Randy Weeks

Published on February 13th, 2019 | by Randy Weeks

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The View from the Balcony: Chasing Charles Chaplin

I’m writing this on February 1, 2019. Just up the road a bit the 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival is underway and Oxford’s own film festival turns sixteen on February 6, ironically—or perhaps not—the same day I turn 64 (shameless, aren’t I!). I’m sitting in my room in Montecito California’s Montecito Inn, where Charles Chaplin’s spirit is still very much alive. Some say the place is haunted by Mister Chaplin’s ghost. I have it on good authority that it’s not just a rumor.

Last night the footsteps above me were especially loud and were punctuated by the sound of repeated sharp tapping, as of someone aggressively rapping, rapping on the ceiling-floor. I got up, slipped on my clothes, grabbed my cane and hat, and walked upstairs. The light emanating from suite 305 flashed and flickered through the cracked door. I carefully peeked in at what I can best describe as a living silent movie. In addition to the strobe-like lights there were little dots and squiggles dancing in the air. The sound of an old projector was unmistakable.

Then what to my wondering eyes did appear, but the young Little Tramp grinning at me! He took off his hat, made a sweeping deep bow while steadying himself with his cane, and beckoned me to enter. He spoke not a word as he directed me to a seat, then went straight to his work of perfecting a plethora of subtle ways to comedically use his cane. Being a cane man myself, I took copious mental notes, to which the Little Tramp tipped his hat in approval. He practiced for hours that, for me, flew by in a flash. Finally, he removed his hat with a second swooping bow, signaling it was time for me to take the floor.

I hesitated. He insisted. And so I began the feeblest of attempts at canesmanship. Mister Chaplin scowled and raised his palm, insisting that I stop. He gently yet decidedly took my cane, inspecting its full length, both visually and tactilely.  With a coy grin he shook his right index finger, chiding this novice, and deftly drew the hidden sword from its hiding place. Returning the blade to its home, Mister Chaplin embraced my cane, closed his eyes in deep meditation, caressed and kissed it, then returned it to me, inviting me to try once more.

My feet, my hands, my entire being were no longer mine. I found myself waddling like the Little Tramp, gliding across the floor like Fred Astaire, and brandishing my cane like Bat Masterson on the streets of Tombstone – powerfully, but not quite la canne or bartitsu. I launched my sword into three full aerial revolutions, catching it nimbly in its wooden sheath without so much as a grazing of my left hand. Mister Chaplin leapt excitedly with a round of air applause. Taking his lead, I balanced myself on my cane, took off my hat, put it over my heart, and offered a deep bow of gratitude. Mister Chaplin bowed his head and saluted me.

I broke the silence. “Thank you, kind sir.” Mister Chaplin raised the index finger of his right hand, moving it back and forth from left to right, while shaking his head right to left. “Mister Charles?” I queried. Another finger shake. “Charles?” A third shake of the finger. “Charlie?” Mister Chaplin grinned and gave a slight hand clap of approval. With the swish of his right hand he invited me to dance with him. He lined out a few steps and I mimicked his movements. Then we tripped the light fantastic in tandem, exchanging the lead from time to time, neither of us missing a step.

Finally, Charlie’s eyes and posture told me that the lesson had ended. As I walked away I stopped in the doorway and turned to give one last word of thanks, but Charlie’s back was to me as he continued honing his art to the flicker of lights and clickity whir of rusty projector reels. I went back to room 205 and crawled in bed. The rapping and tapping continued. I thought, “Charlie’s in 305 and all’s right with the world.”

The rhythmic sounds lulled me to sleep and what dreams did come! They were the stuff of magic – the magic that has been ours for generations – the wonderful magic of the art of moving pictures. Viva la film!

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