“The world has Chaplinitis,” said a reporter for Motion Picture Magazine in 1915. “Any form of expressing Chaplin is what the public wants.” In addition to a barrage of newspaper articles, Chaplin started appearing in comic strips, animated cartoons, and books. Tramp dolls and toys lined shelves and Chaplin became popular in song. In the 1914 revue Watch Your Step, Lupino Lane sang “That Charlie Chaplin Walk.” There was a also a “Charlie Chaplin Glide,” a Charlie Chaplin “March Grotesque,” “Those Charlie Chaplin Feet,” “Charlie Chaplin, the Funniest of Them All,” and “The Funniest Man in Pictures.” The French had their own popular “Charlot One-Step.” So it’s not surprising that Chaplin hoped to parlay some of that success into a sidebar business venture.
In 1916 Chaplin partnered with his old friend Bert Clark, a vaudevillian who had also worked at the Keystone Company, to co-found the Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company. The purpose of the company, according to Motion Picture News, was to “popularize the music written by the well known comedian.”
Chaplin’s company letterhead boasted of offices in New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Johannesburg, and Sydney, though there is scant evidence any of these existed. The primary office was a room on the third floor of Blanchard Hall, a downtown Los Angeles office building at 233 South Broadway across from City Hall, which was “devoted exclusively to music, art and science.” The building, which went all the way through to Hill Street, was also named (on the Broadway side) after Frederick W. Blanchard, who had been influential in the city’s music business and later became the first president of the Hollywood Bowl. “H. Newmark” was chiseled into the façade of the Hill Street side of the building, honoring one of the city’s leading citizens (who had arrived in 1853) at the site of his former residence. The ground floor housed the Bartlett Music Company, while the second floor was devoted to the 800-seat music hall, which offered chamber music concerts and other programs, as well as studio space for 150 musicians and an art gallery. The building was chopped down to a single story in 1959 and later demolished.
Once word got out about Chaplin’s new venture, other publishers wanted a piece of what they were hoping would be a lucrative pie. “We are informed that you contemplate starting a music publishing business,” began the December 1915 letter from The Orpheus Music Publishing Co. “If this is the case, and you are requiring a British Agent to exploit your published numbers in The United Kingdom & British Colonies we beg to inform you that we shall be pleased to set as your agents & to receive samples with lowest wholesale rates as they are published.” The British Music Company went one better, stating, “We shall be pleased to undertake the sole agency in Europe, and particularly in Great Britain, of works published by your firm.” The company printed two thousand copies of what Chaplin called “two very bad songs and musical compositions of mine—then we waited for customers.”
One of the songs, “Oh! that Cello,” features a memorable shot of Chaplin on the cover of the sheet music. His love for the instrument was such that he dragged his cello and violin along with him on tour of the US in 1911/12 with the Karno troupe. “Since the age of sixteen,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, “I had practised from four to six hours a day in my bedroom. Each week I took lessons from the theatre conductor or from someone he recommended.” But when it came to the cello, “I could pose well with it but that’s about all.” As the chorus for the song explains:
Oh! that Cello!
It sounds so sweet and mellow,
When I hear you play that Cello
I get dreaming
I get a sentimental mood
A loving feeling
Play that music once again.
That fascinating mating
Oh! memories that burn and pain,
Play that Cello for me once again.
The back of the sheet music for “The Peace Patrol,” Chaplin’s instrumental composition that he later performed with John Philip Sousa, contains a plug for “O! that Cello” with the tagline—“This Number Should Be On Every Piano.” In addition, the company published “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget,” which scholars usually ascribe to Chaplin’s lingering love for Henrietta (Netty) Kelly, whom he had met in the summer of 1908 when she was a dancer with Bert Courts’ Yankee Doodle Girls. Though Chaplin never specifically indicated that the song was dedicated to Kelly, who later died in the flu epidemic of 1918, it is easy to equate the words to the feelings he had for her:
There’s always one, you can’t forget,
There’s always one, one vain regret,
Tho’ grief is dead, mem’ry survives,
Fate linked we two, mated our lives.
Why did we meet only to part,
Love comes once into the heart.
Tho’ it may cause pain and regret,
There’s always one you can’t forget.
Those compositions are the three most commonly associated with Chaplin’s music publishing company. Yet the Margaret Kerrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a copy of an envelope that lists two other pieces—”Little Madam Butterfly” and “The Return of the Troops” march. I have yet to find any evidence of either tune, though the line on the envelope separating the march indicates that Chaplin’s company possibly published music by other composers.
As Chaplin “waited for customers,” the press wondered whether or not it was actually the Charlie Chaplin at the helm. “We are not sufficiently acquainted with the arcana of music publishing to know whether the ‘Charlie Chaplin’ heralded in the September Autography bulletin as the composer of a masterpiece entitled ‘O! that Cello’ [sic] (played by Lee S. Roberts), is actually the eminent artist whose ability to run down an ascending escalator or tap another gentleman on the coco with a billet of stove wood is the admiration of countless millions,” said The Music Trade Review. “We do not know, we say, but we certainly do care. Won’t Mr. Roberts withdraw the veil and let us into the secret?”
Two weeks later, the riddle was solved. After “considerable anxiety [had] been expressed in various quarters” as to the identity of the composer, “the Q R S Co. aver that it is the simon pure Charles. He is doing quite a bit of composing nowadays between acts, so to speak, and moreover is publishing his own compositions. ‘Oh that ’Cello’ [sic] is quite pleasing even to the ear of one who does not revel in the popular music of the day. Lee Roberts made a hand played roll of it and has a nice letter from the real Charles written from Los Angeles giving his permission for its inclusion in the Q R S catalog.”
Bert Clark put his dresser and handyman, Tom Harrington, in charge of the office. But when Clark went back to New York after a month, the office closed. Harrington stayed behind to become Chaplin’s handyman, valet, and secretary.
Chaplin called the whole endeavor “collegiate and quite mad. I think we sold three copies, one to Charles Cadman, the American composer, and two to pedestrians who happened to pass our office on their way downstairs.” Today, all that’s left of the Charles Chaplin Music Publishing Company are some priceless, yellowed copies of sheet music…and a few unanswered questions.