To the Manoir Born

I recently got back from a trip to Montreux, Switzerland, for hopefully the last leg of music research for my Chaplin book. And since I was there, I had to revisit the local Chaplin sites.

First up was a trip to Chaplin’s home—Manoir de Ban—located above the Swiss Riviera in the tiny village of Corsier-sur-Vevey. After parking my bags at my hotel in Montreux, I took the bus over to Vevey 10 km east down the coast of Lake Geneva. When I last visited the Manoir back in October 2014, the grounds were deep in construction for the future site of the Chaplin Museum, which is due to open in spring 2016. At the time, the museum’s designer Yves Durand was kind enough to give me a tour of the grounds and the Manoir itself.

Oona & Chaplin at Manoir de Ban

The Manoir hasn’t been occupied in years and It was an eerie feeling walking through the empty rooms. The furniture—including Chaplin’s piano and padded bench, with its cross stitch embroidery—had all been put in storage at Durand’s workshop to later recreate the exact look of Chaplin’s home from the ground up.

Mildewed wallpaper was peeling off in chunks and dust had settled over the marble entryway and empty bookcases. Oona’s odd, all-mirrored bathtub was still intact, while on the upper floors, where the children and nannies lived, charming crayon drawings still pockmarked the walls.

The most memorable moment for me, especially from a musical standpoint, was gazing out on the expansive sloping back lawn with its breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains from the window in the living room where the piano once stood. In this spot so much of Chaplin’s musical creativity had taken place as he tickled the ivories and hummed tunes over and over in his charming, off-key voice, composing scores for everything from A KING IN NEW YORK to A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG and his new scores for his old silents. Chaplin may never have had the skill to be a concert pianist, but demo tapes for his scores, housed at the Association Chaplin office in Paris, not only attest to his shaky vocal pitch, they also demonstrate that he certainly had greater talent than the simple, three-fingered piano playing that has been attributed to him in the past. The effect of standing in that spot staring out the window was chilling.

This time around, I just planned on seeing how the construction was going. But who should come walking from around one of the buildings but Yves himself. Once again, he graciously escorted me through the latest progressions in the construction. The Manoir was off limits on this visit, covered by scaffolding and plastic. But Durand took me on a tour of the converted barn and the new building that will showcase the entire breadth of Chaplin’s films. I’m looking forward to tilting in the replica of the GOLD RUSH shack and sliding through the gears of MODERN TIMES, but for me the highlight of the museum will be the Manoir’s living room, which according to Durand will focus on the music of Chaplin’s films, the music he composed in that spot, and the musicians he welcomed at the Manoir, which included celebrated Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I couldn’t leave Corsier without paying my respects once again at Charlie and Oona’s graves. The intimate Corsier cemetery is tucked away at the end of narrow street. Blink and you’ll miss the sign at the intersection in the center of town.

The small cemetery is immaculately kept. To find the Chaplin graves, go to the last row on your right and turn left. Charlie and Oona are nearly the last plots on your right, just a couple of headstones up from that of actor James Mason.

Last fall when I visited, a friendly stray cat accompanied me up and down the rows. I missed my feline friend this time around. I had no other reason to visit the graves except to say a silent thanks to the man who has meant so much to me, especially over the last couple of years as I work on this book.

While the visit to Corsier lent a human touch to my visit, the real purpose was further music research at the Chaplin Archives in Montreux. But more on that in a later post…

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