Fellow Performers: Part I

Fellow Performers: Part I
Musician-Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Michael Cartellone

This month will begin three months of my interviews with fellow performers. The first is Michael Cartellone. I became acquainted with Michael initially from the newsletters, or maybe it was my website, I can’t remember. But we emailed back and forth for a couple of years about various little pieces of Chaplin information. He mentioned to me that he’s been an admirer of Charlie’s since his childhood, which I always find fascinating. Then this year, Michael offered me tickets and backstage passes to a Skynyrd concert near to me and so my man Hank and I happily accepted the offer. The visit backstage with Michael was outstanding. He is a very gregarious, down-to-earth sort of individual and we couldn’t have felt more welcome. And, since Michael is from Cleveland, Ohio, his mother, father, sister and family and brother all attended the show and we got to visit with everyone during that incredible hour backstage. Michael’s father let loose of some candid stories about Michael and his boyhood Charlie devotion. Great stuff! Anyway, after enjoying an amazing concert from the fourth row and watching all the acrobatics involved in playing the drums, I think I understand it all now. I’m very interested in the special sort of affinity some performers seem to have with Charlie, and so let’s allow to Michael get started telling us all about just that.

Michael Cartellone with his painting of John Lennon and Yoko OnoMichael Cartellone is a multi-platinum recording artist and drummer for the legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. His other recording and/or touring credits include: Damn Yankees, Peter Frampton, John Fogerty, Cher, and Freddie Mercury. Michael is also an accomplished painter and has exhibited in Art Galleries from New York to Los Angeles. You can view his Artwork at www.michaelcartellone.com. How did you initially become interested in Charlie Chaplin’s work and why do you think you’ve stayed interested for so long?

When I was 15 years old, I saw The Gold Rush in a film history class in school. I loved everything about it. I can vividly remember my first glimpse of Charlie, shuffling across that glacier with the bear following him. How could you not laugh out loud? Also, it was my introduction to someone using pathos so brilliantly, as he did throughout his career. Shortly afterward, I discovered PBS was airing the First National and Mutual shorts on television. I remember how much I would look forward to those and my lifelong admiration was cemented. The more I studied Charlie’s work, the more connected I felt to it and what he was trying to say. His films actually improved my sense of humor, made me look at life a little differently and I believe, helped make me a better person. I’ve read other people’s accounts of their introduction to Charlie and have seen that I’m not alone in these sentiments. He really knew how to reach the everyman. Charlie’s films have never lost this impact on me.

Unlike some of the other Chaplin admirers that I’ve interviewed, you have a special connection with him because of your musical talents. How would you say you relate to Charlie as a fellow musician?

Charlie’s acting is visually very rhythmic. I noticed that on my first viewing of The Gold Rush, with “The Dance of the Rolls.” Being a drummer, I actually hear and feel a pulse when I watch that scene in the silent form. His movements have been compared to a ballet dancer and I believe this is because of his natural musical sensitivity. As you know, he wasn’t a trained musician, which underscores the fact that he had this ability within. He wrote beautiful, haunting melodies for his films, which I love and find myself humming often. His use of flowing bass lines, which were dark and moody, were also ahead of their time. I even hear some of Charlie’s musical influence popping up in contemporary music. For example, Phillip Glass recently composed the soundtrack to a film called The Illusionist– which I find very Chaplin-esque, musically. John Barry also made sure to evoke Charlie’s musical spirit, when he composed the soundtrack for Richard Attenborough’s beautiful film. Of course, this tipping of the hat is the biggest musical tribute of all.

In addition to your admiration of Charlie’s creative work, I know that you are also a collector of Chaplin memorabilia. Can you talk about your collection and maybe focus on one or two of its most important items and how you came by them? Why do you think you collect (how did you get started)?

Michael with the Chaplin cane Like others, I started collecting all the films and books I could find, perhaps, to feel physically connected to Charlie in some way and to learn more about him. In 1984 on a whim, I wrote a letter to Oona Chaplin and was happily shocked to receive an answer. I have alovely return letter (which included a photo she took of Charlie on the set of A Countess from Hong Kong) framed in my home. Also, from an auction house in Greenwich, Connecticut a few years ago, I purchased a Chaplin bamboo cane. Charlie had given the cane to actress Gloria Swanson on the City Lights set. In 1977, she had given it to a famous New York City radio personality, Joe Franklin. He auctioned it about thirty years later to me. I met Joe at a movie screening in NY recently and introduced myself. He was happy the cane found a good home and made sure to impress upon me that I should never sell it- needless to say, I don’t plan to. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find a more important Hollywood relic than Charlie Chaplin’s cane. I couldn’t be more proud to own it.

I understand you are also a painter and as such, working on a painting that Charlie is in. Can you talk about your choice of Charlie as such a subject?

Thanks to Kate Guyonvarch for this newspaper clipping. I had an idea to paint my heroes sharing a moment together: Charlie, Harry Houdini and my father. Being fascinated with the 1920’s and loving my adopted home of New York City, I combined all of the above in a photo realistic black and white painting. Consequently, the painting shows the three of them, sitting on a bench (my Dad between Charlie and Houdini) in a busy street scene, sharing a laugh- it’s very Norman Rockwell-esque. Charlie is wearing a cap, casual suit and tie and is not made up in his Tramp persona. He is aged about 40, as are Houdini and my Dad, so they appear to be contemporaries. Actually, Charlie and Houdini did meet in Hollywood once and took a photo together, which you may have seen. It was fun painting Charlie in this context, but only the studied Chaplin fan would recognize him. I did this purposely- so it was about the men themselves and what they mean to me- not their public personas. This is easily the most personal painting I’ve ever done.

If you had the chance to meet and talk with Charlie today, what would you discuss-what would you want to know?

This is a great question, Lisa. I’ve often wondered this myself. I recall Charlie being in a few dreams of mine actually, but I seem to remember being awestruck. Anyway, those who know me would tell you that I’ve never been one to start political conversations. But, I would be curious to talk with him about what he went through with the “Communist Witch Hunt” part of his life and being barred re-entry to the United States. It was such an unfortunate thing that someone like Charlie who had brought so much happiness to people for so many years was forced to endure. I think he may like to express those feelings and would appreciate that someone would ask. As impressive as that may seem, I probably couldn’t resist following that thought provoking question, with asking how he filmed the lion cage scene in The Circus (which I try to figure out every time I watch it). It would also be fun, just reliving some of his fond memories of the early Hollywood Pioneer days as well. Of course, I would like to think I could make a meaningful impression upon him. I don’t know if I could, honestly. The one thing I would surely do is thank him for everything he gave to us.

It is interesting to me that Charlie seems to have so many rock ‘n roll connections. His nephew was Jefferson Airplane’s drummer Spencer Dryden, who just died recently, and he’s been immortalized in songs such as Lou Reed’s “City Lights” and more recently J-Five’s “Modern Times.” Do you think this is a coincidence, or do you see some deeper connection between the non-conformist or anti-authoritarian personae that many rockers embody and, possibly, similar attributes possessed by Charlie’s Little Tramp character-or maybe some other connection?

Michael outside the Chaplin studio stage door, Hollywood Well, the Little Tramp (and for that matter, the real Charlie) had an anti-authoritarian quality that most rockers have, which is an interesting connection now that you mention it. However, I can tell you another rock connection to Charlie that I experienced first hand. His studio lot in Hollywood at one point was the home of A&M Records (now of course, the Jim Hensen/Muppets Company owns the lot). A&M built a state of the art recording studio on the grounds (where the studio swimming pool used to be) and I had the good fortune to record there a few times. The first time, I made sure to explore every inch of the place. Knowing the original layout, it was fun to discover that some buildings (and their contents) remained completely untouched. The carpenter’s workshop still had ancient tools, for example (although now I’ve seen them side by side with Miss Piggy heads, which was bizarre). I’ve been back to the lot many times and have seen more and more: the film developing lab and it’s storage vault directly below, the main soundstage (where I’m a little ashamed to admit playing catch with a football), Charlie’s personal office/dressing room and on the last visit, the screening room (restored to its original splendor). I have to say though, the memory I cherish most was from my first visit, when I walked in Charlie’s footprints in the cement sidewalk. I can’t even put into words what that experience was like. For those of you who don’t know: when the studio was first built, Charlie put on his Tramp shoes and shuffled through wet cement. He then wrote his name in the last section where his feet had come to a stop. The comedian Red Skelton, who later owned the lot, took this piece of the sidewalk when he sold the studio. I would have done the same thing. Even now, I still find it very surreal visiting the lot and maybe it’s me, but you can feel Charlie’s presence.


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