How I became a Chaplinite: Late in 1996, while I was in the check out lane at a video store I saw a packaged video set of Charlie Chaplin. I realized I had never seen a Chaplin feature film, only a few Keystone shorts shown on PBS when I was very young. The video package included "The Gold Rush" and four shorts, including "The Rink." The quality of the video was terrible. However, despite its poor quality, I still found these movies quite funny and ingenious. I wanted to see more, but didn't pursue it at the time. Then one day last summer, I found myself at a book store buying "My Autobiography" by Charles Chaplin. I bought it even though I had never read a book completely through, unless it was for school. Reading has never been a favorite hobby of mine, but Charlie's style of writing really appealed to me. So much, that I finished the book in less than a month, which is a record for me. Then, as if overnight, I became a real Chaplinite. I fell in love with and wanted to learn as much as I could about Charles Spencer Chaplin. Today, I have collected almost all his films on video, a dozen books, a few posters, and even a "Little Tramp" Christmas ornament!
How I got my idea: I was really surprised to learn that I was not the only Chaplinite that existed. While exploring the Internet, I did a search by simply typing in: Charlie Chaplin. It was amazing to see all the different web sites that were out there that related to Charlie, his movies, and his life. It was here I found Gerald Smiths web site, "Charlie Chaplin Film Locations: Then & Now" (and how to subscribe to "Limelight coincidentally). Gerald's idea to show what the film locations looked like today compared to what they looked like when Charlie made his films was very interesting. He also had old Hollywood postcards that showed homes that Charlie lived in, but there were no recent photos of these homes. I had already visited some of Charlie's homes on my own and really wanted to share this with others who don't have the convenience of living in the Los Angeles area. So with this idea in mind, I e-mailed Gerald. At first, we just kicked the idea around jokingly, but then we decided it was actually a good idea and we arranged to meet.
Misadventure or Adventure: The Hollywood Athletic Club For some reason, I mistook the Hollywood Athletic Club for the Los Angeles Athletic Club as being where Charlie once lived. So, I called the club and spoke with the general manager, Elizabeth Peterson. She was very enthusiastic about my idea and we set up an appointment to coincide with Gerald's trip to Los Angeles. Then later in the week while I was thumbing through David Robinson’s book, "Charlie Chaplin: His Life & Art", I saw a letter that Charlie wrote to Sydney signed and dated to be from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. My heart began to race. I couldn't believe I had made such a mistake. I felt terrible because I arranged to meet Gerald at the HAC and I had no way to contact him that late in the week. My only resolution was to try to make the same arrangements with the Los Angeles Athletic Club. What if it no longer existed? What would they think of this last minute notice? Luckily for me I found that it is still there operating as an exclusive athletic club with restaurants and hotel, the same as it did when Charlie lived there in 1914. The difficult part was trying persuade the manager to allow us to come and take photos. After explaining that I would not be profiting from these photos, the manager agreed to a photo shoot; however, he wouldn't agree to the same day Gerald would be in town and told me that I would have to be supervised during the visit. Not wanting to push my luck, I agreed to his terms.
At this point, I figured we no longer needed the appointment at the Hollywood Athletic Club, so I called Elizabeth Peterson to thank her for her help. To my surprise, she told me that Chaplin my not have actually lived there, but that he was one of the co-founders of the establishment. She provided me with articles which stated Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille founded the club which opened on New Year's Eve in 1923. And like the LAAC, the HAC also at one time had a hotel (now offices) and gymnasium. Today, the establishment runs a restaurant, bar, and is primarily a pool hall.
Meeting and Adventuring with Gerald Smith: It was very interesting meeting a fellow Chaplinite and Gerald wasn't as disappointed as I thought he'd be when I broke the news about my mistake. Now, ready to take a few shots inside the Hollywood Athletic Club, we were presented with more problems. Elizabeth Peterson was a no show. The person who was left in charge knew nothing about our appointment, nor was he about to believe our true story that we were Chaplin fans there to take photos of the club that Charlie co-founded. His only encouragement was for us to try back in a few hours to see if Ms. Peterson showed up. So, as though we had just been kicked in the rear, we went on our merry way and we headed for the hills. The Hollywood Hills, to be exact, to check out and take photos of some houses Charlie lived in.
The first of the two locations we visited was the house that Charlie rented after his return from Europe in 1921. It looked just like the picture in David Robinson’s book. This Moorish- style house is nestled on a tiny winding street, the address is 6147 Temple Hill Drive. Charlie actually rented this house after taunting from friends. After all, he had been living in the U.S. for 11 years and he was still renting rooms in hotels like a temporary visitor. The first time I visited this house I was alone and I felt like a spy taking pictures of it. Seeing the house with Gerald made this visit more special. He seemed genuinely thrilled to be there.
Our next stop was in Beverly Hills, to see 1085 Summit Drive. The first house Charlie actually owned. It was built in 1923 and was a mansion, despite the fact it originally only had three bedrooms. Today, it looks different and is getting harder to see from the street. Charlie and Oona added on to the house in the late 40’s, since the size of the family was growing fast. The front gate looked almost the same as it did in the 20’s. I remember in Charlie Chaplin, Jr.’s book, "My Father, Charlie Chaplin", his description of "the house on the hill." He wrote about he and his brother, Sydney, racing down the drive way on the glide they got for Christmas and about the time they sold their father's expensive liquor collection at a "lemonade" stand they set up. What would've made our visit all the more special would've been to actually have gone on the property or see the inside of that great house. I could just imagine what it would be like to see the room where Charlie spent so much time writing scripts! I did try to write to the present owners of the house for permission, but I never received a reply. I suggested to Gerald that I might as well just ring the bell at the gate since we were there. But what would I have said if someone had answered? I could only imagine…"Uh, I'm a really, really big Chaplin fan, and he used to live in your house, and I wrote you and you didn't reply, and I don't know how to ask this or to tell you what it would be worth to me to step foot in your house, and I would be real quiet and not disturb you, and…uh…am I rambling? Hello? Hello??" Click! <Sirens>….I concluded that it wasn't worth the attempt. So, I chickened out and was content with taking a few photos from the street.
Back to the HAC: Well, when Gerald and I arrived back to the HAC we were greeted this time with apologies and given the freedom wonder around and take photos. The dining room still had dirty table cloths out and the chairs were scattered around the room. The place still had charm, even though it was messy. I wandered all around and went up the stairs. In the stairwell there where large mirrors with little statuettes of famous characters, like Valentino's Arabian Knight and Johnny Weisemueller’s Tarzan. But noticeably, I saw no Little Tramp character anywhere. In the bar, I showed Gerald the long brass railing underneath and asked if he knew of Chaplin’s amazement with that? In Charlie's book, he said something about being amazed that bars in the U.S. had no stools, only this long brass railing to prop a foot upon. Charlie, seeing the humor in almost anything, created a great gag with this in mind. Check out the "The Pilgrim" and see what he does with his foot as he leans on the podium during the sermon scene!
Farewell to a new friend: I had a great time with Gerald, but I think he was a bit disappointed that he couldn't go to the LAAC on Tuesday. After leaving, I took Santa Monica Boulevard to La Brea. I had to drive past the old Chaplin Studio. The first time I drove by it, I was with my husband. I didn't even know the address at the time. All I had was my memory of what it looked like from a picture I had seen, but we did find it. The building was deemed an historic landmark and preserved, and I thought I was just lucky to find it hadn't been torn down. I also didn't know that the exterior of the building was used in the films "A Day's Pleasure" and "How To Make Movies." We went to the gate to find out they no longer gave no tours, so we just left. This time I made it a point to walk up the steps that are on the side of the building. These steps once lead to the entrance to Charlie's office. Standing there was exciting, but I also felt embarrassed. I was standing on a step simply because he may have stood there once years ago. Today, those steps lead nowhere. The door was removed and the entrance boarded up.
Charlie's Room at the LAAC: The day I had been waiting for had finally arrived, to go inside Charlie's old suite at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. This was to be my first experience inside a place where Charlie not only lived, but spent so much time. The visit to the Hollywood Athletic Club did not have the same effect on me after I learned he never lived there.
Although I felt the excitement building, I carefully propped my tripod and camera up in the hallway to first get a picture of the door. They have posted a golden plaque on the wall outside the room, "Charlie Chaplin Suite." I patiently took my photos….while inside all I could think of was that in moments I would be in there!! I didn't want the manager to think I was strange, so I kept the excitement I was experiencing to myself. Then finally the moment I had been waiting for arrived and I walked into the suite. Charlie described his room like this, "I had a large corner room on the top floor, with a piano and a small library…The cost of living was remarkably cheap in those days. I paid twelve dollars a week for my room." The same room is now $195 a night.
I thought I would make use out the presence of the manager, who was supervising my visit, so I asked him questions about the room. He said that the entire suite was remolded, including the bathroom. Instead of the huge king-size bed, most likely there was only a single. The floor had been covered with linoleum and throw rugs, now there is wall to wall carpeting. When I saw the bedroom, I could picture the day that Sydney brought Charlie the good news of the $1.2 million dollar contract deal with Mutual, "..my brother entered my bedroom at the Athletic Club and blithely announced: ‘Well, Charlie, you're now in the millionaire class’…I had just taken a bath and was wandering about the room with a towel around my loins, playing The Tales of Hoffmann on my violin, ‘Hum-um, I suppose that's wonderful.’"
Before the manager escorted me out of the suite, I had to do something to prove to myself I was really standing in Charlie's room. By this point, I didn't care what he might have thought. "Wait!", I said and I put my hand on the wall near the door, "Now I can say I was here."
Thanks: My adventures finding homes of Charlie Chaplin have been great. I feel very lucky that I have had the opportunity to visit these places. Since I went with Gerald and visited the LAAC, I've taken friends to a few of these places as well. I've been told that I should conduct tours, but it's more fun to do this as a hobby and not a job. It's especially nice to take a fellow Chaplinite to these homes. Just to see their faces light up is enough compensation for this "chauffeur".
I would like to thank all the people who helped make my adventures and this article possible: The Hollywood Athletic Club, The Los Angeles Athletic Club, David Totheroh, Bonnie McCourt, and Gerald Smith. Most importantly, I would like to thank the one person who has brought laughter, hope and joy into my life: Thank you Charlie.
Film Locations THEN & NOW
© 1997 JerRe