Sunday, May 28, 2017

Chaplin at the volcano

Last month, David Totheroh, grandson of Chaplin's longtime cameraman Rollie Totheroh, visited the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii in hopes of locating the spot where Charlie and his companions took in the volcano in October 1917. He was kind enough to share with me (and you) his findings, as well as a "now" photo.

From David:
While geography changes in relatively drastic ways in volcano country, it is virtually incontrovertible that CC and entourage were pictured at the edge of Halemaumau, a small crater within the much larger Kilauea caldera. A Park Ranger suggested they were probably somewhere near the point that juts into the crater on the far side of the 'now' photo. But unless the 'then' photo was flipped (unlikely), it makes more sense to me, and fits better with the surrounding terrain, that they were in the area of that white patch on the edge of the rim on the closer side of the 'now' pic. In any case, the general public is no longer allowed any closer than the vantage point of my 'now' photo, so sitting at the same place where Charlie sat wasn't possible.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 27, 1917
L-R: Chaplin, Rob Wagner, Edna Purviance, and Tom Harrington

Photo courtesy of David Totheroh

Here's another interesting find.

At the time of Chaplin's visit, the Volcano House was the only hotel in the vicinity. The hotel's guest register is available for viewing on the National Park Service website. Below are the register entries for October 14th, 1917. I have included the Park Service's transcription of the text at the bottom. (There were some errors in their transcription which have been corrected, including "Ron" Wagner and Edna "Perrance").


"My stay at Hilo was very interesting. The landing stage, the pier, the city, and the hotel were very pleasant.
Tom Harrington, Los Angeles, 14 Oct 1917"

"When one writes his impressions in a public document such as this he is conscious that he is supposed to be original, witty or recondite and thus naturally edits what he really thinks. The most original impression I can record is that the crater in no way suggests hell to me. I cannot conceive of any such terrific beauty in hell. On the other hand the tropical jungle of the moss covered trees & huge ferns suggested the inferno of Dante--as conceived by Dore. Terrifying fire is the hell of fanatics, and was invented by them. Hell to a sensitive person would be the mockery and tragedy of tremendous contrasts. A beautiful woman without a soul is more infernal than an ugly old hag. Thus it is that the gray death that hangs over the tropical beauty of the jungle growth of the volcano--the ghastly quiet, the absence of all life in the midst of such a setting is most dreadfully suggestive of hell--whereas there is a splendor, a magnificent glory to the terrific cosmic forces within the crater that are pretty nearly the antithesis to my definition of hell. A description, like an attempted painting or a photograph, is a hopeless impertinence.
Rob Wagner, Los Angeles"

"You wish me to write my impressions of Hilo. Very good. Here it is. I saw the volcano.
Charlie Chaplin, Los Angeles"

"There are many charms in Hilo other than the Volcano. A maidenly diffidence forbids me suggesting the possessor of them
Edna Purviance
Los Angeles"


  1. Very interesting indeed!
    I laughed at the entries :D Those humorists! Rob Wagner's note is impressive! And Charlie's note sounds like "I didn't want to write anything, but they made me do it".
    Love Edna's handwriting.

    1. Yes, she did--especially compared to the others!

  2. Boy, did I miss my chance! The 'now' photo certainly should have been captioned as a current "hopeless impertinence".


    1. Ha! I think my whole life should be captioned this way.

    2. Thank you very much, DT and Jess, for "sharing" this with us. Nice to see Edna's writing.

  3. Cheeky little response he made lol Great post and insane how close they let them get compared to now.