was making more than the president, he was cheap as hell."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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