March 26, 1911: Charlie Chaplin performs at Duluth’s Empress Theatre

On this day in Duluth in 1911, Charlie Chaplin made his first appearance in the Zenith City at Duluth’s Empress Theatre at 12 East Superior Street (home today to the Electric Fetus). Chaplin was part of an ensemble cast of 16 performers in “A Night in an English Music Hall,” a comedy produced by Fred Karno’s London Pantomime Company. The farce was a show within a show, with a fake audience—sitting or standing in set pieces next to the wings made to look like private boxes—which heckled the performers on the stage proper. Chaplin played “The Inebriated Swell” in a skit titled “Mumming Birds,” described here by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. While the Duluth News Tribune praised the show—describing some of the acts and noting the quality of individual performers—it never once mentioned Chaplin, likely because he had yet to become a household name. Chaplin had joined Karno’s company in 1908 when he was just 19 years old. He first came to America with Karno’s crew in 1910 (as did his understudy, Stanley Jefferson, who would change his name to Stan Laurel and pair up with Oliver Hardy). Chaplin left Karno in 1913 and accepted an offer by Keystone Studios. In 1915 the company made A Night at the Show, starring Chaplin; it was an adapted version of Karno’s stage play, and you can watch it here. It has been said many times that Chaplin had made his first appearance in Duluth—and indeed the United States—at the Lyceum Theatre, but no date was ever provided. The story is likely another tall tale about the history of Duluth. You can read many more of them here.

Fred Karno’s London Pantomime Company performing Mumming Birds, date unknown. (Image: Public Domain)

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