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Corsier-Sur-Vevey, Switzerland - Canadians enjoy large role in Charlie Chaplin's popularity

© Tom Douglas

 
Tom Douglas gets a haircut from Charlie
Tom Douglas gets a haircut from Charlie

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, SWITZERLAND - Canadians touring the new Chaplin's World museum a few kilometres north of Montreux on the Swiss Riviera can thank at least four of their fellow countrymen for having had a hand in making it all happen.

Three of those Canadians - Mack Sennett, Marie Dressler and Mary Pickford - were contemporaries instrumental in launching and perpetuating Charlie Chaplin's film career.

Sennett, the filmmaker from Danville, Que. famed for creating The Keystone Kops, gave Charlie his start in movies after spotting him in a vaudeville touring company in 1913. Dressler, born in Cobourg, Ont., was a firmly established stage and film star when she agreed to play opposite Charlie in Tillie's Punctured Romance, released in November 1914. Around that time, Chaplin was developing the persona of The Little Tramp that would soon catapult him into the stratosphere of silent film stardom. Pickford, born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Ont., was known as America's Sweetheart and was riding high in 1919 when she co-founded United Artists with her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, famed director D.W. Griffith - and Charlie Chaplin.

Fast-forward to the 21st century to meet the fourth Canadian, Yves Durand of Quebec City - the man with a dream who has been the driving force behind making Chaplin's World a reality. A life-long Chaplin fan, Durand is a professional museographer who has built state-of-the-art facilities in Canada and in such venues as Portugal and Hong Kong. His skills are reflected in the interactive and technologically advanced features of Chaplin's World.

The museum, built on the grounds of the Chaplin mansion, Manoir de Ban where the comedian died in 1977, features dozens of wall-mounted monitors showing many of Charlie's films. There are stunning wax replicas of Charlie and his fellow film stars, as well as a multitude of posters, musical scores, scripts and other memorabilia loaned by Chaplin's eight offspring. The wax likenesses of film icons such as Buster Keaton, Paulette Goddard and Stan Laurel are so realistic that visitors who bump into them around the "Studio" as the building is called feel they could strike up a conversation with them.

A number of the exhibits are interactive. There's a director's chair with a movie camera in front of it where visitors can pose as though they were helming one of The Little Tramp's movies. There's a barber shop recreation from the movie The Great Dictator with a wax figure of Charlie standing by as if to cut a sightseer's hair - another great photo op. And there's a wall-to-ceiling reproduction of the machinery in the movie Modern Times where patrons can lie on their stomach over one of the cogwheels for a photograph that makes it look as though they, like Chaplin, were taking a serpentine ride through the mechanism.

"I was in Switzerland on business in 2000 and I met an architect named Phillipe Meylan," said Durand while conducting a tour of the site. "He mentioned that he was a friend of Charlie Chaplin's family and I was thrilled. I had been a big fan of The Tramp ever since my childhood. I first thought of him merely as a comedian who could make people laugh but as I grew up, I learned that he was also a great humanitarian and social activist. All through my working career I have had a poster of the man in my office."

When Durand told his new acquaintance that he had always dreamed of building a
museum to the memory of the comedian Meylan arranged a meeting with the Chaplins. They told him that they had long thought of such a project but so far no one had come up with a concept they felt would do justice to their father's memory.

"I just said that if ever we do a museum about your father we'll do a place where Charlie Chaplin will be at the centre of everything," said Durand. "I told them we will use his movies, his music, his scripts. He will be the host. He will be the one who will be inviting people to look at all the material from his life."

The children told Durand they thought their father would have loved that concept. He and Meylan formed a partnership with two other entrepreneurs and Durand took on the responsibility of making the museum a reality - supervising plans and being on site throughout the construction.

It took 14 years of negotiations with neighbouring landowners, and approvals from various levels of government, before shovels could be put in the ground. What resulted was a facility that many visitors rank with the best interactive museums around the world. For 23 Swiss francs for adults - about C$30 - and 17 Swiss francs for children six to 15 - approximately C$12.50 - patrons can spend a whole day if they like taking an unescorted tour of the museum and the refurbished Manoir de Ban. The manor house contains, among
other memorabilia, never-before-publicized family home movies, a dining room with a long table where the whole family usually took their meals and the grand piano where Chaplin composed such melodies as Smile and the musical scores to several of his movies, including Limelight and A Countess from Hong Kong.

Many visitors stay at the Modern Times Hotel, a five-minute shuttle bus ride from the estate. It's a mini-museum of Chaplin relics as well, its walls festooned with posters and monitors that play Charlie's old films.

Durand, a walking encyclopedia of Chaplin's life, took such a hands-on approach to the project that he lived over the garage on the estate during construction. Asked whether he had ever seen the comedian's ghost walking the grounds, he replied: "No, but whenever I came up against a problem I would ask Mr. Chaplin what he thought I should do and the solution usually came to me almost immediately.

And does Durand ever do imitations of The Little Tramp - even at private parties or wherever a few friends are gathered?

"Absolutely not," comes the reply, accompanied by a shy smile. "I wouldn't have the nerve. After all, he was the maestro."

        




Tom Douglas is an Oakville-based travel writer with many travel articles published on this website (see: Our Writers) and author of a number of books on Canada's military heritage. Read Tom's bio at: http://www.writersunion.ca/member/tom-douglas

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Tom Douglas

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