Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Chaplin Exhibit in St. Louis

My road to the Chaplin exhibit at the St. Louis County Library began in New Orleans in 1960. I had been living in San Francisco for about a year, hovering somewhere between Beatniks and a regular 9-to-5. Neither had worked out for me. So I stopped in New Orleans on the way home, not the most direct route but a fortuitous detour. I watched a Kennedy/Nixon debate on a little TV set in a French Quarter bar one night. The following day I wandered along the streets, not really looking for anything in particular, when I stopped at an artist's gallery on one of the narrow side streets. Inside I saw a work of art, framed, hanging on the brick wall. It was a charcoal drawing of Charlie Chaplin. 

I told the artist I liked it, wanted to buy it, but didn't have the money. I left...without the drawing. Four months later, back home in St. Louis with a job, I had the money, wrote the artist, heard back that he had put the artwork away for me, knowing I'd buy it someday. And that's how it started. 

Now, 50 years later, after numerous visits to book stores, eBay, garage sales, antique stores, and even the Montecito Inn, I figured it was time to put some of the items on display. The most difficult part was deciding on the items. 

Joe Delmore at work
With the help of friend and fellow Chaplin aficionado Joe Delmore, the exhibit went up for public enjoyment on Wednesday, August 1, and will remain there for the entire month. Joe missed his calling. He could have been one of retail's great window designers. Besides having a sharp eye for details in movie scenes, his sense of balance, flow and focus elevated the display from "nice" to "superb."

A rewarding side note: while we were arranging the items, I was surprised by how many people stopped, smiled, and talked about Chaplin and silent movies. The exhibit contains over 50 items, including posters from the Museum of the Moving Image in London (now closed) when they were celebrating Chaplin's 100th birthday. Books from Sweden, France, Ukraine, Germany, Japan and India. 

A match book cover from the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Chasen's, signed by Charlie. The restaurant opened in 1936, was famous for it's chili, and celebrities, and shuttered in 1995. True to Hollywood habits of ignoring its past, the building was demolished to make room for a grocery store.

Even a beach towel (not vintage, never used) and a tee-shirt with a caricature by David Levine. I have a lithograph signed by Hirschfeld, but kept it at home. Too large for the display case. I also excluded two large boxes of clippings, photos, cards, etc. that would have made the exhibit look like an attic. 

I have seen two great Chaplin exhibits in my life. The first was at the aforementioned Museum of the Moving Image, in London. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, it was literally just blocks from where Charlie was born and spent an impoverished youth. The items on display put me back into the late 19th century, gaining insight into the world of the young Chaplin.

The other exhibit appeared in October, 2010, at the Zanesville Museum of Art. Organized by Lisa Stein, who was responsible for the 
First Charlie Chaplin International Conference, 
the exhibit featured a remarkable array of 
Chaplin material - letters, photographs, artwork, books   and magazines, personal items. What made it a singular experience for me was to be wandering around the museum in the company of people like David Robinson, Chuck Maland, David Shepard, and other Chaplin experts and writers from around the world. My only regret was not staying in Zanesville an extra day at the museum.

If you're in St. Louis, or driving through, stop by the Library, across from the swanky Plaza Frontenac collection of up-scale stores, most of which Charlie would not have patronized. 

If you're in New York - caution: plug alert - check out the new show on Broadway, "Chaplin: The Musical," which begins previews on Aug. 21 and opens on Sept. 10.
The Three Stags Pub, courtesy of Carl Sturmer
A pint of bitter. To your health.

If you're in London, stop by the Three Stags Pub for a pint. That's the last place Charlie ever saw his father. I have a glass from there, thanks to another Chaplin friend and fan, Carl Sturmer of New York. Carl has documented a lot of buildings and locations in London connected to Chaplin, which I'll be referring to in future posts. My "to do" list now includes sharing a few pints with Carl at the Three Stags.


  1. Beautiful exhibit Gerry! Nice work by Joe as well.

  2. Thanks, Mike. And I invite you to join Carl and me in London for a pint.

  3. Very nice collection. I also attended the 2010 conference and thoroughly enjoyed the Chaplin exhibit at the Zanesville museum.

    1. Thanks, Jessica. I have about another 70% that wouldn't fit in the case. The exhibit at the Zanesville museum was one of the best assembly of art and items. We were fortunate to be there.