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Vancouver Was Awesome: Charlie Chaplin, 1911 and 1912

A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense .

A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

Charlie Chaplin came to Vancouver twice for week long engagements at the Orpheum Theatre with the Fred Karno London Company, first in May 1911 and again the following April while on the Considine and Sullivan vaudeville circuit, which operated the Orpheum chain in the west. The show was immensely popular, and although he wasn't billed until later in the tour, Chaplin clearly stole the show playing a drunk, according to the  News-Advertiser:

The much heralded act, "A Night in an English Music Hall," was the reason of the crowded houses at the Orpheum Theatre yesterday. Such laughter as greeted it has not been heard for a long time. The chief cause of their amusement, and the one to whom all the honors go, is Charles Champlin, who plays the part of the inebriated swell. During the whole action he does not say a single word, but expresses himself in pantomime. His gestures, his facial expression as the various artistes appeared in their turns, and his approval or disapproval of the same, all are inimitable, and evokes roars and roars of laughter. The wrestling bout at the finish, in which he bests the "Terrible Turk," is the best of all, and brings the offering to an enjoyable conclusion.

The show toured down the coast, then back east before returning here again. Because of the show's popularity in 1912, the Orpheum squeezed in an extra show, and this time the News-Advertiser got Chaplin's name right:

This is the last time that the Fred Karno Company will present "A Night in an English Music Hall" in Vancouver and nobody should miss seeing it, especially Chas. Chaplin, who plays the part of the "inebriated swell" so inimitably and whose equal  would be hard to find.

Vancouver apparently didn't make a huge impression on Chaplin, who at the time was actively embracing his new life in the US, largely because the rigid English class system back home meant limited opportunities for a working class kid in show business. In his autobiography he simply recalled: "In Winnipeg and Vancouver, audiences were essentially English and in spite of my pro-American leanings it was pleasant to play before them." In contrast, his next paragraph begins: "At last California!"

Chaplin's film career began because Mack Sennett made a mental note of the talented performer playing the "inebriated swell" during a New York performance between the two Vancouver dates on the tour. A couple of years later, Sennett started Keystone Studios and lured Chaplin away from Karno with a lucrative contract.

Charlie Chaplin would return to Vancouver, but as a big movie star, not a live performer. Despite what the internet says, there's no evidence he ever performed at the Pantages (either one, though his ex-wife performed at the second Pantages when it was called the Beacon), and the Orpheum he did perform at was at 805 West Pender at Howe Street, not the current one.

Sources:  Photo of Orpheum Theatre, ca. 1910, City of Vancouver Archives #Bu P440; Orpheum Theatre advertisement, Vancouver World 6 May 1911; photo of Chaplin in "A Night in an English Club," 23 June 1912, Kansas City, MO, via