Most summers Kathleen would spend time with her Uncle Walter and Aunt Lib (Agnes Morrison's sister Elizabeth, who changed her name to Liberty, a story recounted by Colleen in "Silent Star.") They lived at 4161 Sheridan (according to the 1910 Federal Census: Walter Howey 27 editor/ newspaper, Elizabeth, 25). During the years Kathleen would stay with them, they would move several times. The 1912 Chicago Blue Book of selected names has them living at 4942 Sheridan Road. From either of these addresses, the Northwestern L would have run right by their house at grade.
During those years Chicago was the center of the motion picture industry. Film production had only just begun its westward migration, owing to the popularity of westerns and the limitations place on local productions by the extremes of Chicago weather patterns, but for the most part the studios and money were still in the east. At that time there was still a good deal of outdoor film production in and around Chicago, and a visitor like Kathleen might easily have seen the witnesses any number of productions in the vicinity of her aunt and uncle's home. The Essanay Studios were among the biggest film companies of the day. Located at 1333 – 1345 W. Argyle, the studio was less than a mile and a half from either of Walt and Lib's Sheridan Street addresses. The nearest streetcar stop was about two blocks away from the Northwestern L.
According to an article entitled “How She started Screen Career,” printed May 17th, 1929, Colleen said that her film career started in Chicago at the Essanay Studios, a claim she did not repeat in Silent Star. The records from that time are gone, so it will never be possible to prove or disprove this claim from late in her career, but it was it not an unrealistic claim given the proximity of the studio to the home of her aunt and uncle and the drive to find a way to the silver screen. In the article Colleen claimed she was in at least one mob scene shot in Chicago. Her parents did not approve, so; “Without a word to our families we (herself and Helen Ferguson, who was to go on to make documented films with Essanay) dressed in our best clothes and visited the studio the following Saturday morning. At first we were refused admission, but our downcast looks finally made an old doorman relent.” An assistant director gave them the once over and told them to come back the following Thursday morning. A school day, they ditched and went over to the studio, but the casting director said no extras were needed. They went back 2 and 3 times a week until they were used for a mob scene.
In a 1970 interview given to Kevin Brownlow by Helen Ferguson, she gives her own version of this story, though she could have either been describing her first of several appearances at the studio, or simply her screen test before her departure for Hollywood: “Babille (casting director for Essanay) brought a girl to me with long red curls, her name was Kathleen Morrison and she was 14 years old, he told me. Since I was the youngest at the studio and she would be the next youngest, I should take very good care of her….
“She was crazy about Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish. So she said ‘You know how I love Charlie Chaplin and you know how I hate spotted neckties? Well I thought of Charlie Chaplin wearing spotted neckties and I cried!’”
(Note: while stopping in Chicago in 1925 on a transcontinental railroad trip that would take her to New York and from there on to Europe by ship, Colleen mentioned in an interview again that she had started in films in Chicago, in the mob scenes where she appeared so briefly you'd miss her if you blinked. In her interview she put the number of films in Chicago at eight, and also says her mother was at every opening night (not quite contradicting the claim her parents did not approve; they might still disapprove but be curious enough to want to see their daughter up on the silver screen.)
(It is also said that she had an uncredited appearance as "the maid" in the 1916 The Prince of Graustark, which was filmed in Chicago. I've heard the actress, whoever she is, is "the spitting image" of a young Colleen Moore, though I have neither seen the film or stills from the film, so I cannot comment on this).
Whether true or not, Helen’s description sounds very much like a scene that definitely happened. As she described it in Silent Star, her Aunt Lib prevailed upon her Uncle Walt to call in a favor he was owed by D.W. Griffith. It was Walt managed to get the movie Birth of a Nation to play in Chicago uncensored, and so he called the director and told him he had a niece wanted a break in show business. And as all versions of the story go, Griffith replied “Not a niece!”
In November, 1916, after getting a telephone call in Tampa from Uncle Walt in Chicago, Kathleen’s parents debated whether to let their daughter travel to California to pursue her dream of a life on the silver screen. She was not yet graduated from school, though she was close, and there was no way the family could relocate to California, and letting her travel alone was out of the question. At last it was decided that Kathleen would be allowed to make the trip: first to Chicago for photographic tests, and if they proved satisfactory, from there on to California. Her grandmother would accompany her. Her mismatched eyes proved to photograph close enough in color not to be a problem. Before she and her grandmother boarded the train for California, her uncle told her that it had been decided that she would need to have a professional name. “Kathleen Morrison” was too long to appear on a marquee; the optimum number of letters that should appear in lights was twelve, and so the name was whittled down to “Colleen Moore.” Close enough to her real name to be comfortable and it worked as a reminder to the public of her half-Irish background. It was about time the country had an Irish movie star, Walt would tell her. And so in November, 1916, Kathleen Morrison boarded an AT&SF train headed west, towards Los Angeles.