by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)
In August 1913, Groucho Marx left Winnipeg’s Empress Theatre to rejoin his brothers and told them that he had seen a great comedian perform. “I described him ...,” wrote Marx in his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959), “a slight man with a tiny mustache, a cane, a derby and a large pair of shoes. I then penguin-walked around the depot (Union Station across from Broadway on Main Street), imitating him as best I could. By the time I finished raving about his antics my brothers could hardly wait to see him.”
Chaplin’s role and the comedic prowess of the other cast members was so hilarious that the Manitoba Free Press on August 5, 1913, advised any “down in the dumps” to hurry to the Empress. “His mood will be changed in a twinkling ... The enterttainment is in fact one of the merriest ever given at the Empress ... When the curtain rolls up and reveals Karno’s English Comedy company, there are roars of laughter until the pantomine farce, ‘A Night at a London Club,’ is over. Some of quaintest characters imaginable, notably ‘Archibald,’ an oddity impressionated in wonderful style by the famous humorist, Charles Chaplin, appear in farce, and the foolery that is practised is simply beyond description.”
Since the Marx Brothers, who became popular film stars noted for such movies as Duck Soup, Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera, were on the Pantages circuit and Charlie Chaplin was appearing on the Sullivan and Considine circuit, the brothers didn’t catch up with Chaplin until both vaudeville circuits met in Vancouver.
“I had talked him up so much that my brothers were skeptical,” added Marx. “Then he appeared, and in less than five minutes they were willing to concede that he was everything I said, and more.”
The brothers went back stage to meet Chaplin, finding him in a dingy dressing room he shared with three other “eccentric” comedians. They traded pleasantries and then got down to praising his prowess on the stage.
Chaplin later told the Marx Brothers that he made $50 a week with the Karno London Comedians and had been promised a raise to $60 that he had yet to receive. In reality, Chaplin was being paid $75 a week at the time.
Groucho told Chaplin that the British comedian had created quite a stir in the movie industry.
“In fact, he (Chaplin) told us that some movie mogul had offered him five hundred dollars a week to work for him. We congratulated him. “When do you start?’ I asked.
“‘I’m not going to take it,’ he replied.
“‘Why not?’ I asked, astonished. ‘You’re getting fifty dollars a week now. Don’t you like money?’
“‘Of course, I do,’ he replied (and, boy, did he prove this later in life!). ‘But look, boys, I can make good for fifty dollars a week, but no comedian is worth five hundred a week. If I sign up with them and don’t make good, they’ll fire me. Then where will I be? I’ll tell you, where will I be. Flat on my back!’”
Actually, Chaplin did sign a movie contract with Canadian-born Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios in Edendale, California, in 1913 for $125 a week, not the $500 a week he told the Marx Brothers. It is felt that Chaplin signed his film contract while performing in Winnipeg.
In a letter to his brother, Sydney, on stationary from the La Claire Hotel (now the Windsor Hotel, 187 Garry St., in Winnipeg), Charlie wrote: “I have had an offer from a movie picture company for quite a long time, but I did not want to tell you until the whole thing was confirmed and it practically is settled now — all I have to do is mail them my address and they will forward contract.”
In a Winnipeg Free Press article by Paul McKie, published on January 8, 1993 — coinciding with the release of the film, Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr. in the title role — Dave Barber, co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque Theatre, and a Chaplin afficionado, said that he had been corresponding with David Robinson, the historian consultant for the movie Chaplin and the author of Chaplin: His Life and Art. Robinson wrote back that he believed Chaplin had signed his movie contract in Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg connection to Chaplin is commemorated by a mural on the outside wall of the Windsor Hotel by Jennifer Johnson and Mandy van Leeuwen, which was unveiled in 2001. Chaplin stayed at the hotel and wrote the letter to his brother, Sydney, about his film contract on the hotel’s stationary.
In the letter, Chaplin also wrote: “I only want to work about five years at that and then we are independent for life. I shall save like a son of a gun.”
Of course, Chaplin worked in films for decades, and quickly became the most popular and highest-paid movie star of the silent screen era. In June 1917, Chaplin signed an eight film deal with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit in return for $1 million and his own studio. He later founded United Artists with Canadian-born Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffiths. It was at United that he produced, directed and starred in some of his most famous movies, such as The Kid with Jackie Coogan and The Gold Rush.
In the end, what helped kill vaudeville was the movies and the migration of its top attractions such as Chaplin to Hollywood, although not every vaudevillian was able to make the transition to silent films.
Another Chaplin tale about his time in Manitoba was when he went fishing at Lockport.
Karno’s London Comedians manager Alfred Reeves had been fishing in England with Fred Karno at Tagg’s Island, which was owned by Karno. They each caught a pike, as related in a August 7, 1913, Tribune article.
“‘Great work.” said Karno. ‘We’ll have three each by tonight.’
“‘It’s very beautiful here,’ replied Reeves in a non-commital sort of way.
“Karno glanced at him sharply. ‘I was speaking about the fishing,’ he said reproachfully.
“‘Three fish by tonight!’ echoed Mr. Reeves, disgustedly. ‘I know where I can catch three pike a minute — and whoppers at that.’
“‘Take me to the spot!’ yelled Karno.
“‘It’s near Winnipeg, Manitoba,’ was the reply.
“‘If you can give me proof of a three-fish-a-minute catch,’ said Mr. Karno, ‘I’ll buy a wine supper for the entire company (20 people).’
“‘And I’ll buy the supper if I can’t,’ said the manager.”
While the company was in Winnipeg, Reeves and Chaplin, who was said to be an avid angler, accompanied by George Tanner, who lived on Donald Street in the city, ventured out to Lockport.
“They took no elaborate tackle with them, but the three caught thirty pickerel in an hour. A friendly rivalry extended between Mr. Reeves and Mr, Chaplin as to who could first catch the required three fish in one minute, and Mr. Reeves won, much to Charley’s (sic) disgust for one of his chief hobbies is fishing and his greatest delight is to outdo all other anglers in the neighborhood.”
In the evening, this telegraph was sent: “KARNO, London, Eng. — You lose — REEVES.”
Was the bet honoured? There is no information on record about Karno fulfilling the terms of the bet.
But what is known is that Chaplin didn’t return to England, but signed his movie contract and remained based in Los Angeles until 1952. That year, Chaplin, who never took out U.S. citizenship, was denied entry into America after a European tour as an undesirable for protesting the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was engaged in a Cold War era witch hunt for alleged communist sympathizers in the movie industry. In January 1953, Chaplin settled in Switzerland, where he died on December 25, 1977, at age 88.
“America!” Chaplin is said to have shouted as the ship berthed in Quebec City for the Karno company’s first North American tour in 1910 featuring the future comedy great. “I am coming to conquer you. Every man woman and child shall have my name on their lips: Charles Spencer Chaplin!”
It was a prophetic statement. His first step toward the conquest of America — and eventually the world — began when Chaplin appeared as a vaudevillian in such cities as Winnipeg. Although it wasn’t as Charles Spencer Chaplin that he conquered the world, but as Charlie Chaplin, aka the “Tramp” of filmdom fame.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a silent screen comedy star until his career ended because of a scandal, said of Chaplin, who he occasionally co-starred with in films, “He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will be talked about a century from now.”