This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Guyonvarch, directrice of Association Chaplin, Roy Export and Bubbles, Inc. The first time I saw Kate was at the now defunct Chaplin Society UK’s meeting in London in 2000. I think it was Thomas Burke who called Charlie a shiny white light, because you could just see the energy busting out of his pores. Well, this was the impression I had of Kate, one that hasn’t proven wrong over the five years now that I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing her. Her energy and creativity are, in fact, well-represented by my beacon metaphor, but she is more than that. Much more. Her faith and belief in me and my work have changed my life and she has enthusiasm enough for any such project-be it business, research or otherwise. And, just as important, you’ll never meet a warmer person, if you travel to the ends of the earth looking for one.
What exactly is Association Chaplin and what does it do?
The Association Chaplin is a Swiss association for the protection of the name, image and moral right linked to the works of Charlie Chaplin. Six out of eight of his children are members (the other two didn’t want to belong) and Josephine Chaplin is director. She manages decisions that are taken, reviews and approves Roy Export or Bubbles contracts, and oversees complicated issues that are sent out for vote to her brothers and sisters (excluding Geraldine, who at her request was bought out by one of her siblings a few years ago). If the majority of the family votes for a project to go ahead, then the office has leave to deal with it.
The work I do other than for the Association is for Roy Export, owner of the films made from 1918 onwards and all the Chaplin archives, and Bubbles Inc., the company that owns Chaplin’s image for merchandising purposes. People tend to think the Association Chaplin handles all that, as it is an easier and more identifiable name to remember, and I realise it is confusing because it is always the same people representing the different entities, but each entity has specific rights or tasks.
Put a face (or faces) on the organization for us, if you would. How did you come to work for the Chaplins and how has your role evolved over the years?
I started as a secretary for the Chaplin office in Paris in 1982, working for Rachel Ford and her then assistant Pam Paumier. In those days there was far, far less work to do. They had been very busy in the 50s and 60s, and early 70s, and then things gradually wound down. When Miss Ford retired, I continued to work for Pam, who with Lady Chaplin’s support, opened things up more to the outside world, in particular for 1989, the centenary of Chaplin’s birth. Pam retired in the early 1990s.
Being from a different generation from Miss Ford and Pam, less “protective” perhaps, and with the support of the Chaplin children (same generation as me…), the majority of whom have a firm attitude of “duty-holder” as opposed to “rights-holder,” my aims were and still are to make Chaplin as available and present as possible, and to secure the archives for posterity to enable the family to say to the world “we have done our bit, done our best, to preserve and promote his legacy.” Gradually, thanks to enthusiasm, huge smiles, hard work, and above all the help of many people worldwide working on so many different projects, including you Lisa, we seem to have been building up more interest, and it makes me very happy.
The more interest, the more work : my assistant Claire Byrski has been with us for about three years and it changed my life to have her. And Charly Sistovaris, Josephine’s son, is our website and IT manager. It’s great to think that he is ensuring the propagation of information about his grandfather.
We heard about the Charlie Chaplin archive in Bologna a newsletter or two ago, do you have anything to add about it? Is the Montreux, Switzerland location open to researchers?
The Bologna cinemathèque has been scanning the archives for the last five years, and the whole job should be finished in 2007. We would never have got this monumental task done ourselves, so I am incredibly grateful to Gian Luca Farinelli for instigating it and to the Bologna Cassa di Risparmio foundation for financing it. I hope people will enjoy browsing the catalogue and reading some of the documents when it is all up there. The things we have found are amazing, but my personal passion is for the press books in Montreux, which are too enormous and full of clippings to scan as yet. I absolutely adore taking time off from the office and going through them, taking notes so I can tell researchers which albums to go to when they need something in particular. I think I’m the first person ever to spend so much time doing this, which is a great privilege.
The location in Montreux is open to researchers if they have prior permission from us, and I stipulate what they can and cannot look at.
Are there any new research projects afoot you can tell us about?
When all the scanning is complete, including as much of the press books as we can, we will bring out a huge book like the Taschen Kubrick one or the Phaidon Andy Warhol one with all the best bits from the archives, but it will take a long time to curate.
We are looking forward to your, Lisa’s, biography of Sydney Chaplin, whose life is a mystery to us all. The family are a bit apprehensive of what you might dredge up!
I’m not aware of any other important research projects right now, but it is always nice to learn of students becoming interested in Chaplin and writing about him, even if only school projects.
Can you update us on the Charlie Chaplin heritage museum project?
The Chaplin Museum in Switzerland is currently blocked in its planning permission by an opposition from a neighbour, who does not want trucks and building and traffic and so has decided to oppose the project for as long as he can (in Switzerland democracy goes a little too far..!). Once the tribunal has ruled him out, hopefully later this year, the work should begin, and will take at least 2 years. If all goes well, this should be an exciting venue, not just a house to visit, but also a place to return to again and again because of all the things happening there.
2007 is Charlie’s 30th anniversary year. Can you talk specifically about what has been planned so far in terms of exhibits, performances, festivals, etc.?
Check out the website, http://www.charliechaplin.com/.