Born into unimaginable poverty and obscurity, by his mid-twenties Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) was one of the richest and most famous men in the world. One of capitalism’s great success stories, he was ejected from the United States (forty years after his arrival) for being a communist sympathizer. This was gross myopia on the part of the government, for, as his old colleague Stan Laurel liked to point out (a little too shrilly sometimes) Charlie was never anything more than a clown.
He was born to be in music hall. Both of his parents were performers, and there is evidence to support the theory that both were at least part Roma (what used to be called “Gypsy”). His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., had the most success, having reached the status of headliner and even touring the U.S. in 1890. His mother, performing under the name Lily Harley, had almost no success at all. Unfortunately for Charlie and his half brother Sydney, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was a drunkard and philanderer and he ran out on Lily when the boys were quite young. Lily gradually went insane, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves.
Fortunately, Charlie was a prodigy. He could jig, sing and do impressions almost as soon as he was out of diapers. He claimed to have made his debut in an amateur night, singing “Jack Jones’ and being showered with coins. With Charles Senior’s help, he was hired by William Jackson for an act called 8 Lancashire Lads that had him doing clog dancing and mimicry in exchange for room and board and a tiny pittance. He was with this act for 2 ½ half years, until his mother pulled him out (for “health reasons”), evidence of her growing insanity. She had no other plan for feeding him.
As his mother was placed in and out of institutions, and his brother went abroad for several months, Charlie learned to fend for himself on the streets. (In 1903 Mrs. Chaplin was permanently committed; she never regained even the brief periods of lucidity she had displayed in her declining years.) Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Charlie worked full time in factories. When Sydney returned and discovered this pitiful state of affairs, he set to work managing Charlie, securing work for him in a play called Giddy Ostend at the London Hippodrome in 1900. Other boy parts followed. He played the lead in Horatio Alger’s From Rags to Riches. For three years he toured with a major production of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette.
Following a show with the promising title A Romance of Cockayne, Charlie began to be too old to play the childs’ roles. Out of necessity, he began to work burlesque, which was a bit of a comedown from the West End productions he had been in throughout his late childhood. Here he did his first sketch and solo comedy. With a group called The Ten Loonies, he played an inept plumber’s assistant in a sketch called “Repairs”. With a combination of naiveté and ingrained anti-Semitism, he amassed fake whiskers, “Jewish” clothes and jokes from Madison’s Budget and presented himself as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish Comedian”. Having no idea that the act was offensive, he proceeded to debut the act in a Jewish neighborhood, where he rapidly learned. With a group called Casey’s Court Circus, he performed an impersonation of famous electrical charlatan Dr. Walford Bodie.
At age 17, Sidney got a job with Fred Karno doing slapstick, mime, tumbling, juggling, singing, and dancing. He immediately set about trying to get Charlie hired as well, being aware of his rare gifts. Karno didn’t want to hire Charlie at first. He seemed to be too shy and “worthless for comedy”. When he was finally hired, no one in the troop liked him. He kept to himself most of the time, never socializing with the other performers. In his off hours, he preferred to endlessly practice the violin. But his gifts rapidly elevated him to the status of the company’s star, a state of affairs his fellow performers no doubt resented. As Stan Laurel once characterized him “He was a shy, timid man who kept getting up the courage to do the most wonderful, adventurous things.”
By 1910 they had achieved such success that Karno essayed a tour of the U.S. “Mumming Birds” was renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the benefit of American audiences. By the Karno troupe’s 2nd U.S. tour in 1912, Chaplin had become something of a sensation. Groucho Marx, for one recalls seeing him at this time and identifying him as the funniest comedian he had ever seen. In 1913, a scout for silent comedy film producer Mack Sennett, caught the act and an offer was made to Chaplin to join the Keystone company. The film industry was so young at this stage that Chaplin regarded the move as risky and deliberated for quite some time before finally giving his ascent. He joined Keystone in December 1913.
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To find out more about Charlie Chaplin and vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on Charlie Chaplin’s screen career don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,