“I’m not prone to ally myself to clubs or organizations. I’m not a good fraternizer, but if I am to join a club it shall be the Water Rats.” –Charles Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World,” 1933
The Grand Order Of The Water Rats is an exclusive club for vaudevillians based in London. It was established in 1889. Among the first inductees was Dan Leno, a boyhood idol of Chaplin’s.
When Charlie returned to London in the Fall of 1931, he “felt the urge to renew old acquaintences.” One of those acquaintences was Charlie Austin (brother of Albert) who was doing a show at the Palace Theater. During intermission, Charlie went backstage to chat with his old friend. In the course of their talk, Austin told Charlie, “We want to make you a Water Rat. It’ll be a wonderful thing to meet some of the old-timers again. After all, you were one of us and we feel you belong.” Charlie noticed his remark “you were” and it “affected” him. 1
|Chaplin at Water Rats meeting in October 1952.
Wee Georgie Wood is behind him on the left,
Ventriloquist Fred Russell, who officiated Chaplin’s initiation
ceremony in 1931, is on the right.
(Source: The Chaplin Encyclopedia/Glenn Mitchell)
Another old vaudeville chum Charlie saw at this time was Wee Georgie Wood. Wood, whom Charlie nicknamed “The Little Dynamo,” was in attendance at Charlie’s Water Rat initiation ceremony. He described the occasion during an interview in 1956:
The night Charlie Chaplin became a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats was solemn and hilarious, moving and magnificently mad. It all happened in 1931, but it might never have taken place but for a chance meeting in Bud Flanagan’s dressing room at the Victoria Palace. Bud his partner, Chesney Allen, and Freddie and Charlie Austin, were playing cards when a famous head popped round the door and said to Charlie, “Hello, Oats.”
It was Chaplin, using the Cockney rhyming slang he had never forgotten. “Oats” is short for “Oats and barley”–“Charlie.” Freddie and Charlie were the younger brothers of Albert Austin who had gone to America with the same Fred Karno company as Charlie and later worked with him on many of his pictures.
Charlie Austin was wearing his gold Water Rat emblem in his lapel, and when Charlie saw it he sighed, “I used to yearn to be famous, so that they would invite me to be a Rat.”
|Water Rat pin.|
Well, after that it was agreed that Charlie Austin should propose Chaplin Chaplin for membership and I, one of his closest friends in Britain, second him. Which brings me to the night in question.
The initiation ceremony was due to start at eight o’clock on Sunday evening at our former headquarters in Old Compton Street, London. I’ve never seen such a turnout of Rats, and every one of them arrived on the dot for a truly great occasion.
In fact, the only person missing was Chaplin. There we sat in our full regalia, waiting for the greatest man in show business, and getting more and more impatient.
At nine o’clock, Charlie Austin, who was supposed to escort him to the headquarters, rang up to say he was on his way, but had been delayed. The temper of the meeting improved a little.
Wood goes on describe how tempers flared again when Charlie didn’t arrive at ten o’clock, or eleven o’clock. Many threatened to walk out.
Midnight came…* And there, smiling uncertainly, stood a small, dapper figure.
For a second there was silence. Then the entire audience rose and cheered. The image of that Chaplin smile had swept away their anger. And the victory was complete when he explained that he had spent four hours battling his way to us. Not even the police had been able to clear a passage for him through the throngs trying to see him.
A new Rat usually makes a solemn initiation speech. But there was never anything usual about Charlie! He gave us a full hour of spontaneous humour, impersonating great Water Rats of the past, giving his own wonderful impression – his “party piece” – of a girl undressing in a French hotel! When it was all over, a crowd of us went on to Charlie Austin’s flat for another hilarious party and finished up with Charlie at six in the morning somewhere in Kennington.
Charlie said, “I feel I’d like to go back and see some of my old haunts again.” So we joined him on this sentimental pilgrimage to the streets of his boyhood and early youth. 2
“When it was over,” Charlie remembered later, “I came away with a feeling of gratification at the honor paid me by those whom I had honored and worshiped in other days.” 3
|Blue memorial plaque at Chaplin’s boyhood home on Methley Street in London.
Note that it says: “Film maker and Water Rat”
* According to an article in the Daily Mail, November 2nd, 1931, Charlie arrived at the Water Rat headquarters at 11:15pm.
1 Charles Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World, Part IV,” A Woman’s Home Companion, December 1933
2 Wee Georgie Wood, “A Night With The Water Rats,” reprinted in Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration, Peter Haining (editor), 1989
3 Charles Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World, Part IV,” 1933