Charles Chaplin: Stage Performer
Born in poverty in London, film comedian Charles Chaplin found his way onto the stage very early, following in the footsteps of his mother and father, both veteran music hall performers.
As a youngster, he traveled the English circuits extensively, first with minor dance and comedy organizations and later as a child actor in touring versions of Sherlock Holmes, opposite both William Gillette and H.A. Saintsbury. Through his older half-brother, Chaplin became a member of the prestigious Fred Karno comedy troupe in 1908, when he was only 19.
With Karno, Charles Chaplin quickly established himself as a talented stage comic, and in 1910 made his first visit to the United States as a featured performer in the troupe's American company. (The comedian's understudy throughout his American tours, incidentally, was a young Englishman by the name of Stanley Jefferson, later to forge his own career in the movie business under the name Stan Laurel.)
Chaplin toured the Seattle-based Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit several times before leaving Karno in late 1913 to accept an offer from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios.
A Night at the Empress
During his stint in American vaudeville, Charles Chaplin visited Seattle on four occasions before bolting for Keystone and immortality. Each was a weeklong engagement at the Empress Theater (known as the Majestic during Karno's first engagement), located on the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Spring Street.
The Karno troupe had earlier headlined the Empress in May and October, 1911, but returned for a weeklong engagement beginning April 1, 1912, with their biggest and perhaps best comedy sketch -- "A Night in an English Music Hall." (The comedian later used an adapted version of the playlet for his film A Night at the Show, which he made for the Essanay Company in 1915.) Chaplin biographer David Robinson described the skit, a faux-vaudeville setting titled "Mumming Birds" in England, where the comedian played a drunk:
"The setting for 'Mumming Birds' represents the stage of a small music hall, with two boxes at either side. The sketch opens with fortissimo music as a girl shows an elderly gentleman and his nephew -- an objectionable boy, armed with peashooter, tin trumpet, and picnic hamper -- into the lower O.P. box.The role of the Inebriate had Chaplin made up to look considerably older than his 22 years, yet his appearance and comic antics were so well done that few would have noticed his true age.
"The Inebriated Swell is settled into the prompt side box, and instantly embarks upon some business of a very Chaplinesque character. He peels the glove from his right hand, tips the waiting attendant, and then, forgetting that he has already removed his glove, absently attempts to peel it off again. He tries to light his cigar from the electric light beside the box. The boy holds out a match for him, and in gracefully inclining to reach it, the Swell falls out of the box.
"The show within the show consisted of a series of abysmal acts ... The acts changed over the years, but some remained invariable: a ballad singer, a male voice quartet, and the Saucy Soubrette, delighting the Swell with her rendering of 'You Naughty, Naughty Man!'
"The finale was always 'Marconi Ali, the Terrible Turk -- the Greatest Wrestler Ever to Appear Before the British Public.' The Terrible Turk was a poor, puny little man weighed down by an enormous mustache, who would leap so voraciously upon a bun thrown at him by the Boy that the Stage Manager had to cry out, 'Back, Ali! Back!' The Turk's offer to fight any challenger for a purse of $100 provided the excuse for a general scrimmage to climax the act" (Robinson, 82).
A Favorite with Seattleites
Although "A Night in a English Music Hall" had been the centerpiece for the Karno troupe's original Seattle visit, the return of the playlet was eagerly anticipated by local vaudeville audiences. Indeed, based on his success in the sketch, by 1912 Charles Chaplin was beginning to be singled out more and more in the press materials for each Karno engagement.
Seattle held to form. "There are fifteen of England's best comedians in the company," trumpeted an advance notice from the Empress, "and the list is headed by the clever English cemedian [sic], Chas. Chaplin, who will take the part of `The Inebriated Swell'" ("Empress Notes"). Chaplin's photo also made The Argus's dramatic page, and a pre-engagement notice in the Star observed that the comedian had become a tremendous favorite with Seattleites.
On a vaudeville bill that also featured Japanese acrobat Toku Kisshe, a pair of singing and dancing acts, and a comedy playlet called "His Awful Nightmare," reviews for "A Night in an English Music Hall" were filled with praise.
The Star raved:
"With the return of the famous Fred Karno's London comedians in 'A Night in an English Music Hall' as topnotchers and every other act of unusual merit, the Empress offers a Class A program this week. The music hall performers with Charles Chaplin as the man with a terrible souse are even better than before, and it was plainly evident that a big part of the audience had come for another taste of their rare, hilariously crazy act" (Seattle Star, April 2, 1912).
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Chaplin "funnier than ever," and J. Willis Sayre, writing for the Daily Times, was pleased to report that the entire bill made for a "redletter week" at the Empress. Calling Karno, the headlining act, "the screaming windup," he noted that the sketch was "horseplay and low comedy, which everybody likes at least once on a vaudeville bill, and people yesterday laughed at it until they were ashamed of themselves" (Sayre, "Empress Show...").
Charles Chaplin made his last Seattle appearance with the Karno troupe during Christmas week, 1912. Roughly a year later, the comedian jumped from the vaudeville stage to Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in Hollywood, where he began to lay the foundation for his now-famous screen creations.
The change in professions was apparently a welcome one for Chaplin, who had soured on the vaudeville lifestyle. He recalled:
"These cheap vaudeville circuits were bleak and depressing and hopes about my future in America disappeared in the grind of doing three and sometimes four shows a day, seven days a week.
Vaudeville in England was paradise by comparison. At least we only worked there six days a week and only gave two shows a night. Our consolation was that in America we could save a little money" (Chaplin).
Once in Hollywood, fortune smiled upon the comedian. Within a year of his screen debut, Charles Chaplin was one of the hottest properties (and highest paid performers) in all of motion pictures. Eventually, with such classic shorts such as The Immigrant and Easy Street (Mutual releases from 1917), and United Artists features such as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), Charles Chaplin became (under the guise of his screen character, the Tramp) one of the most recognized men in the world.
To a degree, however, the comedian's stage days remained an important time in his personal history. After Chaplin had been tarnished by political and moral charges in the early Cold War era -- charges that eventually drove him from Hollywood to permanent exile in Switzerland -- he fondly returned to his stage roots for the 1952 film Limelight. Co-starring Claire Bloom, the comedian fashioned a melancholy story based, in part, on his recollections of theater life, focusing on an alcoholic variety performer on the way down and his relationship with a young dancer on the way up.
Charles Chaplin would continue making films until 1967. He died in 1977 at the age of 87.