Dr. Toni Bowers gave a wonderfully enlightening talk on Charlie Chaplin, focusing on his years in Beverly Hills, that fascinated and delighted the attendees at the Virginia Robinson Gardens on January 14, 2020. Education co-chair Cindy Fields introduced Dr. Bowers. A Professor of English literature at the University of Pennsylvania, she studied at the University of Southern California and Houghton College and received her doctorate from Stanford University. She publishes on and teaches about 17th and 18th century British writings by and about women.
Dr. Bowers related that when Charlie Chaplin came to live in Beverly Hills in 1922 at the age of 33, his home on Summit Drive was very close to that of Virginia and Harry Robinson. He enjoyed being their neighbor, and played a lot of tennis with Virginia even as late as 1972 when they were both over 80. According to Chaplin’s son, Charles Chaplin, Jr., his father said he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. His years in Beverly Hills was the period of some of his greatest achievements, and he attained unimaginable success with his towering films, such as “The Pilgrim,” “The Gold Rush,” and “City Lights.”
Before coming to Los Angeles, Chaplin already “had a sensational career in British and French Music Halls and in American Vaudeville, and he had survived a childhood that might best be called Dickensian,” explained Dr. Bowers. Chaplin’s father was a successful performer in Music Halls. But, he abandoned his family when Charlie was two and his elder half-brother Sydney, six. It was very hard to make ends meet, and sadly, his mother started to have emotional breakdowns and bouts of mania.
Growing up in devastating poverty, Charlie worked at every odd job he could find from the age of four. Extraordinarily gifted in dance and mime, he started to find work as a child performer. “He was intensely observant and almost miraculously retentive,” said Dr. Bowers, and he later taught himself to play the violin, piano, saxophone, and other instruments. Having composed all his life, he eventually produced an Oscar-winning score.
By his late teens, Charlie became a star and “a thing of wonder” in Music Halls across Britain and France. Dr. Bowers said, “He had a dancer’s fitness and strength, the agility of an acrobat, and uncanny gifts for comic timing and pantomime…He was the acknowledged leader on every stage he worked.”
Mark Sennett, the producer/director of Keystone Film Studios in Echo Park, hired Chaplin in 1913 when he spotted him in a vaudeville performance. Chaplin was such a success in these short silent movies that audiences could not get enough of him. His salary went up exponentially, and Chaplin negotiated for more and more creative control.
When Keystone could not afford him anymore, Chaplin signed with other production companies, and his salary became front-page news nationwide. In 1916, the average hourly wage in America was $.33 an hour. Charlie was making $76.70 an hour or $670,000 that year. The next year, he was paid $1 million (which was more than what anyone was paid anywhere at that time), and in 1918, he built his own studio, and produced and distributed his own films. When an interviewer asked Chaplin how he liked being rich, Charlie disarmingly explained, “Money and business are very serious matters,” so “I have to keep my mind off of them… It would get in the way of my work.” He was very generous with his employees, and loyal to a core group of actors, managers, and technicians from his past. Few of them worked elsewhere as he kept them on the payroll whether he was filming or not.
Dr. Bowers explained that what was so great about Chaplin was that “he brought to the fledgling silent-film industry first-class, European pantomime techniques.” His phenomenal skills as a mime and “uncanny physical grace and deftness” made him the first global film superstar. His films besides being funny also show sadness and difficult situations; they portray images of resilience in the face of disappointment and hardship.
Chaplin was so beloved that whenever he went on tour around the world, “ ‘God bless you, Charlie!’ was the most frequent cry of the teeming crowds who waited for him,” said Dr. Bowers. The most iconic character that Charlie Chaplin ever created was the Tramp, refining the character from an irrepressible rascal to a more complex poetic figure, “always hopeful of romance and adventure.” Dr. Bowers showed the audience delightful clips from different films that kept everyone in stitches.
In Beverly Hills, Chaplin was very close to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. His friends also included Marlene Dietrich, George Bernard Shaw, Albert and Elsa Einstein, George Gershwin, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, Harold Lloyd, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire and many others.
Chaplin had hundreds of paramours. Even while married, he had many mistresses and liaisons. Prone to melancholy, he was married three times. He found happiness with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill. Charlie was 53, and Oona, 18. Dedicated to each other for 35 years, they had eight children, four in Beverly Hills, and four when they moved to Switzerland. She took tender care of him; he cherished her, praised her, and friends remarked that he “gazed after her when she left the room,” said Dr. Bowers.
After this very moving lecture, the group enjoyed an amazing lunch in the Pool Pavilion. Education co-chair Patty Elias Rosenfeld arranged glamorous Art Deco themed tables on checked black and white tablecloths with lovely white floral centerpieces and golden statuettes. Caterer Joe Monteferante presented mouth-watering dishes reflecting the era when Chaplin lived in Beverly Hills. The menu was inspired by the recipes in George Geary’s book, L.A’s Legendary Restaurants. The Zebra Room’s Creamy Tomato Soup, the Brown Derby’s Cobb Salad, Paprika Chicken, Sour Cream Biscuits, Chasen’s Carrot Souffle, and C.C. Brown’s 1909 Brownie Sundae were some of the delicious dishes served.
A big thank you to our fabulous Education co-chairs Cindy Fields, Patty Elias Rosenfeld, and Adrienne Horwitch for once again organizing such a fascinating and special lecture and a wonderful luncheon for all to savor and remember!
Post and photos by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member
Editor of the VRG eNewsletter, the Happenings