By 1905, Sherlock Holmes had ascended to the peak of his powers and popularity. Indeed, exploits of the famed detective could no longer be confined to the printed page. Holmes had become the subject of a well-received play – by the public if not the critics – that opened in 1899 and, after a long run at New York's Garrick Theater, was taken on a nationwide tour across the United States. In 1901, the play, aptly titled Sherlock Holmes, crossed the ocean to receive an equally enthusiastic response at London's Lyceum Theatre. Simultaneously, a touring company brought Sherlock Holmes to towns and cities throughout England and Wales, assuring that, to the extent possible, no one would be denied the pleasure of witnessing the detective's besting of Moriarty, or his success in winning the heart of Alice Faulkner, whom audiences happily recognised as Irene Adler's doppelganger.
Even as Holmes's star had become fixed in the firmament, another star was beginning an improbable ascent to the same lofty heights – largely through an association with the great detective. By the time he entered his teenage years, an often destitute Charlie Chaplin had been twice in and out of the workhouse, suffered the death of his frequently absent and routinely inebriated father, and, on two occasions, witnessed the institutionalisation of his mentally ill mother. And still, whatever their private demons, his parents, both performers themselves, managed to instill in their son a love for the stage, and to offer concrete support to the beginnings of his career. His father got him his first job on the stage, when, at the age of eight, he became the youngest member of a clog dancing troupe, the Eight Lancashire Lads (one of the Lads being an artfully disguised lass), while his mother provided constant support and encouragement, qualities he would reciprocate as best he could during the continuing slow decline in her health.
Describing his life during those early years, Chaplin wrote, "I had been news vendor, printer, toymaker, glass blower, doctor's boy, etc., but during these occupational digressions, … I never lost sight of my ultimate aim to become an actor."
His persistence was rewarded finally when, at the age of twelve and a half – and pretending to be fourteen – he was hired to play the role of Billy, the pageboy, in the touring company that took Sherlock Holmes to all parts of the English isle.
When their forty-week tour ended, a second followed, then a third.
Finally, in 1905, Chaplin, now a seasoned performer of sixteen, received the offer of which he had only dreamt. On the basis of his consistently good reviews, William Gillette, the author of the play and the foremost portrayer of its lead character, asked Chaplin to join him at the Duke of York's Theatre for the planned revival of Sherlock Holmes. Chaplin described the call as "tidings from heaven," and his excitement as so great that he forgot to ask about wages.
He received plaudits for the London performance as he had throughout his tours, even gaining an entry in The Green Room Book, later to become Who's Who on the Stage. Nonetheless, whatever his accomplishments, it would be a mistake to think of Chaplin's performance in Sherlock Holmes as leading inevitably to his stage and later movie success. He was only seventeen when the play had run its course, and he had yet to develop the comedic skills that would make him an international star. Still, as he reported in his autobiography, that early work on the stage allowed him to gain an understanding of stagecraft and performing, while his positive reception must certainly have raised confidence in his own abilities, preparing him for the achievements yet to come. Nor was his performance, or at least that of his character, without an influence on life at 221B Baker Street. Sometime after the pageboy, Billy, first appeared in Sherlock Holmes, the same Billy made an appearance in Dr. John Watson's accounts of Sherlock Holmes's adventures.
Barry Brown, Feb 2020
Barry S. Brown's Mrs. Hudson Takes the Stage, sixth in the Mrs. Hudson of Baker Street series. In that book, Charlie Chaplin again appears as Billy the pageboy, this time joining with Mrs. Hudson and Holmes as they work to solve a murder committed backstage at the Lyceum Theatre, where the play, Sherlock Holmes, is in performance.