Thursday, August 30, 2012

Charlie & Rob: Two Weeks and Counting

One week ago, previews began for "Chaplin: The Musical." The show opens in two weeks, on Sept. 10. This is a big event - for fans of Chaplin and for new Broadway shows. So I think it's only fitting to turn this post into a "Time with Charlie Chaplin and Rob McClure."

McClure, as I'm sure you know, plays the lead. As he did when the show first appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse as "Limelight" two years ago. The show was a big hit there and, given the talent involved with the current production, will only be better. Some highly dedicated and talented people with impressive credentials are involved.

But back to Rob. To tell you the truth, I admire him but don't envy him. Chaplin's moves and expressions are so well known, I'm sure the audience will be comparing him to what they've seen of The Little Tramp on the screen. For instance, Rob spent countless hours perfecting one of Charlie's most famous bits: the dance of the bread rolls, from "The Gold Rush." Rob called it "extremely difficult in its simplicity." He's right. And I believe that's what made so many of Chaplin's scenes works of art. Here's a link to McClure and director Warren Carlyle talking about that dance and what it took to bring it to the stage.  Rob talks about the famous Bread Roll Ballet

There have been shows on Broadway before based on famous people. But I doubt if there has been anyone more famous than Chaplin represented. Not only famous, but so familiar for his screen performances. Capturing that "essence" of Chaplin was more than just impersonation. It had to be true. I like what the director said about Rob: "He knows how to embody Chaplin."

Recently McClure talked about his three favorite Chaplin films. Two of them were somewhat expected: "City Lights" and "The Great Dictator." But the third one surprised me. It's one of my favorite shorts. Chaplin made it in 1916 for The Mutual Film Co. The title is "One AM" and it's a tour de force in a solo performance by Charlie (except for a short bit at the open with a cab driver played by Albert Austin). Here's a link to the three films. You'll get to see the complete "One AM" and the complete "City Lights." I'm not sure where the print of "City Lights" originated but, according to a logo and translations on the title cards, it looks as though it might be Russian.

I think the fact that Rob picked "One AM" says a lot about how he admires Chaplin's sense of movement, invention, and timing. If you've never seen this one, check it out.

Besides my interest in Chaplin the man and The Little Tramp, I am fascinated with shows that combine movies and stage, Hollywood and Broadway. From the videos I've seen promoting the musical, it appears they have accomplished this in an imaginative and entertaining way. Of course I won't know for sure until I see the show, which happens in a couple of weeks. But if it's as good as everything else I've seen, I know it will be done as Chaplin would have done it: To perfection.

I'll end with Chaplin's own words, in a 1967 interview with Richard Merryman.
"I care about my work. It's the best thing I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it. But I can't. And so this thing that I've got, whatever it is, whether it's creativeness or whatever it is, I care, I really care."

He could also be talking about the people involved in "Chaplin: The Musical."

Here's a link to more videos and information about the show:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The King Returns to New York

In 1957, Charlie Chaplin released "A King in New York," his first film since leaving the U.S. in 1953, and the last time he would take a starring role. I'm happy to say that Chaplin is back in New York, in more ways than one.

First, and most significantly, is the opening of "Chaplin: The Musical," at the Barrymore Theatre on W. 47th Street. The show begins previews on Tuesday, August 21st (3 days after my birthday). Opening Night is set for Wednesday, Sept. 12th. There's been a lot of enthusiasm generated by this show, and a lot of information and behind-the-scenes videos on the internet. You can start here for info on The Musical

Rob McClure
The director, production crew, and cast have gone to great lengths to faithfully recreate the life and genius of Chaplin, his iconic scenes, all surrounded by a marvelous musical score and production numbers. Among the main players in Chaplin's life who are represented: Alf Reeves, Hedda Hopper, Oona O'Neill, Mack Sennett, Hannah Chaplin (Charlie's mum), Jackie Coogan (The Kid), and Sydney Chaplin. You can check out the Musical website to fully appreciate the credentials of the actors in these roles. The incredibly talented Rob McClure stars as Charlie. Rob is no stranger to Broadway, with an impressive resume.

Here's what I find so appropriate about this New York location. Chaplin was discovered by Mack Sennett in 1912. Chaplin, who was traveling the U.S. with Fred Karno's company, "A Night in an English Music Hall" was playing at the American Theatre on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. Mack Sennett was there with his girlfriend, Mabel Normand. Mack was so taken by Chaplin's comic ability and potential for his Keystone Film Company, that he wired Alf Reeves, the manager: "Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that. If so will he communicate with....." So Charlie heads for L.A., starts making movies for Mack for $150 a week, and turns out 35 shorts for him in 1914, before moving on to Essanay Films.

That's one version of the "discovery" story. There are others, but I like this one best. It includes Mack, it takes place in New York, and it's a dramatic telling of the beginning of the legend. 

So here we are, one hundred years later and 5 blocks away, for "Chaplin: The Musical." 

But we aren't finished yet. Today (Wednesday 8/15), just 3 days before my birthday (did I already mention this?), The Today Show on NBC presented a beautifully constructed piece on "The Kid" and re-creating a famous scene with Natalie Morales and her son, Luke. The segment shows where Chaplin worked, insight into his character, and includes interviews with daughter Geraldine, author Jeffrey Vance, and even Jackie Coogan's grandson. The Today Show salutes Chaplin & "The Kid"

One final note: "A King in New York" was released on Sept. 12, 1957. The same day that "Chaplin: The Musical" opens. Who says there aren't forces beyond our understanding at work in the universe. Especially when it comes to Charlie Chaplin.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Chaplin Exhibit in St. Louis

My road to the Chaplin exhibit at the St. Louis County Library began in New Orleans in 1960. I had been living in San Francisco for about a year, hovering somewhere between Beatniks and a regular 9-to-5. Neither had worked out for me. So I stopped in New Orleans on the way home, not the most direct route but a fortuitous detour. I watched a Kennedy/Nixon debate on a little TV set in a French Quarter bar one night. The following day I wandered along the streets, not really looking for anything in particular, when I stopped at an artist's gallery on one of the narrow side streets. Inside I saw a work of art, framed, hanging on the brick wall. It was a charcoal drawing of Charlie Chaplin. 

I told the artist I liked it, wanted to buy it, but didn't have the money. I left...without the drawing. Four months later, back home in St. Louis with a job, I had the money, wrote the artist, heard back that he had put the artwork away for me, knowing I'd buy it someday. And that's how it started. 

Now, 50 years later, after numerous visits to book stores, eBay, garage sales, antique stores, and even the Montecito Inn, I figured it was time to put some of the items on display. The most difficult part was deciding on the items. 

Joe Delmore at work
With the help of friend and fellow Chaplin aficionado Joe Delmore, the exhibit went up for public enjoyment on Wednesday, August 1, and will remain there for the entire month. Joe missed his calling. He could have been one of retail's great window designers. Besides having a sharp eye for details in movie scenes, his sense of balance, flow and focus elevated the display from "nice" to "superb."

A rewarding side note: while we were arranging the items, I was surprised by how many people stopped, smiled, and talked about Chaplin and silent movies. The exhibit contains over 50 items, including posters from the Museum of the Moving Image in London (now closed) when they were celebrating Chaplin's 100th birthday. Books from Sweden, France, Ukraine, Germany, Japan and India. 

A match book cover from the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Chasen's, signed by Charlie. The restaurant opened in 1936, was famous for it's chili, and celebrities, and shuttered in 1995. True to Hollywood habits of ignoring its past, the building was demolished to make room for a grocery store.

Even a beach towel (not vintage, never used) and a tee-shirt with a caricature by David Levine. I have a lithograph signed by Hirschfeld, but kept it at home. Too large for the display case. I also excluded two large boxes of clippings, photos, cards, etc. that would have made the exhibit look like an attic. 

I have seen two great Chaplin exhibits in my life. The first was at the aforementioned Museum of the Moving Image, in London. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, it was literally just blocks from where Charlie was born and spent an impoverished youth. The items on display put me back into the late 19th century, gaining insight into the world of the young Chaplin.

The other exhibit appeared in October, 2010, at the Zanesville Museum of Art. Organized by Lisa Stein, who was responsible for the 
First Charlie Chaplin International Conference, 
the exhibit featured a remarkable array of 
Chaplin material - letters, photographs, artwork, books   and magazines, personal items. What made it a singular experience for me was to be wandering around the museum in the company of people like David Robinson, Chuck Maland, David Shepard, and other Chaplin experts and writers from around the world. My only regret was not staying in Zanesville an extra day at the museum.

If you're in St. Louis, or driving through, stop by the Library, across from the swanky Plaza Frontenac collection of up-scale stores, most of which Charlie would not have patronized. 

If you're in New York - caution: plug alert - check out the new show on Broadway, "Chaplin: The Musical," which begins previews on Aug. 21 and opens on Sept. 10.
The Three Stags Pub, courtesy of Carl Sturmer
A pint of bitter. To your health.

If you're in London, stop by the Three Stags Pub for a pint. That's the last place Charlie ever saw his father. I have a glass from there, thanks to another Chaplin friend and fan, Carl Sturmer of New York. Carl has documented a lot of buildings and locations in London connected to Chaplin, which I'll be referring to in future posts. My "to do" list now includes sharing a few pints with Carl at the Three Stags.