Monday, June 11, 2012

When Charlie Became a Water Rat

I never knew about the Water Rats until I read about it in a book published in London especially for Chaplin's 100th Birthday Celebration. I bought the book when I was at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1989 to see the special Chaplin exhibit. This story takes place in 1931, when Charlie returned to London to promote "City Lights." He was reunited with a friend from his old vaudeville days, Wee Georgie Wood, who told this story.

"The night Charlie Chaplin became a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats was solemn and hilarious, moving and magnificently mad. It all happened in 1931, but it might never have taken place but for a chance meeting in Bud Flanagan's dressing room at the Victoria Palace. Bud his partner, Chesney Allen, and Freddie and Charlie Austin, were playing cards when a famous head popped round the door and said to Charlie, 'Hello, Oats.'

"It was Chaplin, using the Cockney rhyming slang he had never forgotten. 'Oats' is short for 'Oats and barley.' Freddie and Charlie were the younger brothers of Albert Austin who had gone to America with the same Fred Karno company as Charlie and later worked with him on many of his pictures.

"Charlie Austin was wearing his gold Water Rat emblem in his lapel, and when Charlie saw it he sighed, 'I used to yearn to be famous, so that they would invite me to be a Rat.'

George goes on to tell how they invited Charlie to join them at an initiation ceremony the following Sunday night at 8. Everyone is there...except Charlie. The Rats grow impatient as the clock strikes 9, then 10. Many threaten to leave.

George continues: "By 11 o'clock the temperature was even higher. In fact, had it not been for the efforts of Bud Flanagan, Chesney Allen and Clarkson Ross there might have been a mass walk-out. But these three saved the night - by bouncing in and out of the room every few minutes wearing Chaplin moustaches.

"Midnight came - and even the clowning of the trio was falling flat. Suddenly, the doors open. And there, smiling uncertainly, stood a small, dapper figure. For a second there was silence. Then the entire audience rose and cheered. The image of that Chaplin smile had swept away their anger. And the victory was complete when he explained that he had spent four hours battling his way to us. Not even the police had been able to clear a passage for him through the throngs trying to see him.

"A new Rat usually makes a solemn initiation speech. But there was never anything usual about Charlie! He gave us a full hour of spontaneous humour, impersonating great Water Rats of the past, giving his own wonderful impression - his 'party piece' - of a girl undressing in a French hotel!" When it was all over, a crowd of us went on to Charlie Austin's flat for another hilarious party and finished up with Charlie at six in the morning somewhere in Kennington.

"Charlie said, 'I feel I'd like to go back and see some of my old haunts again.' So we joined him on this sentimental pilgrimage to the streets of his boyhood and early youth."

And that's the true story of how Charlie Chaplin became an official member of the Grand Order of Water Rats.

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