Charlie Chaplin — vaudeville star at the Empress Theatre

by Bruce Cherney
After conquering British music halls, he was poised to lay siege to the theatres of the New World and claim his share of vaudeville fame. At the time, vaudeville was the popular entertainment medium, and Winnipeg played a significant role in the circuit, which saw diverse acts, including jugglers, gymnasts, comedians, singers, dancers, among a plethora of other entertainers, tour cities and towns west of the Mississippi River.
Alexander Pantages, who in 1914 built the Pantages Playhouse Theatre on Market Avenue, said “all my acts originate in Winnipeg and move around the circuit.” An act that died in Winnipeg didn’t get a chance to go on tour. Today, anyone taking a trip to the Exchange District to visit the playhouse will see inscribed high above the entrance the words “Unequalled Vaudeville.”
Martin Beck, the general manager of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, arrived in Winnipeg on September 7, 1911, to inspect the city’s Orpheum Theatre on Fort Street. “We have never regretted our investment,” he said (Winnipeg Tribune, September 8, 1911). “It is the best theatre in the circuit.
In August 1913, at the Empress Theatre, 175 Portage Avenue East, “Where Everybody Goes,” according to an advertisement, on stage were Karno’s London Comedians. The star of the show was 23-year-old Charles Chaplin — he wasn’t known as Charlie until later in his career.
Prior to his appearance on stage in Winnipeg, an interview with Chaplin was published in the August 2, 1913, Tribune. How much is actual truth or simply a bit of whimsy to display his comedic talent is up to the discretion of the reader. But it is typical of the stories told of first-time visitors who have no concept of the expanse of Canada.
“I was rather ‘green’ when I first came to Canada,” said Chaplin, “and I had to stand for no end of joking. Coming over on the ship for the first time a few years ago I met a very nice chap from Winnipeg. He was a joker, you know, and took advantage of my gullibility to chaff me unmercifully. A few hours before we landed in Montreal, he said, ‘Now Chaplin, old boy, I want you to run out to Winnipeg on Sunday and meet the wife.’ I told him I would be delighted. 
“Sunday afternoon I togged up a bit and ambled to the railroad station where I asked for a round trip ticket to Winnipeg. The clerk handed me about a yard or two of paper and calmly asked for a wad that sounded like a small fortune. ‘You’ve misunderstood me,’ I said, adding, ‘I want to run over to Winnipeg and back.’
“‘How long do you think it will take you?’ asked the station clerk.
“‘Oh, about forty minutes or so,’ I replied.
“‘You’ll get there Tuesday night,’ he said.
“They revived me a few hours later, and then I sauntered over to the telegraph office and wired to my Winnipeg comedian: ‘Sorry I can’t come: am running over to San Francisco to spend the evening with my aunt.’”
Announcing the coming of the Fred Karno company, the newspaper reporter said there was a wild scramble to obtain tickets at the Empress Theatre’s box office.
“Led by the inimitable Charles Chaplin and a company of fourteen, with the talented Alf Reeves in the managerial role, this funniest of all comedy aggregations will present the screamingly and hysterically funny farce, A Night in a London Club.”
It was the fifth time that the Karno company featuring Chaplin had appeared on the Sullivan & Considine circuit in North America. According to the newspaper, with each appearance, the company “scored a bigger success than ever.”
Fred Karno was a famous British music hall comedian who turned his efforts into forming a touring company to perform a variety of sketches. Due to licencing restrictions in England that prohibited dialogue in rough-house comedy routines, the players were forced to mime their roles (this later changed and dialogue was permitted). Audiences soon took to the company’s highly-physical slapstick form of comedy — Karno is said to have been the first to use a custard pie in the face on stage — which prompted Reeves to convince Karno that such routines would be highly successful in North America. Karno would not be disappointed.
In Winnipeg and other North American cities, the typical Karno sketch was a vaudeville show within a vaudeville show, and was described in the Tribune: “The types of roles in the ‘London Club’ production are exquisitely drawn and are almost Dickensesque in their fidelity to well known familiar English types of the middle class. The scene depicts ‘Ladies Night’ at the Bumblers’ Angling society, with ‘Archibald’ (Charles Chaplin) in a hopelessly maudlin condition, while the other members have their ‘company manners’ and are trying their best to squelch the pugnacious Archie. The antics and dialogue of the amateur entertainers to secure the attention of their fellow members while they add their songs and recitations to the enjoyment of ‘Ladies Night’ are screamingly funny.”
In North America, Chaplin’s role as the “Inebriate Swell,” who arrives late, causing a great commotion and drawing attention to himself, was reproduced by Robert Downey Jr. in the 1993 film Chaplin directed by Sir Richard Attenborough.
The Tribune reporter in 1913 wrote that Chaplin had “a personal following that is always most effusive and warm in its greeting, and in this elaborate and best of the Karno successes he is better — if such a thing is possible — than in any of the other comedies.”
Chaplin, whose popularity had been steadily growing, appeared at Winnipeg’s Empress Theatre in November 25, 1912, in the production of The Wow Wows, or A Night in a London Secret Society.
According to the next day’s Tribune, Winnipeggers eagerly anticipated the show scheduled to be played on the Empress stage.
“‘What a crowd,’ exclaimed someone.
“‘Sure, it’s Karno week,’ was the prompt response.
“And that brief conversation summed up the whole thing ...
“‘And,”chimed in a third party, ‘Charlie Chaplin’s still with ’em.
“Unelegant though the remark was, it did not lack eloquence. Even the easy-going reference to ‘Charley’ (sic) bespoke popularity, for when the dear public “takes” to someone, it becomes patronizingly familiar.”
Familiarity and extraordinary popularity led to Chaplin’s change from “Charles” to the famous screen first name of “Charlie.”
(Next week: part 2)