Monday, April 20, 2015

Chaplin battles enormous crowds and stage fright during the Third Liberty Loan Tour, mid-April 1918

April 15th: Columbia, SC: Chaplin appeared at the Fort Jackson Army base where he spoke to an "almost riotous group of young men." The crowd became so "unwieldy" that an S.O.S. call was sent out for military police. Afterward he addressed an even larger crowd at the Columbia Theater comprised mostly of children who "turned out in a solid phalanx and stormed the theater in struggling mass formation for standing room in the corridors or any other available niche, climbed over window sills pell mell, and chased Mr. Chaplin out through the basement of the theater."1


Chaplin at Fort Jackson

April 16th, Augusta, GA: Chaplin spent his 29th birthday giving a speech at the Wells Theater and then visiting the Camp Hancock Base Hospital where he "talked to the convalescents and distributed cigarettes among the patients." That evening a birthday dinner was given in his honor at the Augusta Country Club. (Read more about his visit here)

With the exception of his visits to Army bases, Chaplin made a point of adopting an air of seriousness during his Liberty Loan appearances. He was there not as "Charlie" but "Charles," doing his part to help the war effort. "You can see me funny for a nickel," he reminded one crowd.2  He would not perform his famous "Chaplin walk" unless a certain number of bond subscriptions were purchased. If they purchased more, he would do other stunts. 3 When a bond purchase was made, the check was made out to Chaplin who then endorsed it and handed it over to a Liberty Loan representative so that the autograph would eventually be returned to the subscriber.

His speeches included leading the audience in "Over There," if a band was present he would jump up on a chair and lead it-- "going one better to Sousa in the art of gesticulation." 4 He then revved up the crowd by asking them to give "three cheers for the Liberty Loan!" & "three cheers for the army and navy!" His talks, which became shorter as the tour went on, encouraged citizens to "fight or pay." He would also address the question of why he didn't fight" "I have been asked why I didn't go. I am ready to go when the government wants me to go, but if I can serve it better by doing what I am doing then I am going to do it with all my might."5

State Capital building, Nashville, April 18th. Rob Wagner is on CC's right. (Roy Export SAS)

April 17th, Macon & Atlanta, GA: Over $500,000 in bonds were purchased from the 8,000 people who packed the Atlanta Auditorium. Pandemonium broke out when Chaplin performed his famous waddle and other tricks for the audience:  "He promised to show them the Chaplin walk if they reached a certain point in subscriptions. They did it, and he walked. He promised to stand on his head and they made him to do that. He flopped over backward, jackknifed, flipped, landed on his head, righted himself. The crowd went wild." 6

April 18th, Nashville, TN: Chaplin was welcomed by a "monster crowd" at the Ryman Auditorium (future home of the famous Grand Ole Opry). Admission was free and every seat was filled. Thousands were turned away. When Chaplin, who was late in arriving, walked on stage, he asked if there was anyone "hanging on the rafters." He then spoke frankly to the audience: "Gee, but this is one patriotic sight but I want to tell you that I am about played out. I've been sleeping on one leg for about three weeks. However I assure you it is a great pleasure for me to be here, even though it be on a serious mission. I am not a speaker. I am not a politician. I am just a movie actor trying to influence you to buy liberty bonds."7


Nashville Tennesseean, April 19, 1918

It's clear that Chaplin wasn't feeling well in Nashville. He told one reporter that he was "stuffed full of cold." But he was also exhausted & on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He had travelled non-stop since the tour began on April 6th, often making 3-4 appearances in one day. He cancelled all but one appearance in Memphis on the 20th. He also cancelled engagements in KY (Bowling Green & Paducah). This was done at the request of a physician who told him that if he didn't rest his health would be in serious jeopardy. An announcement was eventually made that Chaplin would cancel the rest of his tour after New Orleans on the 23rd. Interestingly enough, the reason he gave for quitting was not his health but stage fright: "Facing crowds" he said, "has made a nervous wreck of me and I must quit. I have tried to memorize my speech, but my nerve fails me." Chaplin admitted to a Liberty Loan representative in Memphis that "facing an actual audience and trying to speak is a terrible strain." He struggled so much during his speech in Memphis that he was "several times to the point of giving up." Evidently Chaplin had been battling stage fright since the beginning of the tour. En route to Washington, DC for the tour's kick-off, Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made a brief stop in Chicago to attend a reception at the Blackstone. When a crowd gathered at Union Station to see them off, he refused to leave his compartment to greet them. "Why don't you show yourself to them?" he was asked. "I dislike it," he replied and sank deeper into his seat.9


State Capital, Nashville. (Roy Export SAS)
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1The State (Columbia SC), April 16, 1918
2ibid
3According to the Winston-Salem Journal (4/14/18), Chaplin made one promise that thrilled the ladies of Charlotte, NC:
"For a $5000 subscription I will kiss the subscriber," and--as an afterthought--"for a $10,000 one I will marry her!"
The words had hardly dropped from his lips  when several young ladies, almost in unison, sighed. "Gee whiz! I wish I had $5000." Another exclaimed: "Bet your life I'd like to have ten!"
4Times-Picayune, April 24, 1918
5Nashville Tennesseean, April 19, 1918
6Atlanta Constitution, April 18, 1918
7Nashville Tennesseean, April 19, 1918
8San Francisco Chronicle, April 23, 1918
9Winnipeg Tribune, April 25, 1918

5 comments:

  1. I was wondering, I've heard different stories, did Charlie ever enlist? I believe I read that he had and was rejected for some reason. Others have said that he did not. Anyone know the truth about this?

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    1. He registered for the draft but was determined to be too small and underweight to serve. You can see his registration card here: http://www.discoveringchaplin.com/2012/11/charlies-wwi-draft-registration-card.html

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  2. Congratulations and thank you for your posts. That's the most complete account of the Liberty loan drive I've ever read! D.

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  3. Agreed. More awesomeness.

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