The Moment in Space and Time When Charlie Chaplin Became the Tramp

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of Charlie Chaplin's comic hobo character, we take a voyage to the spot where he completed the transformation.
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It is one of the most famous moments in cinematic history: the instant when Charlie Chaplin, playing a sadsack hobo, becomes The Tramp. Walking down a country road, heartbroken, Chaplin picks up his legs and spirits, waddling into the future. 

Chaplin actually debuted the comic hobo one hundred years ago in 1914, as WNYC noted. But it's in the 1915 movie The Tramp that he completed his transformation. Within the year, he was nationally famous. 

Working on a project for the Oakland Museum of California, I found out that Chaplin had filmed this moment not in Los Angeles, but outside the still-tiny town of Niles, California, which is technically part of Fremont.

Niles is the last Bay-side stop of highway 84, which runs from the Pacific right through Silicon Valley and over the Bay on the Dumbarton Bridge. There, a group of film buffs, archivists, and historians have been reconstructing Chaplin's time with the Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. 

Led by David Kiehn, these locals opened The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on the town's main drag, down from the motorcycle bar and up from the antique shops. 

Essanay opened a cowboy-branch office in Niles to make movies with Broncho Billy Anderson, who became a model for future cowboy stars.

"It was a Monday, the first of April in the year 1912, when the town of Niles, population 1400, was invaded by a small army," Kiehn's group wrote. "The 52 members of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company had arrived by train."

The whole town became involved. 

"Each week, a minimum of two 15-minute one-reelers were made in Niles. Occasionally, the number rose to four or five. The whole community provided the backdrop for these productions, and local residents frequently stood in front of the cameras as part-time actors," Kiehn continues. "Even though the studio had a huge storage area full of props to decorate the interior sets, neighbors often found the property master at their doorsteps, asking for anything from bric-a-brac to a kitchen stove. On at least one occasion, a six-week-old baby was borrowed!"

After signing Chaplin in December of 1914, Essanay sent him west. He only stayed a few months and made five films, before lighting out for Los Angeles and world-historical fame. 

A hundred years later, I followed Chaplin to Niles to inquire if the museum knew the exact spot where Chaplin had turned into The Tramp (capital Ts). I pulled out my phone and Kiehn showed me the bend in the road where he'd determined the footage had been shot, according to the slopes of the topography and historical digging. 

It was 1.8 miles up Niles Canyon Road from its intersection with Mission Boulevard.

A marks the spot where Charlie Chaplin became The Tramp (Google)

I shot a photo of that location and combined it with the original footage of The Tramp in the YouTube video at the top of this post. There's no plaque to mark the spot, no sign at all that movie history happened there. 

Meanwhile, back in the town of Niles, the silent film historians have been making a movie with a 35mm Bell & Howell 2709 hand-cranked machine, which you can see in the photo essay linked here. It's a beautiful thing and about as far from a Canon C300 as one can imagine. 

Now, making movies is electrical, electronic, and digital. But back then it was mechanical and chemical. Cameras were cranked; film was exposed. 

The pictures still move, but everything else has changed. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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