Friday, April 5, 2019

Born 130 Years Ago, He Still Makes Us Laugh

He was born into poverty on April 16th in 1889. His father abandoned him when he was a child. His mother began a long, gradual descent into madness. He lived on the streets of London by his wits, along with his half-brother Sydney. He fell in love with the magic of the English music hall when he was eight years old. Audiences loved this funny and talented youngster who made them laugh.

By the time he was 25, he was the most recognized and beloved figure in the world. And remained so for many years.

©Roy Export SAS.
His name was Charles Spencer Chaplin. On screen he was The Little Tramp. Charlie referred to him as The Little Fellow, elevating him somewhat in social standing. Chaplin may have been the most influential film maker in history. He broke away from his early work in Mack Sennett's film factory of slapstick, a kick in the pants, chases and two-dimensional stories, to discover the power of storyline, character development, connection with the audience, performance, nuance, use of pathos and, especially, humor. His films, both the shorts and the features, had immeasurable impact on those who followed. 

©Roy Export SAS. 
This year marks the 130th anniversary of his birth. And, yes, Charlie is still alive in many ways. Activities and events are being held around the world, throughout the year and into 2020. The Chaplin Office in Paris, under the guidance of Kate Guyonvarch, recently posted a calendar of events in their newsletter. It’s impressive. Take a look at, the official website. 

Before I tell you more about this 130th celebration, a word about why I care. In 1960 I was living in San Francisco, somewhere between beatnik and aspiring writer. On Tuesday nights I’d head across the Golden Gate Bridge to Zack’s, a waterfront bar in Sausalito, where they showed Charlie Chaplin movies. Scratchy, old 16mm prints accompanied by the chatter of the projector. For me, it was magic! Over a scotch and water, and a hamburger, I fell in love with The Little Tramp, the beginning of a life-long obsession. I even wrote a novel about a guy who meets Chaplin today. Yes, time travel. Hollywood yesterday and today. The title is “Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin.” If you would like to order a copy, send me an email, at Reasonably priced, signed at no extra cost. (End of plug.) 

Back to the celebration. Here are some of the cities, countries and venues. For starters, Chaplin’s World in Vevey, Switzerland. That’s where Charlie lived after he left the U.S., and is now a museum (I was there two years ago, an unforgettable experience). Other event locations: London and Bristol, England. Paris. Slovakia. Japan. Italy. Israel. Turkey. United States. Germany. Austria. Switzerland. Spain.  Maybe even St. Louis. I'm working on it. And more on the horizon.

Events and projects include a new documentary, a new album of Chaplin music by violinist Philippe Quint, new plays and adaptations, a revival of “Chaplin: The Musical” in various countries, a BBC Radio series, Chaplin feature films shown with live orchestral accompaniment, limited edition of art prints of photographs from the Chaplin archives. And the party continues into 2020.

In September of 2017, my wife and I visited Paris. We made plans to meet Kate for lunch. As we walked to the restaurant, Kate said, “I’ve invited someone to join us. I hope you don’t mind.” Of course I didn’t mind and said so. Then she told me who it was. Charlie’s grandson. Charles Sistovaris. His mother was Josephine, one of Charlie and Oona’s daughters. It was a lunch I’ll never forget. Charley was incredibly charming and gracious, with that magic Chaplin smile.The meal was delicious, the setting elegant, the for the ages.

I urge you to celebrate Chaplin’s 130th. Go to Paris, London, NYC, DC, or wherever you find a Chaplin event on the website. Or watch a Chaplin movie at home. Maybe start with “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush.” Or his Mutual shorts. Chaplin considered these shorts some of his best work. You can buy them on-line or find them at the library. If possible, get a recent edition of the movie, where the image is sharp and the music track is crisp and clean. You’ll see why Charlie still makes us laugh and perhaps shed a tear. You'll understand why the world remembers his birthday. And rejoices.