Somehow, it came as no surprise to discover that he had been here – because I always thought of Charlie Chaplin as the one who carried a certain culture of the penniless, the ragged and the downtrodden from Europe across the Atlantic, translating it with such superlative success into an infinite capacity for hope, humour and resourcefulness in America. For centuries, Spitalfields has offered a refuge to the homeless and the dispossessed, so it makes sense that the most famous tramp of all time should have known this place.
Last year, Vivian Betts who grew up in The Primrose in Bishopsgate gave me handful of playbills that had been in the pub as long as she remembered and which she took with her when they left in 1974 before the building was demolished. These bills were for the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in Commercial St. Opening in 1864, this vast two thousand seater theatre with a bar capacity of another thousand must have once presented a dramatic counterpoint to the church on the other side of the Spitalfields Market. Yet in the nineteenth century, it was one among many theatres in the immediate vicinity, in the days when the East End could match the West End for theatre and night life.
The ten-year-old Chaplin performed here as one of The Eight Lancashire Lads, a juvenile clog dance troupe, on Tuesday 24th October 1899 as part of the First Anniversary Benefit Performance, celebrating the reopening of the theatre a year earlier, after a fire that had destroyed it in 1896.
Before he died, Chaplin’s alcoholic father signed up his son at the age of eight, in November 1898, with his friend William Jackson who managed The Eight Lancashire Lads, in return for the boy’s board and lodgings and a payment of half a crown a week to Chaplin’s mother Hannah. The engagement took Chaplin away from his pitiful London childhood and from his mother who had struggled to support him and his elder brother Sydney on her own, existing at the edge of mental illness while moving the family in and out of a succession of rented rooms until her younger son ended up in the workhouse at seven.
“After practising for eight weeks, I was eligible to dance with the troupe. But now that I was past eight years old, I had lost my assurance and confronting the audience for the first time gave me stage fright. I could hardly move my legs. It was weeks before I could do a solo dance as the rest of them did.” Chaplin wrote of joining The Eight Lancashire Lads with whom he made his debut in Babes in the Wood, on Boxing Day 1898 at the Theatre Royal, Manchester.“My memory of this period goes in and out of focus,” he admitted later, “The outstanding impression was of a quagmire of miserable circumstances.”
Yet Chaplin’s experience touring Britain when Music Hall was at its peak of popularity proved both a great adventure and an unparalleled schooling in the method, technique and discipline that every performer requires to hold an audience. “Audiences like The Eight Lancashire Lads because, as Mr Jackson said, we were so unlike theatrical children. It was his boast that we never wore grease paint and our rosy cheeks were natural. If some of us looked a little pale before going on, he would tell us to pinch our cheeks,” Chaplin recalled,“But in London, after working two or three Music Halls a night, we would occasionally forget and look a little weary and bored as we stood on the stage, until we caught sight of Mr Jackson in the wings, grinning emphatically and pointing to his face, which had an electrifying effect of making us break into sparkling grins.”
The handbills that Vivian Betts gave me for the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties date from 1900 and, significantly, one contains the announcement of Edisonograph Animated Pictures as part of the programme, advertising the new medium in which Chaplin was to become pre-eminent and that would eventually eclipse Music Hall itself.
As soon as he had mastered the dance act, Chaplin was impatient to move on to solo comedy. “I was not particularly enamoured with being just a clog dancer in a troupe of eight lads. Like the rest of them I was ambitious to do a single act, not only because it meant more money but because I instinctively felt it would be more gratifying than just dancing,” he wrote later of his precocious ten-year-old self, “I would like to have been a boy comedian – but that would have required nerve, to stand on the stage alone.”
It was in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1907 that the seventeen-year-old Chaplin made his solo comedy debut, at a Music Hall in the Cambridge Heath Rd. “I had obtained a trial week without pay at the Foresters’ Music Hall situated off the Mile End Rd in the centre of the Jewish quarter. My hopes and dreams depended on that trial week,” he declared. Yet the young Chaplin made a spectacular misjudgement. “At the time, Jewish comedians were all the rage in London, so I thought I would hide my youth under whiskers. I invested in musical arrangements for songs and funny dialogue taken from an American joke book, Madison’s Budget.” Chaplin was foolishly unaware that a Jewish satire might not play in the East End in front of a Jewish audience. “Although I was innocent of it, my comedy was most anti-Semitic and my jokes were not only old ones but very poor, like my Jewish accident.”
The disastrous consequences of Chaplin’s error in Whitechapel were to haunt him for the rest of his career. “After the first couple of jokes, the audience started throwing coins and orange peel and stamping their feet and booing. At first, I was not conscious of what was going on. Then the horror of it filtered into my mind. When I came off stage, I went straight to my dressing room, took off my make-up, left the theatre and never returned. I did my best to erase the night’s horror from my mind, but it left an indelible mark on my confidence.” he concluded in hindsight, conceding, “The ghastly experience taught me to see myself in a truer light.”
In 1908, Chaplin signed with Fred Karno’s comedy company in which he quickly became a rising star and, touring to America in 1913, he was talent spotted by the Keystone Film Studios and offered a contract at twenty-four years old for $150 a week. “What had happened? It seemed the world had suddenly changed, had taken me into its fond embrace and adopted me.” he wrote in astonishment and relief at his change of fortune in a life that had previously comprised only struggle.
Now I shall always think of the ten-year-old Chaplin when I walk down Commercial St, on his way to the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties, pinching his sallow cheeks to make a show of good cheer and with his whole life in motion pictures awaiting him.
At the northern end of Commercial St is the site of The Theatre, the first purpose-built theatre, where William Shakespeare performed and his early plays were staged. At the southern end of Commercial St is the site of the Goodman’s Fields Theatre where David Garrick made his debut in Richard III and initiated the Shakespeare revival. And in middle was the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties where Charlie Chaplin performed. Most that pass down it may be unaware, yet the line of Commercial St traces a major trajectory through our culture.
Charlie Chaplin performed with The Eight Yorkshire Lads at the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in Commercial St on Tuesday 24th October 1899.
The extension of the Godfrey & Wills cigarette factory replaced the demolished Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties in 1936.
The entrance of the Godfrey & Wills building echoes the entrance of the Royal Cambridge Theatre of Varieties.
Foresters Music Hall, 95 Cambridge Heath Rd – where Charlie Chaplin gave his disastrous first solo comedy performance in 1907 – demolished in 1965.
My grateful thanks to David Robinson, Chaplin’s biographer, for his assistance with this article.
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