|Chaplin in New Orleans. His secretary, Tom Harrington, is behind him on the right.|
Chaplin proved himself not only a film comedian, but an orator of eloquence, “pep” and endurance….He was up and down the stage, a bundle of fire….
Comedian or orator, Chaplin delivered the most effective Liberty Loan speech made in New Orleans since the war began. His antics were made side issues of the words which bubbled from his lips in tumultuous volume. His work was all the more commendable when it is realized he really was a sick man. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 4/24/18)
Exhaustion and stage fright forced Chaplin to cut short his Liberty Loan tour after a month. His appearance in New Orleans was to be his last, before heading back home to California (this plan changed too but more on that later). It was his first visit to the Crescent City, added late per his request. An elaborate parade, in which he was to be the main attraction, was to be held in the afternoon but was cancelled due to his health. He seemed to make up for it that evening, however, with an energetic appearance before a rowdy crowd of 10,000 at the Palm Garden auditorium at the fairground.
Preceding Chaplin onstage was former governor of Iowa and former Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie M. Shaw, who earlier in the day had expressed sharp disapproval of the country allowing actors and actresses to sell liberty bonds. Wrote the Gulfport Daily Herald (4/25/18): “He likens their campaigns to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned, and to ‘Sunday School Picnic’ methods and considers it in a sense sacrilegious in view of the seriousness of the war.” Not surprisingly Chaplin wasn’t on stage while Shaw spoke and waited outside the building until his speech was finished.
|Times-Picayune, April 23, 1918|
It was clear that the crowd was there to see Chaplin and Shaw had a hard time getting them to listen to him. In Chaplin’s War Trilogy, author Wes Gehring notes: “Of course, the audience’s response might have been a partial response to Shaw’s aforementioned uppity attitude towards performers.” When Shaw finished and left the building, Chaplin entered. Carlyle Robinson, his press agent, attempted to make a speech but the crowd was “Chaplin wild.”1 Once onstage, “his smile was reflected back by 10,000 others. He was up and down the stage trying to talk but the cheering wouldn’t stop.2 Then he turned to throwing kisses. He had nearly kissed his hand off when the crowd decided to sit down.”
“I am only a moving picture actor,” Chaplin told them,”but I want you to understand I am speaking seriously. We know we entered the war a little too late, but not too late. I believe we know the seriousness of it now. We have had too much optimism–it is now time to forget the optimism, get down to real business, and we are going to do our best. Tonight, we are going to be patriotic. Money is nothing, but it is up to us to do our bit through the medium of money. I went through the cantonments and saw the magnificent fellows in training there. It is great to be able to give your money for great fellows like them. Money is nothing. If you don’t give it now, they will take it from you later, so come on and subscribe. We have had too much of the waving of the Stars & Stripes. It’s a case of fight or pay; let’s get down to business.” His voice was “magnificent and went the limit of the Palm Garden,” said the Times-Picayune.
A man interrupted the speech to claim the right to make the first subscription, “Chaplin jumped into the air, seized his derby and did his nifty hat trick. Up into the air he went and his coat came off. The crowd went wild. He jumped into the bandstand and led the playing of ‘The Stars & Stripes Forever’ going Sousa one better in the art of gesticulation.” Then an usher yelled that a $10,000 subscription had been made. “Up in the air went Chaplin and down on the floor on his back. Up went his feet as he did a back headstand. On his feet again he gave three cheers for Vaccaro [the subscriber] and the crowd went wild again.”
Then came the kissing. In Richard Dawson-like fashion, he had kisses for everyone–young and old alike:
One elderly woman brought in a subscription for $1000. She drew a kiss, and became the happiest woman in the building. She brought up her two little daughters to meet Chaplin.3 He kissed the youngest one and started to kiss the other. She appeared older than she really is and the comedian hesitated, but recovered quickly and delivered the kiss.
Chaplin sold $227,000 worth of bonds at the Palm Garden. A “regular riot” ensued when he tried to leave at the conclusion of his speech. “A mob of people surged to the platform and policemen had to fight for a passageway for him.”
An interesting sidelight to Chaplin’s visit was that his latest film A Dog’s Life arrived in New Orleans at the same time he did. He had completed the film only a few days before he left Hollywood on the bond campaign & had not seen it since. He viewed the film in a private screening at the Strand Theater on the morning of his arrival (the 23rd).
He had originally intended to stay in New Orleans for two weeks but his doctor ordered him to take a complete rest, “which he cannot obtain anywhere except Los Angeles, where the people are so accustomed to movie folk they do not crowd around him.” However in typical fashion, Chaplin did not heed his doctor’s advice.4 When he left Louisiana his destination was not Los Angeles, but New York. More on this later.
Read more in my Liberty Loan Tour series here.
Sources: New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 24, 1918 Wes Gehring, Chaplin’s War Trilogy, McFarland, 2014. This is an excellent resource for more in-depth information about the Liberty Bond tour.
1Robinson and Charles Lapworth were often warm-up speakers for Chaplin on the tour.
2This was the era of megaphones. Those close to the stage were probably the only ones who could hear him.
3How old was this “elderly” woman if she had two “little daughters”??
4The Los Angeles Times reported that Chaplin became ill in Hollywood before he left for the tour and that his doctor insisted that he cancel his trip East to recuperate. Chaplin ignored him and left anyway. (LA Times, April 2, 1918). The nature of his illness wasn’t disclosed in the article but it may have been exhaustion from trying to finish A Dog’s Life before he left town. He notes in his autobiography: “As I had a commitment to release it at the same time as the bond drive, I stayed up three days and nights cutting the film. When it was finished I got on the train exhausted and slept for two days.”