Charlie Chaplin’s journey to becoming the first global movie star saw him treading the boards in Lancashire in his early years. Mike Hill reports.
"I have always thought it ironic that Charlie Chaplin, a London lad, joined ‘The Eight Lancashire Lads’, and that Stan Laurel, a Lancashire lad, joined Fred Karno’s London Comedians – although both did play numerous Lancashire theatres, some even together.”
So says writer AJ Marriot, author of the book Chaplin – Stage by Stage, which charts the silent screen star’s journeys around the venues of Victorian England.
Marriot spent six years doggedly tracking down every appearance Chaplin made during a 15-year run in music hall, before heading to the States and the film world.
His first date in Lancashire came at the age of 11 when he appeared with the entertainment troupe The Eight Lancashire Lads at the Blackpool Pavilion.
The clog dancing group was formed by Wigan-based impresarios Bill Cawley and JW Jackson and among their number was Penwortham-born Jack Fields and comedian Jack Edge.
The Lads were performing in pantomime, in Manchester, when Chaplin’s father discovered one of them was leaving and, seizing the moment, he nominated his son to sign up.
Charlie Chaplin senior was a renowned music hall entertainer and his reputation helped secure the young Charlie his first steps on the road to international stardom. By the time The Eight Lancashire Lads returned to the north west in the summer of 1899 Charlie was an established member of the group.
They would perform short sets in bills, often comprising many other acts, showcasing a wide variety of talents. His first dates in Lancashire came during that two-week stint at the Blackpool Pavilion in the Winter Gardens, debuting locally on June 19, 1899.
Marriot recounts: “The boys must have felt like they had landed in paradise, for all around them was entertainment of every diversity. Firstly there were shows in the other theatres within the complex plus other theatres on, or near, to the seafront, all of which they could visit.
“Add to this the world famous Blackpool Tower, completed only five years previous, with its surrounding vast indoor entertainment buildings, including a ballroom, a circus and zoological gardens.
“And not forgetting the three piers each with its own attractions, such as bands, singers, variety artists, orchestras and dancing.”
The same tour took The Eight Lancashire Lads to Southport at the long gone Pier Pavilion theatre on July 10 which was reviewed in the Southport Visiter newspaper: “The Eight Lancashire Lads give an excellent exhibition of clog dancing – pretty and effective – and prove that they have musical voices in a well rendered glee.”
It was to be the last time Chaplin appeared in Lancashire with the troupe.
He would next be seen in Lancashire as a page boy in a touring production of Sherlock Holmes which visited the Blackpool Opera House on May 23, 1904 and the Blackburn Royal theatre on August 14, 1905.
The teenage Chaplin’s first date in Preston was on October 22, 1906, in Casey’s Circus, a show comprised of juvenile entertainers. Charlie’s star-role was a spoof of Dick Turpin, in which he played six different characters.
Chaplin featured in Casey’s Circus in Lancashire once more at the Blackburn Palace before leaving in July 1907, when he had become too old for the company.
His next move would put Chaplin on the road to global stardom and see his touring career extend far beyond the UK. Legendary showman Fred Karno was the king of comedy sketch shows, on which his name alone guaranteed to sell out venues, thanks to his brand of slapstick humour.
Chaplin landed a role in Karno’s play The Football Match, which took in Blackburn Palace and Burnley Palace and Hippodrome on its 1908 tour.
While not the star of the show it seems he caught the eye of the boss and, at the end of that stint, he remained in the Karno stable, linking up with his brother Sydney Chaplin in a series of other Karno shows, including the greatest of all time, Mumming Birds.
Among the venues Chaplin played were Southport Pier Pavilion, and Blackburn Palace in the last week of September 1908; and a month later at the Burnley Palace.
Among the many talented comedians on Karno’s books Chaplin’s star started to shine the brightest.
After returning to Blackburn in April 1909 his last confirmed date in this part of the world came at the Wigan Grand Hippodrome on January 31, 1910 in Skating, a show which at one point featured a young Stan Laurel under his real name of Stan Jefferson.
The Wigan Observer said of the show: “Roller Skating, which is Fred Karno’s latest sketch, is certainly one of the funniest he has yet presented to Wigan audiences.
“On Monday evening the efforts of his company in burlesquing this latest craze sent the house into screams of laughter, and especially humorous were Charlie Chaplin and Johnny Doyle.
“The merriment is present from start to finish, and some clever exhibitions of roller skating is also given when the scene is laid inside the rink.”
Chaplin continued to feature in Karno shows across the UK for the next few months before fame and fortune in America beckoned and, on September 22, 1910 he set sail for Montreal, Canada, never to appear in Lancashire again.
* Having revealed to Chaplin fans these previously unknown stage appearances, AJ is giving the same treatment to Stan Laurel in book form, the result of which Laurel – Stage by Stage which will be in print soon.
Copies of the Chaplin book can be purchased from Marriot’s website www.laurelandhardybooks.com.
Price is £19.95, which includes postage in the UK. Or send a cheque to AJ Marriot, 20 Oughton Close, Hitchin, Herts, SG5 2QY, leaving the “Pay to … ” section blank.