“My Eccentric Roommate”–Stan Laurel’s Early Memories Of Charlie Chaplin

Goodness, is it really July already? Why does the lovely month of June always fly by like it was shot out of a cannon?! Anyways, let’s kick of July with this amusing reminisce from the great Stan Laurel, recalling a time back in the early 1910s when his music hall troupe “Fred Karno’s Army” toured the U.S. What other famed comedian was also in that exact same troupe? Charlie Chaplin!

Image credit of the cheery troupe: CharlieChaplin.com.

This essay is from a 1982 book called The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, compiled by Peter Haines, which I used for a post once before. This is a collection of essays and interviews by Chaplin’s friends, fellow actors, and other contemporaries, reprinted from hard-to-find publications that ranged from the 1910s-1970s. If you love Charlie, it’s well worth seeking out. Parts of this essay are probably familiar, being pretty widely quoted, but there’s other parts that might be new to you–especially a funny story at the end that sounds like something from a slightly lowbrow 1910s comedy!

“America was a whole new world for us. We were thrilled at the excitement of New York, but seeing the whole country, mile after mile, was really the way to see it.

Posing at the Continental Divide near Butte, Montana.

“I was Charlie’s room-mate on that tour and he was fascinating to watch. People through the years have talked about how eccentric he became. He was a very eccentric person even then. He was very moody and often very shabby in appearance. Then suddenly he would astonish us all by getting dressed to kill. It seemed that every once in a while he would get an urge to look very smart. At these times he would wear a derby hat (an expensive one), gloves, smart suit, fancy vest, two-tone side button shoes and carry a cane. I have a lot of quick little memories of him like that.

“For instance, I remember that he drank only once in a while and then it was always port. He read books incessantly. One time he was trying to study Greek, but he gave it up after a few days and started into study yoga. A part of this yoga business was what was called the ‘water cure’–so for a few days after that, he ate nothing, just drank water for his meals. He carried his violin whenever he could. Had the strings reversed so he could play left-handed, and he would practice for hours. He bought a cello once and used to carry it around with him. At these times he would always dress like a musician, a long, fawn-coloured overcoat with green velvet cuffs and a collar and a slouch hat. And he’s let his hair grow long in back. We never knew what he was going to do next. He was unpredictable.

Photographic proof, taken in Sacramento. (Image credit: CharlieChaplin.com.)

“We had a lot of fun in those days. Charlie and I roomed together and I can still see him playing the violin or cello to cover the noise of the cooking of bacon I was doing on the gas ring (forbidden, of course). Then we’d both take towels and try to blow the smoke out of the window. I remember one funny incident in those early days just after we landed in the States. I suppose you know that in England hotels guests leave their shoes outside the door when they retire so that the porter can give them a polish during the night. I did that as a matter of course the first night we landed in the States in our New York hotel. The next morning I got up, went to the door, looked out–and no shoes. I went down to the desk clerk mad as hell and demanded to know what had become of my shoes. When I had explained where I had put them, the man wanted to know why in the hell I had done that. I explained but it didn’t do any good. My shoes were stolen-and to show you my financial situation at the time, they were the only shoes that I owned! So–and this is true–I actually walked over to the theatre fully dressed, wearing my slippers. I’ll never forget those slippers. They each had a single candle painted on them, and running around the glow of light from the candles were the words, Good Night. Good night is right!

Another pose by the troupe. (Image credit: CharlieChaplin.com.)

“We must have been funny-looking chaps what with our English style of dress and speech. I remember one time Charlie and I were walking over to the theatre all dressed up, hanky up the sleeve, spats, and double-breasted coat, carrying canes–and on the way there we became aware of Nature’s urgent call. Now, public conveniences are a regular part of English life, but they certainly aren’t in America. We searched high and low and couldn’t find accommodation. Finally, in desperation, we asked a cop where the nearest public convenience is.

“‘The nearest what?’ yelled the cop.

“We asked again, very politely.

“He finally got our drift and said very loudly, ‘Aw hell, you’ll have to go to a saloon, mister!’

“Mind you, we were now in a pretty anxious state. We got to a saloon and started down the aisle, as it were, when we realized that we hadn’t purchased anything to warrant our use of the facilities. These polite Englishmen. So, tortured as we were, we marched up to the bar very bravely, ordered a beer and sipped it for a few seconds before we flew away!”

Source:

The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, ed. Peter Haining. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982.

2 thoughts on ““My Eccentric Roommate”–Stan Laurel’s Early Memories Of Charlie Chaplin

  1. That’s fascinating information, isn’t it? This really reflects th extent to which Chaplin really was an outside-of-the-box, innovative genius.

    Awhile back I listened to some audio of Laurel’s reminiscences—it seems it was about an hour’s worth. I remember his speaking of Chaplin, but I don’t remember this much detail, so maybe that was a different interview, or a different part of the same interview.

    Anyway, the whole thing was most interesting. It is amazing just how many different places he was, how many people he knew, how many jobs he had, and how many convoluted turns his career took. What a rich and adventurous performing history. I don’t see how he remembered it all. 🙂

    • Yes, he had quite a life! I was really taken with that short bit at the beginning about getting to see the US while on tour. So many actors shared those kinds of memories, taking trains across the Midwest and up and down the coasts… it was a tough life but they got to see so much.

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