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Chaplin and Winnipeg

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Summer’s here and we’re starting our 75th Anniversary Season June 24th by going to the movies! And just like the WSO, this film is a classic - Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

One of Chaplin’s most celebrated works, the 1925 American silent comedy sees The Little Tramp become a gold digger. He makes his way to the Klondike, where he joins another fortune seeker determined to face all the pitfalls associated with the search for gold – sickness, hunger, cold, loneliness, and even the possibility that he may be attacked by a grizzly! It is the Yukon after all!

But The Little Tramp meets every challenge with the hijinks – humour and humanity – only he could conjure.

He even falls in love . . .


Charlie Chaplin was a fascinating man! Not only did he write, direct and star in his films, he also wrote all the music! What makes it even more impressive is that he couldn’t read a note. He played multiple instruments all by ear. In order to write the scores, musical assistants would help him translate his ideas into scores and then soundtracks.

You also might be surprised to know that the iconic figure had a long history with Winnipeg – performing in countless Vaudeville shows in the early 1900s. Some of Chaplin’s most monumental moments in his life happened right here!

In August of 1913 Groucho Marx was on his way to Edmonton with his brothers. They had a layover in Winnipeg and Groucho decided to go explore. He ended up at the Empress Theatre where he laid eyes on Charlie Chaplin for the very first time.

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 (Union Station across from Broadway on Main Street), imitating him as best I could. By the time I finished raving about his antics my brothers could hardly wait to see him.”

Marx wrote in his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959)

Source: Archives of Manitoba

Chaplin’s role and the comedic prowess of the other cast members was so hilarious that on August 5, 1913, the Manitoba Free Press advised that anyone “down in the dumps” should hurry to the Empress.

“His mood will be changed in a twinkling… The entertainment is in fact one of the merriest ever given at the Empress… When the curtain rolls up and reveals Karno’s English Comedy company, there are roars of laughter until the pantomime farce, ‘A Night at a London Club,’ is over.”

“Some of quaintest characters imaginable, notably ‘Archibald,’ an oddity impersonated in wonderful style by the famous humourist, Charles Chaplin, appear in farce, and the foolery that is practiced is simply beyond description.”

The Marx Brothers were on the Pantages circuit and Charlie Chaplin was on the Sullivine and Considine circuit, so they wouldn’t officially meet until they all happened to be in Vancouver. Regardless, it was the beginning of a long friendship and partnership.



In fact, Chaplin shared with Groucho that a movie mogul had offered him $500 a week to work for him.

“Congratulations! When do you start?” Groucho asked.

“I’m not going to take it,” Chaplin replied.

“Why not?” Groucho asked, astonished. “You’re getting fifty dollars a week now. Don’t you like money?”

“Of course, I do,” Chaplin replied.

“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 will I be. Flat on my back!”

Chaplin did end up signing a movie contract with Canadian-born Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios in Edendale, California in 1913. The deal was for $125 a week. It is widely believed he signed it here in Winnipeg.

In a letter to his brother Sydney, on stationary from the Le Claire Hotel (now the Windsor Hotel on Garry St.), Chaplin wrote: “I have had an offer from a movie picture company for quite a long time, but I did not want to tell you until the whole thing was confirmed and it practically is settled now — all I have to do is mail them my address and they will forward contract.”

Of course, Chaplin would go on to work in films for decades, and quickly became the most popular and highest-paid movie star of the silent screen era. In June 1917, Chaplin signed an eight- film deal with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit in return for $1 million and his own studio. He later founded United Artists with Canadian-born Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffiths. It was at United that he produced, directed and starred in some of his most famous movies, such as The Kid with Jackie Coogan and The Gold Rush.


Another Manitoba Chaplin tale was when he went fishing in Lockport.

Karno’s London Comedians manager, Alfred Reeves, bet Fred Karno that he knew of a place where you could catch more pike than you knew what to do with near Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“If you can give me proof of a three-fish-a-minute catch,” said Mr. Karno, ‘I’ll buy wine for supper for the entire company (20 people).”

“And I’ll buy the supper if I can’t,” said the manager.

While the company was in Winnipeg, Reeves and Chaplin, who was said to be an avid angler, accompanied by George Tanner, who lived on Donald Street, ventured out to Lockport. They took no elaborate tackle with them, but the trio caught thirty pickerel in an hour!

In the evening, this telegraph was sent: “KARNO, London, Eng. — You lose — REEVES.”

Once Chaplin’s film career took off, there would be no more Vaudeville tours. He would go on to live and work in the United States for the next 40 years. Interestingly enough, he never became an American citizen.

Due in part to his film Modern Times, a satire of the machine age, he gained a reputation as a communist sympathizer. During the McCarthy era, the FBI put him under surveillance, and a Mississippi congressman called for his deportation. The U.S. government then revoked his re-entry permit in 1952 as he traveled to England on vacation.

Rather than returning to answer charges before a board of immigration officials, Chaplin decided to uproot his family to Switzerland. He would visit the United States only one more time, in 1972, to accept an honorary Academy Award.

 – with files from Bruce Cherney