A King in New York

A King in New York

Written by: Michael Vogelle

During 1971 I became a Charlie Chaplin fan. I read My Autobiography along with everything else I could get my hands on. I started collecting his films on Super 8. In January 1972 an article appeared in the New York Times entitled “Chaplin to Visit City; Salute Set April 4th.” It described all the meetings and efforts to convince Charlie to come to the United States after twenty years in exile. It mentioned that tickets were $1,000 to $10. I sent in a check (courtesy of Dad) for twenty dollars to the Film Society at Lincoln Center. And waited. Finally the tickets came! I’m sure I took them out and stared at them every single day for three months! I couldn’t believe it!

Charlie and Oona arrived in New York on April 3rd. They attended a dinner in their honor at the home of Oona’s childhood friend Gloria Vanderbilt. Early the next day my brother Frank and I made the trip into Manhattan. We went to the Lincoln Art Theater at 57th St., east of Broadway, where we saw a matinee showing of City Lights, a first time for me. What a day and night this was going to be. The Lincoln Art was showing many Chaplin films. In fact, Modern Times had just ended after three months!

Finally it was time to make our way to Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. Stretched out in front was a huge banner of the Little Tramp with the words “Hello Charlie.” Many of the store and restaurant windows had posters of Chaplin as well. Lincoln Center is a gorgeous place with huge windows and a large fountain. As we waited to enter Philharmonic Hall, I noticed a very elegantly dressed lady holding a $250 ticket (this allowed one to attend a champagne reception following the films), but I suppressed the urge to snatch the ticket out of her hand and run.

We took our seats (second terrace, I still have the ticket stub!) and waited. On the stage there were what seemed to be a hundred photographers and film cameramen. I noticed something to our left on the first terrace…it was Charlie and Oona! I shouted “there he is!” to my brother. The reaction of the audience was thunderous. It must have lasted five minutes or more. Everyone cheered, yelled, clapped and waved. Charlie blew kisses, put his hand over his heart, and waved to us. He pointed to his wedding ring, then toward Oona, and gave a shrug. This was New York welcoming Charlie. All sorts of feelings were going through that audience, not the least of which was a feeling of joy and wanting to make Charlie feel loved after the bitterness of his long exile. Charlie was in a tux, and I remember vividly his very pink face and snow white hair.

The lights dimmed, and The Idle Class began (according to the Times, it was a favorite of Oona’s) When “Written, Produced, and Directed by Charles Chaplin” appeared on the screen, the audience roared with a great cheer and more applause. It was very nice that Edna Purviance’s name was greeted with a similar loud ovation. When the train stopped and the tramp emerged, there were screams and shouts and another long cheer. As you can imagine, every gag brought laughter and screams of delight from the 2,000 or so people. The biggest reaction came from the whiskey shaker gag.

Then it was time for The Kid. I remember that I really found the music score just beautiful (which Charlie had recently done) and it stayed with me for days after (a bit of this accompanies the open of Unknown Chaplin). I remember looking over at Charlie, his hand resting under his chin, his glasses on, watching himself on the screen from fifty years earlier. At that moment I thought to myself, “I’ll never forget this.” The feeling was simply magical.

For the first and only time in my life I heard people in the audience hissing the villain during the climactic part of the picture. The laughter, cheers and tears never let up. When the film ended, the lights came up and the ovation was louder than ever, everyone facing Charlie and shouting “bravo” over and over. Finally we quieted and Charlie spoke briefly: “Tonight is my renaissance, I’m being born again. It’s easy for you, but difficult for me to speak tonight as I feel very emotional. However I’m glad to be among so many friends. Thank you.”

According to the papers the next day there were many famous people there, but I was only interested in one. There are wonderful photographs taken by Candace Bergen of that night that were published in Life magazine a few weeks later. I think I floated out of Lincoln Center that night. I knew we had been part of something extraordinary, magical. Seeing City Lights for the first time, and later The Idle Class and The Kid with the man himself. The glow of that wonderful night has stayed me for these last thirty five years. Bravo indeed.

Four years ago my friend and I attended the premiere of the Richard Schickel documentary, and I had a chance to speak with Geraldine Chaplin. I told her of my New York experience, and she said “oh I should have been there!”
Michael Vogelle

About the author:

I am currently a Manager of Broadcast Operations at Showtime Networks. I live on eastern Long Island with my wife Julia, and our daughters Lana and Renee.

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