Today is the birthday of Wheeler Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, Jr, 1892-1957). It was tempting to include him in both my Stars of Vaudeville and Stars of Slapstick series, but Dryden was admittedly minor in both fields, and I decided to go with the best headline!
Dryden was Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, born to their mother Hannah Hill (a.k.a Lily Harley) when the comedian was three years old. The chronology of events appears to go something like this:
- In 1885, music hall performers Charles Chaplin, Sr.and Hannah Hill marry. Hill came into the marriage with the infant Sydney, whose father may have been a man named Sydney Hawkes
- 1889, Charlie Chaplin is born
- 1890, Charles Chaplin, Sr. has a successful vaudeville tour of America, leaving Hannah alone with the children
- 1891, Hannah becomes involved with music hall performer Leo Dryden and Hannah separates from Chaplin (or vice versa)
- 1892, Wheeler Dryden born
Charles Chaplin, Sr. never divorced Hill, and Leo took custody of the infant Wheeler, removing her from the care of the unstable woman. From here she began to spiral into the mental illness that would overshadow Charlie Chaplin’s life. A single mother, abandoned by several men, and one of her children taken away.
Like everyone else in the family, Wheeler Dryden became a vaudeville performer. In 1915, after his two half brothers became famous, his father told him the news of his real mother. He started reaching out to Charlie and Sydney at that time, although it took him two years to finally get a reply from them. He joined them in America in 1918.
Dryden enjoyed some small initial success in Hollywood, appearing in the dramas Tom’s Little Star (1919) and False Women (1921), the kid’s movie Penrod (1921) and the Stan Laurel comedy Mud and Sand (1922).
After this, he focused on Broadway, where he appeared in ten plays between 1925 and 1939. In 1928, he adapted and co-directed the feature A Little Bit of Fluff starring Sydney Chaplin. In 1938 he married Alice Chapple, a dancer at Radio City Music Hall. Their son Spencer Dryden was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and was later a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands (he was a drummer).
Over the next decade-plus he was to be a key member of Chaplin’s creative team. He was assistant director and did some voiceover work on The Great Dictator (1940). He was associate director and played a bit role in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). And he had a slightly larger speaking role as a doctor, and acted as Chaplin’s personal assistant on Limelight (1952).
At this stage, when Chaplin began his exile in Europe, Dryden remained in Hollywood to oversee his interests in America. At this stage, he alone of the three brothers seems to have inherited his mother’s stress-triggered mental illness, living in seclusion and growing paranoid and detached from reality. Although it might be more accurate to say he was all TOO connected to reality. He was being harassed by the FBI at the time, after all. He passed away in 1957.
To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.