A Star is Born — Charlie Chaplin’s
By Allan R. Ellenberger
This year marks the 5oth anniversary of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The idea for the Walk of Fame, which is world famous, goes back to 1953 when E. M. Stuart, who served as the volunteer president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce proposed the idea. Stuart described the Walk as a means to “maintain the glory of a community whose name means glamour and excitement in the four corners of the world.” A committee was appointed to begin fleshing out the idea. In 1960, 1,550 honorees were selected by committees representing the four branches of the entertainment industry at that time, and were laid out on the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard and two blocks of Vine Street – everyone that is, except for comedian Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin’s name was in the original list nominated for inclusion in the walk back in 1956, but Hollywood property owners objected to Chaplin, charging his moral and leftwing leanings tended to discredit him and the entertainment industry. His star was not included.
In 1952 Chaplin had left Hollywood on a visit to England and while aboard ship in the Atlantic, was notified that his reentry permit had been revoked. Atty. Gen. James P. McGranery said the action had been prompted by “public charges” associating Chaplin with communism and “grave moral charges.” The comedian would have to appear at a hearing to prove his “moral worth” before he could return. Chaplin, who was still a British subject, declined to go through such a hearing. “Since the end of the last world war,” Chaplin said, “I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.” Chaplin and his family moved to a mansion overlooking Lake Geneva near the Swiss village of Vevey.
That government ruling was widely and correctly interpreted as a shabby cover to bar Chaplin from the country for political reasons. While he never belonged to a political party, he was sympathetic to liberal and some radical causes. Worse, he was outspoken. And some of his films, which ridiculed aspects of American society, were denounced as “left-wing propaganda.”
In August 1960, a superior court judge refused to issue an order compelling the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and the Hollywood Improvement Association to show cause why they should not be directed to include Chaplin’s name on the Walk of Fame. The court acted on a petition filed by Charles Chaplin, Jr., who contended that omission of his father’s name from the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk project was malicious. Chaplin Jr. himself demanded $400,000 damages on the complaint that the decision of the two Hollywood organizations libeled him and injured his career. His suit was eventually dismissed.
After the reentry prohibition against Chaplin was dropped years later, the actor remained in Switzerland. As the years passed, both Chaplin and the times changed and, in an interview in London in 1962, he said: “What happened to me, I can’t condemn or criticize the country for that. There are many admirable things about American and its system, too. I have no ill feelings. I carry no hate. My only enemy is time.”
By the early days of 1972, the officials, including an attorney general of the United States, who were outraged at Chaplin’s radically-tinged politics, were now gone. It was rumored that Chaplin would return to the United States for the first time in twenty years to receive a special Academy Award voted to him. If Chaplin decided to return, he would have to apply to the U.S. Consulate in Geneva for an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa. The U.S. State Department would then rule on the application.
Possibly because of Chaplin’s promising return, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Committee voted on whether to approve a star for the actor and voted 5 to 4 against it. After that vote, Chamber president, A. Ronald Button ordered an advisory poll of chamber membership that responded 3 to 1 in favor of installing a Chaplin star. Based on that, the Chambers directors went against their Executive Committees recommendation and voted 30 to 3 in favor of adding Chaplin’s name to the sidewalk honor. The decision still had to be approved by the Los Angeles City Council, but Button said it had always approved the directors’ recommendations in the past. “I can’t imagine them opposing the star,” he said. Eventually the city council approved Chaplin’s star, 11 to 3. The three dissenting councilmen never spoke publicly in opposition, but privately complained that since the comedian earned his money here he should not have left the country to live in Switzerland.
At the time there were eighty names previously approved that had not yet been inserted because the funds were not available. This was before the days when a star had to be paid for by fans. Instead each star’s installation was funded by the Chamber which, at the time, cost between $900 and $1,000. However, one unnamed board member offered to pay for the installation of Chaplin’s star. At that time it was not known where or when the installation would take place.
Soon it was announced that after an exile of two decades, Chaplin would return to the United States and be honored with a special award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Before leaving Switzerland for New York, Chaplin received anonymous death threats, most by telephone saying they were going to kill him. “He expected to be shot over here,” said William Jordan, whose private detective firm was hired by the Academy to guard Chaplin during his four-day visit to Los Angeles. “That was his line. He said, ‘They killed Mr. Kennedy.’ I can’t give you the exact number but there were at least a dozen. They were coming into the Music Center – site of the Oscar presentation – and they called his hotel.” Sometimes they specified they were going to blow him up or shoot him. Sometimes they didn’t specify how it would be done.
On April 7, 1972, the 82 year-old Chaplin and his wife Oona arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. Photographers, cameramen and reporters lined a walkway that extended from the plane to a waiting car. Finally, after a quick flurry of activity, Chaplin appeared at the top of the terminal stairs. He was short, almost portly. His white hair was wispy in the breeze. As he reached the base of the stairs he looked up and smiled at the row of waiting reporters. There were no cheers, no applause. He waved, and his words were barely audible. “How does it feel to be back, Mr. Chaplin?” a reporter asked. “Very strange,” was his reply.
Oona and Charles Chaplin on their arrival in Los Angeles in 1972
Only two representatives from Hollywood awaited him at the end of the walkway – Daniel Taradash, president of the Academy and Howard W. Koch, a member of the board of governors and the Academy’s treasurer. “This is the happiest moment in the history of Hollywood,” Taradash told Chaplin. The comedian, perhaps unable to hear amidst the commotion, shook his hand but reportedly said nothing. Chaplin was taken to the Beverly Hills Hotel, passing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Culver City and 20th Century-Fox en route. His car did not stop or slow down. Chaplin made no public appearances, interviews or tours while he was in Los Angeles and turned down many of the private invitations he received.
During Chaplin’s arrival that morning, a statue of him was unveiled at the Hollywood Visitors and Information Center at Hollywood and Vine to commemorate his return. Almost immediately bomb threats and complaints poured in forcing the removal of the statue the following day to the Artisan’s Patio at 6727 Hollywood Boulevard, where it went on public display. Letters from across the country were received expressing bitterness towards Chaplin and Hollywood’s welcome after twenty years. “I am tired, tired to death of these insane Revolutionary Zionists of which Charlie Chaplin is one of the very worst,” wrote one critic. There were several defenders – by far the minority – among the letter writers, and one expressed a common sentiment: “His political beliefs of whatever persuasion should not be allowed to obscure his comic genius.”
Threats were also leveled at the dedication of Chaplin’s Walk of Fame bronze star ceremony which was scheduled for the following Monday morning – the same day Chaplin would receive his special Oscar. Anonymous telephone threats that the star would be ripped up or defaced were received. One letter writer said: “The only star I would give Charlie Chaplin is a red star… I am against putting Chaplin’s name on any of our streets. He never donated a dime or time to anything in America. I say don’t let him enter these United States again. Russians can have him with my compliments.”
The following Monday morning, fans and several armed guards, gathered at the northwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and McCadden Place as the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce officials uttered words of benediction over Chaplin’s star. Chaplin’s 12 year-old granddaughter, Susan Maree Chaplin, unveiled the star in her famous grandfather’s absence. The dedication ceremony was attended by many Hollywood oddities including “Alice of Hollyweird,” with her singing dogs; Albert Ciremele, a Chaplin impersonator, and “Aunt Pollu,” sweeping up the street with a gold-speckled mop. Also attending were several Keystone Cops, only one of whom, Eddie LeVeque, was an original. In the crowd were several old, white-haired women passing out a sheet of paper purporting to show “Charlie Chaplin’s Red Record.” To anyone who would listen, they would rail on about Chaplin’s political philosophy.
The Chamber of Commerce hired private detectives to guard Chaplin’s star until the actor returned to Switzerland. One guard commented that some person’s walking by had made derogatory remarks but “most of the people are pro-Chaplin.”
Charlie Chaplin’s Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (above and below) as it looks today at 6755 Hollywood Boulevard
That evening, Chaplin and Oona were accompanied by private bodyguards and driven to the Music Center where he received his special Oscar for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” Stepping onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Chaplin received the longest standing ovation in Academy Award history, lasting a full five minutes. Filled with emotion, Chaplin told the captivated audience: “Oh, thank you so much. This is an emotional moment for me, and words seem so futile, so feeble. I can only say that… thank you for the honor of inviting me here, and, oh, you’re wonderful, sweet people. Thank you.”
Chaplin after accepting his honorary Oscar
Before he returned home to Switzerland, Chaplin met with Tim Durant, an old friend, confidant, roommate and sportsman. According to Durant, Chaplin was bewildered by the Los Angeles he came back to as an old, uncertain, rheumy-eyed man. Chaplin would look out, but didn’t seem to recognize the beaches at Santa Monica, where in the old days Marion Davies would hire a bus and run down to the beach at night and light a fire and hunt grunion with Charlie and Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino till dawn. One day he turned to Durant to shake his hand, and tears came to his eyes. “Tim, we were pals, weren’t we?” Chaplin asked. “And we did have fun, didn’t we? And it’s all gone now, isn’t it?”