Quem te viu e quem te vê

The Pantages Circuit was composed of a string of semi-medieval theatres stretching from Chicago to the Coast and back again. We were on our way from Duluth to Calgary and had a three-hour layover in Winnipeg. We stashed our hand luggage in the depot and all the boys, except me, automatically headed for the nearest pool-room. In recent weeks I hadn’t been too hot with the cue, and decided that I needed a brief sabbatical from the green cloth. I left the boys and the depot (in that order), and walked up the main street. A half-block away from a frowzy-looking theatre I heard roars of laughter. I decided I had better go in and see who could possibly be that funny. On the stage were eight or ten assorted characters in an act called “A Night at the Club.” One of these actors wore a very small moustache and very large shoes, and while a big, buxom soprano was singing one of Schubert’s lieder, he was alternately spitting a fountain of dry cracker crumbs in the air and beaning her with overripe oranges. By the end of the act the stage was a shambles. 

Leaving the theatre, I went back to the depot to meet my brothers. I told them I had just seen a great comic. I described him . . . a slight man with a tiny moustache, a cane, a derby and a large pair of shoes. I then penguin-walked around the depot, imitating him as best I could. By the time I finished raving about his antics my brothers could hardly wait to see him.

The Sullivan-Considine Circuit and the Pantages Circuit ran parallel to the coast, and we finally caught up with him in Vancouver. I had talked him up so much that my brothers were all a little sceptical. Then he appeared, and in less than five minutes they were willing to concede that he was everything I said, and more.

After the show we went backstage and introduced ourselves. We found him in a dingy dressing-room which he was sharing with three other eccentric comics. After the preliminary introductions, we told him how wonderful he was. During the ensuing conversation he told us he was getting fifty dollars a week and, although he had been promised a raise to sixty, it had never come through.

He had already created considerable excitement in the movie industry. In fact, he 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 answered.

'Why not?' I asked, astonished. 'You’re only getting fifty 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 I’ll be. Flat on my back!'

He was a strange little man – this Charlie Chaplin. The first time I met him he was wearing what had formerly been a white collar and a black bow tie. I can’t quite explain his appearance, but he looked a little like a pale priest who had been excommunicated, but was reluctant to relinquish his vestments.

(...) I ran into Charlie again while we were playing the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles some years later. He still affected the peculiar collar and tie combination. The only difference was that this time they were spotless. Oh, yes – there was another slight change. He was now the most famous comedian in the whole world.

He came back to see us after the show and invited us all to dinner at his house. There were twelve of us at the table. The plates were solid gold, or close to it, and I think the furniture was made of the same metal. There were six uniformed manservants. This was quite a jump from the first time I saw him in that ten-cent theatre in Winnipeg, spitting crackers and throwing oranges at the soprano. 

Charlie lives in Switzerland now, but it doesn't make any difference where he lives. He's still the greatest comic figure that the movies, or any other medium, ever spawned.

After Chaplin's success, the movie moguls began to realize that there were some pretty good comics in vaudeville and on Broadway. At one time or another most of them were brought out and given a fling at the movies, but most of the great comedians of the stage never were too successful on the screen. We were one of the luckier groups.

Ed Wynn, Bea Lillie, Willie Howard, Bobby Clark, Frank Fay and many, many others were never able to duplicate their tremendous Broadway triumphs. The real big comic movie smashes were Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy, most of whom had very little stage success."

In Groucho and Me, de Groucho Marx, 1959, pgs 107-109

(na foto: Groucho Marx e Charles Chaplin, 1972)