Chaplin conducted the John Philip Sousa band before a record audience at New York’s Hippodrome, February 20th, 1916

A crowd of 6500, breaking a record held by tenor John McCormack, showed up to witness this rare public appearance by Chaplin. “All 5200 seats were filled, people were standing in all parts of the house; 200 persons were seated in extra chairs in the pit usually occupied by the house orchestra, and 65 sat on the stage.” Hundreds had to be turned away because there was no place else to put them. 1

Chaplin didn’t appear until the end of Sousa’s program. He had battled stage fright for years and was extremely nervous before going on.

“It’s several years since I’ve been on the stage, and I don’t know how to act,” he said backstage.

“Be funny,” someone suggested.

“No, I don’t want to be funny.” 2

Chaplin, Sousa, & aviator Clifford Harmon

He was introduced by comedian Tom Wise, who forgot his name and someone in the wings had to yell it to him. Without this introduction, however, it’s likely that many in the audience would not have known it was Chaplin.

Charlie didn’t wear his baggy clothes, big shoes, funny little hat or that trick mustache. In his hand was something that looked like his famous cane, but it turned out to be a conductor’s baton. He wore evening clothes and appeared to be a good-natured, good-looking young man in the late twenties. He is short and dark and very muscular. As film fans know, he has a very amiable smile. After shaking hands with Sousa, he asked, “Shall I say something?” in a voice that shook a little.

He was received with great applause and then led the band–he is a left-handed conductor–as it played “Poet and Peasant” and a composition of his own, “The Peace Patrol.” It did not suggest a comic film at all. There was much laughter at the activity of his conducting.

“I thank you for your kind applause,” he said in his speech. “Can you hear me up there?” he yelled to the gallery and got an affirmed answer. “I am only too pleased to be here.”3

He then confided: “If I could talk like Tom Wise I’d give up motion pictures at once, but I can’t, and I’m scared to death at this very minute with stage fright.”4

The audience applauded until a second curtain call. Chaplin came out, waved to the audience, and thanked them again. Still more applause. Then, on the third curtain call, “he shuffled off the stage with that funny little walk of his, known to movie fans all over the country.”

If there was ever pandemonium in a New York theater it broke loose then and there. Handclapping, shrill whistles, and stamping of feet, cries of “Do it again, Charlie!” from the gallery and all sorts of enthusiastic noises came from the largest crowd ever in the Hippodrome. Just four or five queer steps across the stage–and it almost tore the house down.

There was a loose electric fixture in the dome of the house before the applause stopped. Charlie wanted to be coaxed, and it was not for five minutes that he came out and stopped the tumult. He then had a heavy ulster [overcoat] on, carried his hat in his hand and made gestures signifying that was all. He walked off–naturally this time–and the audience began to leave. 5

Chaplin split his $2,000 share of the receipts evenly between the Actor’s Fund and the British Actor’s Association.

1St. Louis Dispatch, Feb. 21, 1916
2Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Feb, 23, 1916
4New York Sun, Feb. 21, 1916
5Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Feb, 23, 1916

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