by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Charlie Chaplin, the British comedian, who by the time he arrived in Winnipeg had become a star on the North American vaudeville circuit, appeared in The Wow Wows at the Empress Theatre on Portage Avenue East. The sketch was based upon the experiences of a man whose stinginess brings him into disfavour with his fellow campers. The campers seduce the man to join their secret society, The Wow Wows, with the promise of many luxuries without cost. In the role of Archibald Banks, Chaplin falls for their trap and the comedy antics intensify.
While the review in the Winnipeg Tribune on November 3, 1912, said Chaplin was funny on stage in a speaking role, it also claimed that his performance wasn’t quite up to the same comedic standards as when he played the stumbling and befuddled “drunk,” which was physical comedy in pantomime.
As with other sketches at the Empress, The Wow Wows was performed three times daily — 3 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Seats for the matinee performance were advertised from 10-cents to 25-cents, while seats for the two evening performances were from 10-cents to 35-cents.
Vaudeville was touted by its promoters as affordable entertainment for the masses, although some felt the experiment would not work over the long haul.
“When popular-priced vaudeville was first started (at the Empress Theatre), it was looked upon as a hazardous venture, and it was freely predicted that it would be impossible to keep our, or tame, the rowdy element (attracted by cheap ticket prices),” according to a November 16, 1912, Tribune article. To ensure that the rowdy element was kept in check and that vaudeville appealled to a wider audience, the newspaper reported that the management and booking agents exerted efforts to incorporate ladies’ and children’s features (especially during matinees) on each bill to make the performances inclusive.
“Hundreds of incidents could be cited of the progressive policy of the Empress, but its real business is to serve up high class vaudeville at popular prices.”
It was actually the second incarnation of The Wow Wows, which Karno spiced up with more physical comedy to cater to North American audiences. The first version was played in 1910 in the Eastern U.S. and was far from successful. In New York reviews of the show, Chaplin was ceded to be “good,” but the banter that wowed English audiences was deemed unfunny in America.
“The Colonial audience laughed at the show ... but not enough,” wrote a reviewer in Variety.
Audiences in North America wanted the physical comedy that the Karno company was noted for in its earlier performances. An old English standby, Mumming Birds, was revived and retitled as, A Night in an English Music Hall, for North American audiences. On the verge of seeing its shows cancelled in the New World, the Karno company was given a new lease on life, and Chaplin became the headliner as the “Inebriated Swell” in the sketch.
Winnipeggers’ first experience of seeing Chaplin play his famous role was in 1911, again at the Empress, which had been renamed that year. It had formerly been called the Dominion Theatre. The Empress once again became the Dominion in 1915. The theatre along Portage Avenue East no longer exists as it was demolished in 1968 to make way for the Lombard Hotel, which is now the Fairmont.
In one of the more confusing instances of Winnipeg theatre history, the Bijou in 1910 had been briefly named the Empress. But when John W. Considine, of the Chicago-based Sullivan and Considine vaudeville circuit, came to Winnipeg (Winnipeg Free Press, April 15, 1911), he announced that his company had signed an eight-year lease for the Dominion which would thenceforth be called the Empress. Previously, the vaudeville circuit company had booked acts into the Bijou. The reason given for the change was that the Bijou’s stage was not large enough to attract big-time vaudeville stars. When the Bijou was once again the Bijou, it primarily featured moving picture shows with a sprinkling of vaudeville acts.
Considine said he believed Winnipeg was one of the best theatrical cities in Canada and the United States, which was another motivation for signing a lease to take over a larger theatre.
Perhaps this flurry of name changes contributed to some later writers believing Chaplin had first appeared in Winnipeg at the Bijou Theatre. But in reality, Chaplin didn’t arrive in North America until October 2, 1910, landing at Quebec City, and his first show in Winnipeg wasn’t until 1911.
Adding to the confusion is that the Karno’s London Comedians played at the Dominion Theatre in January 1910, but Chaplin was not in the cast, and Albert Weston played the drunk in A Night at an English Music Hall.
“On the stage, in the role of the borey-eyed drunk, he (Chaplin) looks as if he had seen about thirty-five summers and considerably more winters, and every little alteration of his dissipated facial features, be it merely a movement of an eyebrow, is responsible for uncontrollable roars of merriment from the audience” (Tribune, September 8, 1911).
In a March 5, 1912, Tribune review, Charles Wheeler wrote that Chaplin as the “Inebriated Swell kept his audience hysterical with laughter. There is no getting away from it, this talented young actor doesn’t need to speak to draw a laugh. He could appear before an audience of any nationality ... and produce the same results. In fact, it is rather a pity that he has any lines at all in ‘A Night in an English Music Hall.’ His strength lies in his mannerisms — he is a wordless comedian.”
The role of the drunk was played by Chaplin in two differently named sketches — A Night in a London Club and A Night in an English Music Hall. A 1915 film, featuring the Inebriated Swell ( renamed Mr. Risky; Chaplin actually is in a dual role and plays another character called Mr. Rowdy) is entitled A Night at the Show, and can be seen on YouTube, but it’s much-changed version of Chaplin’s vaudeville act.
In his book, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion, Dan Kamin describes in detail Chaplin’s performance as the vaudeville inebriate: “The show begins as the wealthy drunk is ushered to his box. Led by a pretty usherette, he smiles and bows to her. Totally sozzled, and possibly a bit infatuated by her as well, he takes off one of his gloves and hands it to her, along with a tip. Then he absentmindedly tries to tug the same glove off again, pulling to no avail on his bare fingers. She gently corrects him and exits. He produces a cigarette and tries to light it by holding the tip to an electric lightbulb, thus introducing one of the most pervasive gag devices of his films, treating one object (lightbulb) as if it is another (gaslight). He’s about to smash the bulb in frustration when he notices that a fat boy, sitting in the box on the opposite side of the stage is holding a lit match to him. Utterly misjudging the distance between them, the drunk leans toward the boy, cigarette in mouth — and tumbles spectacularly out of his box. Such comic misjudgements were to become characteristic of Chaplin’s many drunk acts on film.”
(Next week: part 3)