Charlie Chaplin Chooses Me
If you grew up in Hollywood when it was in its infancy, as I did, you were aware of "the movies" from the time you cut your first tooth. Movie stars shopped at markets where Mother shopped, and traded at Robinson's where she traded. Everyone knew where Marie Dressler of "Min and Bill" (1931) fame lived. You seldom passed the corner of Wilshire and Vermont without seeing camera buffs taking pictures of the great stone lions guarding the front lawn, hoping for a glimpse of the great lady.
Security at studios was not a priority then. With a responsible adult (like my father) you could wangle your way onto a set and watch celebrities at work. I recall some of them - Charlie Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand - cavorting in front of motion-picture cameras. Mabel Normand especially delighted me. I wrote her a letter when I got home, informing her how my talents were comparable to hers. I felt sure she would enjoy meeting me and discovering them for herself. When could such a meeting be arranged? My youthful ignorance and arrogance knew no limits.
I was rather disgruntled when her secretary told me Miss Normand was going on an extensive trip. She would not be available for months. (Perhaps forever?)
I was crushed, but only momentarily. My real obsession was Charlie Chaplin. He was the greatest, the funniest of all. I wrote him a paean of praise, then added, "and, Mr. Chaplin, would you happen to have an extra photo of yourself you could send me? Signed?"
Ten days after I mailed my request, the postman delivered the large envelope I'd watched for daily. It was a head shot of my idol, smiling at me. I gave the photo a grateful hug. "Sincerely yours," was not as personal as I might have wished, but it was signed, in his own handwriting. I put it on the mantel over the fireplace in our living-room.
My autographed picture - gone!
One morning, a few weeks later, I discovered my treasure missing. I went wailing into the kitchen. "Mama! Somebody stole my picture of Charlie Chaplin!"
"Nonsense," she said. "Look under the rug, under the tables. It's there!" But it wasn't. I was inconsolable for weeks.
Then one day, Father pointed out an interesting fact. There was a large crack between the fireplace and the wall behind it.
"Anything could slip into a crack that size," he said. "The only way you can retrieve your picture is to tear down the fireplace. That's where Charlie went."
"You think it's there?"
"Where else could it be?"
Yes, I finally gave up on the idea of tearing down the fireplace, but not before envisioning the living room without it.
"Why don't you write Charlie and ask for another photo? I'll bet he's got one," Father said. What a good idea! Would he mail it for me?
Father winked. He was my official letter-mailer, and I gave him plenty of business, stamping and mailing letters of request, demand, disapproval, criticism, advice. Did I mention I was also a reformer? All this rapid-fire correspondence was scrawled on pink notepaper to movie stars, Mother's friends, a missionary in Africa, editors at Vogue; few were spared.
So off went my missive, telling Charlie what had happened. Life hadn't been the same without his picture.
A second chance, and then a third
Here was a man of understanding. Within three days another photo arrived, this one of him in baggy pants and derby hat, sporting a cane. An enclosed note read:
Losing my picture isn't a tragedy after all, because I have another one, which I am enclosing. I hope this will do. Thank you for the nice things you said about my films. With best wishes from your friend,
My friend? Charlie Chaplin? I held the note close, then hastened to show Mother.
Months later, she surprised me by asking, "Would you like to go to a tea with several of my friends? It's a benefit. Charlie Chaplin has promised to be there."
Charlie Chaplin? In person? "What shall I wear?"
Mother whipped up a dressy concoction from scraps of pink-and-blue-flowered voile and bought a white sailor hat with blue ribbon trailing behind. Long pink stockings (Father's idea) set off shiny patent-leather Mary Janes.
When Mother's friends stopped to pick us up on the eventful day, my brother Julius remarked wryly, "You look like the cat's meow!"
The benefit was held at an old three-story mansion on West Adams Street, surrounded by acres of orange trees and expanses of well-cared-for lawns, splashing fountains.
As we drove into the yard, Mother motioned to a group of festive tables. "We're going to sit and have tea first, then explore the booths."
"Oh, Mother," I bargained, "Can't I have cotton candy, instead?"
"All right," she agreed reluctantly, "but don't go wandering everywhere and forget to come back." She slipped a dime into my outstretched hand. "I don't want to lose you."
I wandered around until I reached the cotton-candy booth. A short distance away, a group of children surrounded someone who was obviously entertaining them. There were shouts of laughter. Could it be him? The one and only? I stood on my tiptoes, trying to see above the crowd, as a young man at the counter spun huge mounds of fluffy pink stuff onto a cornucopia. I saw my idol sitting in a garden chair. I took a firm grip on my confection. I was running toward the group, madly biting the sticky pink mass, when Chaplin looked up and saw me coming.
Suddenly he grabbed me around the knees with his cane, pulled me to him, and set me on his lap. Everyone laughed. I was so dumbfounded that when he asked "What's your name, little lady?" I dropped my cotton candy.
What's my name? I thought. I was tongue-tied. I couldn't think of anything other than to ask, "Are you really Charlie Chaplin?"
He stared at me and in a typical Chaplin grimace, lifted me gently off his lap, twirled his cane, and toddled off in mock indignation. Giggling children followed. I would have, too, if Mother hadn't arrived and grabbed me.
"Janice, where have you been so long?"
So long? How long had it been? Minutes! She looked worried. It must have been longer.
I put my arm around her. "You shouldn't have worried, Mother. I was just sitting on Charlie Chaplin's knee."