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Pic of the Week: Passing the Baton Edition

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Charlie Chaplin and John Philip Sousa, ca. 1916. Photographer unknown.

Thanks to Acquisitions Specialist Loras Schissel, whom In the Muse interviewed last month, for contributing to this post.

Our Pic of the Week depicts  two legendary figures whom you might be surprised to know had an occasional working relationship.

The Sousa Band enjoyed its longest single engagement as a headlining feature for Charles Dillingham’s New York Hippodrome, which Sousa memorialized in one of his greatest marches,  from Sept. 1915 through June of 1916 in a show called “Hip! Hip! Hooray!”  On Sunday programs many special guests performed with the Sousa Band–singers from the Metropolitan Opera, dancers such as Anna Pavlova and Vernon and Irene Castle, comedians and the like.  One of the most famous guests was Charlie Chaplin who guest conducted the Sousa Band in the Overture to The Poet and Peasant and in his own composition “Peace Patrol.”  Sousa describes it in his autobiography “Marching Along”

It was at the Hippodrome Sunday feature concerts in 1915 that I first met that public idol, Charles Chaplin.  We had been revelling in the vocal gifts of Melba, Culp, Garden and Fremstad.  Charlie was therefore quite a departure.

“I want to lead your band!”  said Charlie.

“In what number?”  I asked.

“The Poet and Peasant overture,” he confidently replied.

At the rehearsal he mounted the podium, took my baton and as the band started the stately measures of the opening, he proceeded to beat time fully four times too fast!  That well-known blank expression came over his face but this time it was involuntary.  “That isn’t it!” he exclaimed.  I smiled.  “But I’ve played it many years,” I reminded him.  Suddenly I realized that he remembered only the allegro and had forgotten all about the moderato, so I told the band to begin again, this time with the allegro, and we were off!  On the night of the performance, the audience, reading his name on the program and never having seen him in the flesh, suspected a trick—-some clever impersonator of Chaplin—but, as he came from the wings, he did his inimitably funny little step and slowly proceeded to the band platform.  The house, convince, rang with applause.

Sousa and Chaplin remained friends thereafter.  During World War I, Chaplin conducted and performed with Lieutenant Sousa’s 300 piece Great Lakes Naval Training Center Band in Liberty Loan Rallies throughout the US.  Visit The March King: John Philip Sousa in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia for more from the Music Division’s Sousa Collection.

The New York Hippodrome was demolished in 1939, having served the city for a mere 34 years. You can see a photo of the original structure in the August 16th entry of Today in History in American Memory. Today, the Sixth Avenue site is occupied by a glass-enclosed office building called The Hippodrome Center, a far cry from the majesty of the famed theater. The city is constantly changing, but around the corner from this glass monster, on 44th Street, there stands a living testament to Old New York, established in 1902 and still providing music and  hospitality to weary travellers: The Algonquin Hotel.


Comments (5)

  1. Wow, an amazing story! As a big Sousa fan, I found it fascinating. I will pass on to a Classical DJ back in Michigan, Dave Wagner, at WRCJ-FM, who does a “Sousalarm” every morning. Cheers from NW DC!

  2. Catching up on the PAE blog. Fascinating as usual. Thanks so much for music and the photo of Chaplin and Sousa–Chaplin without a moustache! After staring at the enlargement, I started wondering if Maestro Sousa was smart enough to have his conducting jacket made out of linen–perhaps a necessity in days before air-conditioning…….Perhaps it was common? And does Maestro Schissel have a linen conducting jacket for those hot Virginia nights???

    • Thanks for the comment – nice to hear from you!

  3. Does anyone know in what building this photo was taken? Thank you.

    • Thanks for your question, Vicki. The photograph was taken in the Hippodrome Theatre in New York City.

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