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Accomplishment #8,536

Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, the creators of the "Modern Times" memorial plaque, with film historian Leonard Maltin, at the 2011 SCV ChaplinFest in Newhall, California, on Saturday, February 5, 2011.

When I was 18 years old, I attended a lecture given by John Goddard, the “world’s greatest goal achiever.” I remember being enthralled that day by a film he made about navigating the entire length of the Congo River in Africa. Afterwards, he exhorted all of us in attendance to go home and write down the ten things we most wanted to accomplish in our lives.

I took him up on it, and soon found that ten things weren’t enough. Ten items became twenty, which became fifty, which eventually grew to encompass thousands of things.

Since that day over thirty years ago, I have maintained the list, adding and checking things off almost daily. Thanks to power of writing my goals down, as of today, I have listed 8,536 items on my accomplishment list.

The entry for accomplishment number 8,536 is only three words: Help create ChaplinFest.

That’s it. But I think of these three words as the title of a book, with the thousands of sights, sounds, and memories of the event representing the words inside.

Michael McNevin, Tippi Hedren, Kimi, E.J., and Patrick McClellan at ChaplinFest on Saturday, February 5.

As a way of thanking all of the people who attended our inaugural 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest last Friday and Saturday, I would like to list some of these moments as they appear in my head:

Leonard Maltin and Tippi Hedren mimicking Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in the final scene from Modern Times by walking arm-in-arm down the center of Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce … Seeing Chaplin’s overalls from Modern Times as well as his prop wrenches and oil can … Kimi and I hearing our names on Jack FM during our friend Tami Heidi’s “Jack-tivities,” in which she announced ChaplinFest … the beautiful monument created by the equally wonderful Maria and Charles Sotelo of High Desert Monuments of Hesperia … riding to the actual Modern Times site with Leonard and Alice Maltin … finally meeting author John Bengtson, who I have admired for years … spending time with David Totheroh, who is the grandson of Chaplin’s longtime cameraman, Rollie Totheroh … hanging out with our buddies Chris and Charlie Epting … all the great vendors … the hundreds of hours of hard work put in by volunteers like Ed, Ralph, Brenda, Paul and all the others too numerous to name … the graciousness of Tippi Hedren, and the love she has for her staff at the Shambala Preserve … the bus that serves as a mobile film studio Hugh Munro Neely brought from the Mary Pickford Institute … seeing the very first copies of Steve Bingen’s new book about the MGM backlots … watching Tippi clown for the cameras with our cardboard Charlie Chaplin cutout … the humor of Alice Maltin and the generosity of her husband Leonard … the beautiful proclamations presented to us by the state, county, and city … the amazing Q&A session between Leonard and Tippi on what it was like for her to work with Charlie Chaplin on A Countess From Hong Kong … the dynamic duo of Jim and Pam Elyea talking with David Totheroh about what it was like to work on Chaplin … Tippi’s story about how an elephant at Shambala once ate Sophia Loren’s address book … the donations we received to help pay for the monument … the performances of the great Michael McNevin and Tracy Newman … the laughter coming from members of all generations during our screenings of Modern Times and The Pilgrim … the crowd cracking up when Tippi asked Leonard during the Q&A if he would like to know what it was like for her to work with Chaplin, and Leonard jokingly responding, “No!” … and especially, the camaraderie shared between all of our organizers: Ayesha Saletore, Beth Werling, Rachel Barnes, and my beautiful wife Kimi …

I could go on and on.

If you were unable to attend this weekend, don’t sweat it. Because of the HUGE success of our first event, there WILL be a 2012 ChaplinFest that you can attend!

Put it on your list of things you want to accomplish.

The "Modern Times" monument which we plan to place at the site of the final scene.

To see more ChaplinFest images, click HERE

To make a contribution to help pay for the monument, click HERE

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Charlot

I remember seeing the film Chaplin for the first time in 1992. I, like most Charlie Chaplin fans worldwide, had been eagerly awaiting opening night since learning about the Robert Downey, Jr. production several months earlier.

I took a friend to the film who knew nothing about Charlie Chaplin more than his iconic image. At the beginning of the movie, Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin, enters his dressing room in the Little Tramp’s costume and greasepaint. I remember hearing my friend’s audible gasp when Downey looked into the mirror, pulled off his fake moustache, and wiped the stage makeup from his face, revealing a 25-year-old underneath. Until that moment, my friend had no idea that Chaplin’s aged look was created for the screen. From that moment, a fan was born.

As I pointed out recently, this week marks the 97th anniversary of the “birth” of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, known internationally as “Charlot,” which he hastily created for the one-reeler Kid Auto Races at Venice.

I say “hastily created,” but in reality, while the actual costuming of the character was assembled in a rush, the characterization of the homeless little man trying to make his way through life, while keeping his dignity intact, had been percolating in Chaplin’s mind since his days as a street waif in Victorian London.

The Little Tramp would live on until 1936, when Chaplin retired the iconic character at the conclusion of Modern Times.

To kick off the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest in Newhall this Friday evening, we will be screening Chaplin, which was partly filmed in nearby Fillmore, California.

On hand for the screening will be props used in the film, as well as a visit from David Totheroh, who appeared as his grandfather Rollie’s assistant in the film. (Rollie Totheroh was Chaplin’s cameraman for forty years.)

Incidentally, David’s father Jack, who still lives in the Santa Paula area, recently set a world record for having the longest film career ever, having appeared in a Broncho Billy Anderson film when he was six-months old in 1914, and again a couple of years ago in a movie made in Niles, California.

The screening of Chaplin is intended as a primer for those people who, like my friend back in 1992, have little knowledge of Charlie Chaplin, the man. With any luck, we will be creating some new Chaplin fans that night.

We will recognize them by their gasps when the greasepaint comes off.


Remembering Buster

Forty-five years ago today, the laughter was silenced.

I’ve been writing a lot about Charlie Chaplin lately since my wife Kimi and I are helping host ChaplinFest, which begins on Friday evening in Newhall, California.

But today, I would like to focus our attention on Buster Keaton, another of the silent era’s comedic titans, who was a friend and rival of Chaplin.

Porkpie topped, stone-faced Keaton was a master of physical comedy, technical innovation, and the use of visual effects in his films.

Born Joseph Keaton into a vaudeville family in 1895, young Buster claimed to have gotten his nickname from magician Harry Houdini who was part of the troupe.

Buster entered his parents’ act at the age of three, and remained a performer for the rest of his life. Despite having only one day of formal education, he had the mind of a mechanical engineer, and possessed a lifelong fascination with machines.

Buster made his film debut in 1917 with his friend Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in New York, and later claimed to have taken the movie camera apart on the set that day, learning how films were created. He would use his new knowledge in later films to create innovative visual effects.

Before long, Keaton had his own studio in Hollywood (which he acquired from its former occupant, Charlie Chaplin). During the 1920s, Keaton was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, ranking alongside Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in terms of popularity. He made several silent masterpieces during the decade, including 1927’s Civil War comedy The General (which just happens to be my all-time favorite film).

Chaplin and Keaton had a great deal of respect for each other, and Keaton actually appeared in Chaplin’s film Limelight in 1952.

And like Chaplin, Keaton also filmed around Newhall.

In 1921, Keaton made a film called The Paleface, where he escaped from Indians across a bridge that was constructed over Beale’s Cut in Newhall. Beale’s Cut was a 90-foot man-made slit carved though a mountain which aided travel to and from the San Fernando Valley from the mid-1800’s until bypassed in 1910. Keaton returned to Beale’s Cut in 1925 to film a scene in Seven Chances.

ChaplinFest will be held at the William S. Hart Regional Park in Newhall, which contains the home and ranch of the former silent cowboy star. Ironically, William S. Hart was the subject of a western parody that Keaton filmed in 1922 called The Frozen North. Buster was angry at Hart for publicly condemning his friend Fatty Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s well-publicized scandal, which was brought on by the death of an actress at a party.

In The Frozen North, Keaton pokes fun at the tough, melodramatic character that Hart most-often portrayed in his films. Hart apparently didn’t find the portrayal funny, and refused to speak to Keaton for two years

Keaton has an additional area tie as well – his mother Myra is buried nearby in Glen Haven Cemetery in a canyon just north of Sylmar. (This cemetery is also the final resting place of Anne Cornwall, who played Buster’s girlfriend in his 1927 film College.)

Buster is buried in Burbank’s Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery just steps away from the grave of Stan Laurel, another former Chaplin friend and rival.


Charlie Chaplin’s Days

Last night in Santa Clarita’s city council chambers, a motion was approved proclaiming Saturday, February 5, 2011 “Charlie Chaplin Day” in the city.

This was done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the release of Charlie’s final silent film Modern Times, which was partially shot near Santa Clarita.

The early part of February often proved significant during Chaplin’s long and storied career.

Charlie was a young English music hall performer on tour with the Fred Karno Troupe when he was discovered by producer Mack Sennett and given a contract to work in the flickers. He had not yet turned twenty-five when he first stepped through the gates at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale in January, 1914.

He was immediately thrust in front of the cameras, and on February 2, 1914 made his film debut in a 15-minute comedy called Making A Living where he plays a swindler who gets apprehended by the Keystone Cops.

Less than a week later, on February 7, Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character debuted in a one-reeler called Kid Auto Races at Venice. Sennett loved to use whatever was happening in Southern California as a backdrop for his hastily constructed plots, and Kid Auto Races was no exception. A soapbox derby race was taking place down by the beach and Sennett hustled his cast and crew to Venice to capture the action. A plot was derived on the site requiring Chaplin to play a camera-crazy spectator at the races who sees the filming and does whatever he can to insert himself in the action.  

Chaplin hurriedly assembled a contrasting mélange of oversized and undersized clothing, dabbed on some greasepaint to create a moustache, doffed a derby, grabbed a cane, and just like that, one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history was born fully-grown.

Chaplin appeared in two more films over the next few days, including one that until recently was thought to have never existed.

On February 19, Charlie played a Keystone Cop in a film called A Thief Catcher. It was soon forgotten and all copies were thought to be lost. Chaplin, possibly because he was unsatisfied with the finished product, later claimed that the film had never been made.

A couple of years ago, a film historian was browsing in an antique shop in Michigan when he discovered the long-lost film. (We will be presenting A Thief Catcher, along with Modern Times on February 5 in Newhall as part of ChaplinFest. Leonard Maltin will be hosting a Q&A session with Tippi Hedren before the film. Ms. Hedren, who is most famous for starring in The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, also starred in Chaplin’s final film, A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967.)

February 5 also proved significant to Chaplin in 1919. That was the day that he, along with film pals Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, created United Artists.

It’s interesting that the February 5th “Charlie Chaplin Day” proclamation will be presented in a special ceremony down the hill from the William S. Hart mansion in Santa Clarita since Bill Hart would have been the 5th member of the United Artists team had he not pulled out of the deal at the last moment.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

In case you haven’t heard, the Academy Award nominations were announced this morning with The King’s Speech leading the nods with 12.

While looking over the nominees in the category of Best Actor, I noticed something interesting.

Should Jeff Bridges win for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a role that won the Oscar for John Wayne in 1969, it would be the first time in history the same role would produce two Best Actor winners. (The role of Vito Corleone did win Oscars for two men, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, but only Brando’s award was for Best Actor. De Niro’s came in the Best Supporting Actor category.)

Interestingly, two men were denied accomplishing this same feat by Wayne’s win in 1969. That year, Peter O’Toole was nominated for playing Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a role that won Robert Donat the Oscar in 1939. Richard Burton was nominated for his portrayal of Henry VIII that same year, which had previously won the statuette for Charles Laughton in 1933.

A win would also make Bridges only the third man (along with Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks) to win the award in consecutive years, following his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart last year.

Of course, the other nominees this year – Javier Bardem, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco – will be hoping to create some history of their own. None perhaps more than Firth, who was also nominated last year for A Single Man, but lost to Bridges.

The award in the category goes to the best screen actor of the year, not the best person of the year.

This proved lucky for Emil Jannings, the first man to win the award in 1928. The heavily-accented Jannings failed to make the transition to talkies and returned to his native Germany where he became a major supporter of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Allies entered Germany, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar everywhere to curry favor with the invading troops.

Another interesting piece of Oscar trivia is that Robert Downey, Jr. is the only man to be nominated in the Best Actor category for playing a man who was once nominated for a Best Actor Oscar himself. This happened in 1992’s Chaplin, when Downey was honored for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, who was nominated for a Best Actor award in 1940 for The Great Dictator. (We will be showing Chaplin as the kick-off to ChaplinFest on Friday, February 4 in Newhall.)

Should Bridges win for True Grit, it may help to remove some of the stigma attached to John Wayne’s Oscar, which was thought by many  to have been awarded to honor Wayne’s entire body of work, rather than his actual performance in the film.


From Niles to Newhallywood

The ending of "The Tramp" in 1915.

At the conclusion of the Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp (1915), Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, heartbroken after losing the girl, shuffles off alone down a winding dirt road.

The situation was much different twenty-one years later in the final scene from Modern Times when Chaplin retired the iconic character.

Charlie Chaplin was an English music hall performer in his early twenties when discovered by Mack Sennett and brought to Hollywood to star in the “flickers.” During his first year in the business in 1914, Chaplin made 35 films at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale, and rose from complete obscurity to become the most recognized man in the world.

Chaplin was only earning $175 per week at Keystone and got lured away to Essanay Studios the following year with the offer of a 700% raise (to $1250 per week) plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

Essanay Studios was named after the initials “S & A” of its two main partners, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was based in Chicago but Broncho Billy, who was one of early cinema’s first cowboy stars, later came west to set up a second facility in the town of Niles, California to shoot Westerns.

After signing with Essanay, Chaplin first filmed in Chicago before coming to Niles. He wasn’t impressed with the town when he got there. The East Bay village was far too rural for the young man who had only ever lived in the big cities of London and Los Angeles.

Chaplin would only stay in Niles long enough to make a handful of films, but one of them, The Tramp, is today considered to be his first masterpiece.

In the film, Charlie stars in the role of his “little tramp” character, which he had created for Keystone. Sennett’s frenetic filming schedule had prevented him from developing the character fully, relying mostly on slapstick to get a laugh. At Essanay, Chaplin was able to add pathos to the character, making him more sympathetic.

At the end of The Tramp, Chaplin has been rejected by his lady (played by Edna Purviance) and walks off through the Niles Canyon alone. Dejected at first, he then shrugs his shoulders, picks up his pace, and hustles off in search of his next adventure.

When Chaplin decided to retire the character at the end of Modern Times in 1936, he came to the Santa Clarita Valley, which was known to early filmmakers as Newhallywood. In Modern Times, Chaplin paid homage to the final scene of The Tramp with a twist. He again walks off, but this time the road is straight and paved, and most importantly … he’s got his girl at his side. The Little Tramp’s days of facing the world alone have ended.

Chaplin and his works will be honored at the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest on February 4 and 5 in Newhall, California, with films, lectures, book signings, and the dedication of a monument honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times.

Some citizens of Niles will be on-hand to represent their town that day, including musician Michael McNevin.

The Little Tramp and his girl at the conclusion of "Modern Times" (1936).

To learn more about ChaplinFest, click here.

To learn more about Niles, click here.


Catching It All

“I went from playing ball, to catching it all … I was the man behind the lens.”  I Shot Broncho Billy, Michael McNevin

Charlie Chaplin with Rollie Totheroh (center) on location in Truckee, California, during filming of "The Gold Rush" (1925).

The entire world is familiar with the films of Charlie Chaplin, but only hardcore Chaplin fans know of the man behind the lens, Rollie Totheroh, one of the men most responsible for the Little Tramp’s success. Totheroh, who was born 120 years ago today on November 29, 1890, was a true pioneer in the field of cinematography, and was Chaplin’s principal cameraman for the better part of four decades!

Charlie Chaplin first rose to stardom in 1914 at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. During the year he was at Keystone, Chaplin appeared in 35 films, and went from obscurity to worldwide fame in the process. At the start of 1915, Chaplin went to work for Essanay Studios, which was owned by two men, George K. Spoor and “Broncho” Billy Anderson, one of the first Western stars of silent film. (Their initials, “S and A,” gave their studio its name.) Essanay was based in Chicago, but had a studio in the East Bay area of Northern California, in the town of Niles. Essanay was able to hire Chaplin away from Sennett by giving him a boost in salary to $1250 per week from the $150 per week he was making at Keystone. It was in Niles that Chaplin made such films as The Champion and The Tramp.

Totheroh was a former semi-pro baseball player who had first joined Essanay in 1911 as a “ringer” for the company baseball team. He was quickly put to work acting in some of the four hundred Westerns produced at the studio before moving behind the camera. In those days the work of the cameraman was a grueling one, requiring the steady cranking of the camera with one hand, while focusing the lens with the other. When Chaplin joined Essanay, Totheroh was assigned to be his personal cameraman, and the relationship stuck. They ended up working together until 1952, when Chaplin was exiled from America.

Chaplin was unimpressed with the facilities in Niles and left for greener pastures the following year, taking Totheroh with him. Before leaving Niles, Totheroh got married and had a son named Jack, who in 1915 appeared as a nine-month old female infant in the Broncho Billy film, The Bachelor’s Baby. 92 years later, Jack appeared in the feature, Weekend King. His nine-decade-plus film career is the longest in history, earning Mr. Totheroh a spot in the Guinness Book of Records. Jack is still with us at age 95, living in the Santa Paula area. He and his son David appeared in cameo roles in the 1992 film Chaplin, starring Robert Downey, Jr.

In Newhall, California, on the weekend of February 5, 2011, Kimi and I will be helping to host the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest to honor the 75th anniversary of the release of his epic silent feature, Modern Times. Chaplin came to the Santa Clarita Valley to capture the last scene of the film nearby. It was the final scene of the entire silent era.

Rollie Totheroh, of course, was behind the lens that day.

Rollie Totheroh's grave in North Hollywood's Vallhalla Cemetery.

For more information about ChaplinFest, check out www.scvchaplinfest.org. You can also friend us on Facebook at “Modern Times” Plaque – Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest.”

BTW, if you would like to hear the phenomenal Michael McNevin perform live, we hope to have him at ChaplinFest. Click here to see a clip of Michael playing Two Feet Ahead of the Train for us in Niles.