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Verdugo Views: Charlie Chaplin’s time filming ‘The Circus’ had comedic moments of its own

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Glendale police officer Ralph Murdy gives a ride to Charlie Chaplin during filming of the finale of “The Circus” at the Seventh-day Adventist encampment, near what is now the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Verdugo Road, in 1927.
(Courtesy of Teal Metts, Glendale Police Department)

When police officer and historian Teal Metts saw a photo of world-famous Charlie Chaplin and a local policeman named Ralph Murdy, he realized it was perfect for the Glendale Police Department’s lobby museum.

The photo had been sent by a fellow police officer in Sacramento. However, Metts needed to know where and when the photo was taken, so he reached out to local historian Paul Ayers, who specializes in finding movie locations.

Ayers posted his discoveries on his Facebook page earlier this year. “The photo was taken during location shooting for Chaplin’s ‘The Circus,’ near what is now the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Verdugo Road in October 1927.”

Via email, Ayers gave me permission to include his post in this column.

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Ayers also posted information from an October 1927 Glendale News-Press article, indicating that Chaplin had come to Glendale for some final location shots for ”The Circus,” which had been in production for a year and a half. They were working on the Thom property.

According to the News-Press, “the c’ircus’ arrived in Glendale at about 3 o’clock this morning … to permit Chaplin, who is personally directing the production, to secure ‘shots’ of the sun rising over the hills just east of Verdugo Road.”

Between shots, Chaplin spoke of his admiration for his surroundings. “I have always been enthusiastic over Glendale,” he said. “It is one of the beauty spots of Southern California. I want to personally thank the police department of the city for taking such good care of us,” referring to the motorcycle officer who kept traffic moving.

There is more to the story. According to charliechaplin.com, Chaplin was then in the middle of “one of the most unseemly and sensational divorces of twenties Hollywood.”

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During the legal battle, production was brought to a halt for eight months. When the lawyers tried to seize the studio’s assets, Chaplin smuggled the film to a safe place.

Plus, according to the Chaplin site, “before shooting began, the huge circus tent which provides the principal setting … was destroyed by gales.”

Much of the film turned out to be unusable and later, a fire destroyed more sets and props.

After the hiatus, Chaplin’s crew realized that, due to rampant development, their Hollywood location was no longer suitable. They turned to an untouched part of Glendale. But even there, troubles persisted.

The wagons were brought to the “site of the Seventh-day Adventist encampment” on the Thom ranch, at midnight, as noted in another article, this one in the Oct. 14, 1927, edition of the News-Press.

“Two wagons, gaudily painted, one labeled ‘pay wagon,’ were found to be missing by the watchman (who had been caring for the horses) at daybreak,” according to the article.

The assumption was that bandits had mistaken them for regular circus wagons and thought the “pay wagon” held cash.

The Oct. 15, 1927, edition of The Los Angeles Times offered more details about that morning, as the 50-person crew waited while police and sheriff personnel searched for the wagons.

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Four hours later, they were discovered on the UCLA campus. Evidently, some students decided they would be great fuel for their annual bonfire, held before their traditional football game with Occidental College.

Chaplin was happy to have his wagons returned. Meanwhile, the bonfire took place without them.

After the flames died out, the collegians “marched off to parade around Hollywood,” the Times story added.

Despite the difficulties, Chaplin received a special award at the Academy Awards in 1929 for his work on “The Circus” as director, producer, writer and lead actor.

To the Readers:

The land used for the finale of “The Circus” came into the possession of Capt. Cameron Erskine Thom during the “Great Partition of 1870,” in which the Verdugo land holdings were divided among 28 claimants.

Thom received 724 acres and eventually acquired 2,700 more, much of it mountain or foothill land. He was one of a group of landowners who filed the first plat of Glendale in 1887.

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The public is invited to two events at the Japanese Teahouse in Brand Park on Sept. 15. The first, at 11 a.m., will focus on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

A short movie, titled “Stand Up for Justice,” about a Mexican American high school student whose best friend and family are sent to an internment camp at Manzanar, will be shown, followed by a short documentary titled “We Were Americans,” about the family of my husband, Glenn, and their experiences in an Arizona internment camp.

The event’s sponsor, Friends of Shoseian, is requesting a $20 per-person donation for this event.

In the afternoon, the Friends will celebrate nearly 60 years of the Glendale-Higashiosaka Sister City relationship and the birth of the Shoseian Tea House and Japanese Friendship Garden.

The 2 p.m. program will feature photos and memories of Sister City participants. This event is free.

RSVP to either, or both, event by Sept. 11 at friends@shoseianteahouse.com.

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