Charlie Chaplin's Venice

From the January/February 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I’m back. Or, rather, Chaplin’s back. This is the eighth time I am in Venice masquerading as the Little Tramp during Carnevale, the city’s late winter ten-day party. Playing a role in Europe’s best costume drama elevates my presence from observer to participant. As Charlie, I get to improvise, interact, and make people smile—against a backdrop unequaled on Earth, the city known as La Serenissima. Tooling around as a beloved icon in an enchanting place is as addictive as good gelato.

It has been at least ten minutes since I’ve crossed paths with someone in costume—or in regular clothes, for that matter. How can it be that in the midst of this world-class event, a pretty corner of the city is empty except for an American woman of a certain age dressed as Charlie Chaplin? Frankly, I’m not sure where I am. I don’t carry a map (would Charlie?), though a map would be of little help on these tiny stop-and-start streets. And I’ve hit a dead end: The narrow Venice calle has stopped short at a small canal. I don’t see any of those “Per Rialto” or “Per San Marco” signs, my navigational aids, on the sides of buildings. Turning back is really my only option. But I linger, looking at the ochers and vermilions that paint the water-worn buildings and the window boxes filled with red-edged sedum, which is returning to life just in time for this festive Venetian extravaganza that embodies European grace, glamour, mystery, and history.

Down a canal I spot a solitary gondola. “Black as nothing else on Earth except a coffin,” is how author Thomas Mann described these slender boats in Death in Venice. This one holds no passengers, just a gondolier maneuvering the craft with nonchalant skill. It will reach where I stand in a few moments. What would Chaplin do?

I’m not sure where the inspiration comes from, but I position myself so that when the gondola passes by, the gondolier sees me as his mirror image, my body tilted forward at the precise angle as his, my cane standing in for his long oar. I pull to his rhythm. I pull again. Then I’m spotted. The gondolier breaks into a smile. My Charlie is gleeful.

To get a response from one of these no-nonsense boatmen is a gift. It’s all I need to turn around, twirl my cane, and make my way down the street with a bounce in my step. After all these years of dressing up as Charlie Chaplin at Carnevale, I’m closing in on getting it right.

WHY HAVE I MADE so many visits to Venice for Carnevale? And why the Chaplin costume? It comes down to love—love for Venice, love for masquerades (happy times for inner children, many of whom spare no expense in creating dazzling costumes), love for the chance to be an ageless ham (in my genes; I’m related to comedian Billy Crystal and a mime named Adam Darius), and, of course, love for the timeless Little Tramp, one of entertainment’s all-time greatest characters. Chaplin and I share a birthday: We were born on April 16—62 years apart. It’s a serendipitous bond that helps justify my choice of alter ego. But the Little Tramp has always affected me: his propensity for mischief, the way he communicated through his eyes and gestures, his endearing underdog persona, his physical demeanor (we are not dissimilar in physical stature).

I am far from alone in this appreciation, as my experiences at many Carnevales have confirmed. Faces always light up when Charlie Chaplin comes into view. I light up in turn because when I am Charlie, I entertain and engage people in a most gratifying way—without having to audition, and following my own script.

THE LITTLE TRAMP'S roots can be traced to a Hollywood costume room, where Chaplin chanced upon the trappings—derby hat, jacket, loose trousers, shoes, mustache, cane—that defined his silent character. I came upon the beginnings of my costume, a bowler hat, in a cedar barn on a friend’s New York farm. In the 1930s the farm had belonged to a tycoon—and clotheshorse. His shirts, suits, shoes, and hats still filled the small barn, along with a full-length mirror. Given the sizes of his clothes, the tycoon had been a small man, but he’d made it big in the cardboard-box business, I was told. The bowler, nestled in a red-and-blue hatbox closed with a leather strap, looked brand new. I took it from its nest and placed it on my head. It fit perfectly. I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw Chaplin. Big lace-up shoes, ill-fitting clothes, a mustache, and a cane would be easy to find.

My Chaplin debuted in Washington, D.C., on Halloween 1995, when I joined the festivities around Dupont Circle. My simple costume was lost, I thought, in a crowd of the otherworldly and odd. But I felt comfortable as the Tramp. It was when a young man in a business suit came up to me and said, “Hey, Chaplin, if there was a contest, you’d win” that I became hooked.

AFTER MY GONDOLIER encounter, it didn’t take me long to locate signs for San Marco. I followed their arrows—until a beautiful, mysterious figure in Campo Santo Stefano slowed me to a stop. I leaned forward, both hands on my cane, toes turned out, my head tilted at the same angle as the creature before me. We made eye contact, but the masked face yielded nothing beyond placid neutrality. Who was this person, I wondered? The creature’s gown of black and gold, intricately pleated, fitted, and dusting the ground, was clearly custom-made for the waif-thin human inside it. A large black hat outfitted with feathers and a parasol that matched the gown completed the outfit. Half a dozen bystanders took photographs as the woman (though of this I couldn’t be certain) moved in graceful slow motion, posing, playing to her audience of young and old. What was her story?

Then, as I watched, she closed her parasol, placed its tip in front of her feet, and rested her two hands on top of the handle, mirroring my stance. This is the sort of connection Carnevale offers with regularity, staged in the world’s most enigmatic city. It is why I return.

In late winter it’s easy to travel to Venice using flier miles. One must, though, book a hotel room about six months ahead of time: Carnevale is popular with Europeans. At first I made the trip over a long weekend, one night in the air and three on the ground, which meant I could stay at a fancy splurge hotel, such as the Gritti, the Londra Palace, or Ca’ Pisani. Several years on I decided to make it a week, stopping first in a nearby city for a few days (best ones: Padua for art and the open-air market; Bologna for food; Vicenza—my favorite—for architect Andrea Palladio’s Roman-style theater). I always fly into Venice, take the train to the first-course town, where I spend a couple of nights, and then—relaxed and refreshed—board the train to Venice.

I’ve become a regular at Domus Orsoni, an inexpensive five-guest-room hotel housed in a historic mosaic factory near Venice’s old Jewish ghetto, an eight-minute walk from the train station. The rooms are spare and nicely designed, with beige linens and a single mosaic wall decoration; in my bathroom this year I find a shower lined with gold-leaf tiles. Domus Orsoni is where I become the Tramp, in just 15 minutes. Near Orsoni are the requisite souvenir shops, a little bridge, a bakery where you can watch flour-dusty bakers make bread, a tiny food market, and sometimes a small fish market set up next to the water.

In Venice, in costume, I walk and walk. Window-shopping and people-watching—men in tricorn hats and buckle pumps, women in lavish dresses crafted from yards of lush fabrics—are like drugs for me. If I’m lucky, I find places that sell really good thin-crust pizza with carciofi (artichokes), soft panini bulging with tuna salad and chopped green olives, gelati without added color (beware the bright green pistachio ice cream!). After many years of Carnevale I’m not really interested in entertainment events organized by the tourist office; I spend my time ducking into shops and other places of interest, meeting locals, noshing on regional fare. The twist is that here, I’m part of other visitors’ experiences.

I’ve come to expect a shower of smiles and comments as I walk through town: “Perfetto” … “Complimenti” … “Ah, Charlie Chaplin. Bravo!” I always turn in silent acknowledgment, to make the sort of eye contact not usually permissible with strangers. I smile, tip my hat, bow, and sometimes clown around. The grins widen. At least a dozen times a day I’m asked to pose for a snapshot, usually with someone standing at my side, happy to be in Charlie’s aura. Even small children with no knowledge of the film star are magnetized by this little man with the mustache. Staying in character, I never speak. When people shoot questions at me—Française? Inglese? Italiana? (they almost never say Americana, very much in the minority at Carnevale), Donna (Woman)? Uomo (Man)?—I shrug, twirl my cane, and move on.

Carnevale’s roots lie in the Middle Ages. By the 16th century, the city’s mascherari (mask makers) were a well-regarded group. Their creations made it possible for nobility and commoners to interact, illicit lovers to unite anonymously, and gamblers to lose and win money invisibly (debauchery was a common theme at Carnevale). In the 1790s, during a period of decline in Venice, Carnevale all but disappeared. Resurgences followed until the event was outlawed by Mussolini’s Fascist Party in the 1930s. The city brought Carnevale back in the 1970s as part of a tourism marketing plan, replete with corporate sponsorships and information kiosks.

One of the things I’d promised myself for this Carnevale was some fancy food. Not far from Piazza San Marco I find Al Covo, an untouristy, dependably excellent seafood restaurant. I’ve tucked my mustache into my pocket (next to a tiny bottle of adhesive spirit gum) in preparation for my lemon pasta with spider-crab meat, served in a crab shell (on a plate).

I make quick work of it and restick the mustache to my face. Eyeing the breadbasket, I give in to impulse, pick up two forks, and stab two bread rolls for Chaplin’s “dancing rolls” routine from his 1925 film The Gold Rush. I kick one speared roll up at a time, Rockettes style—as sweet a cinematic scene as I can think of, and for a moment it’s mine.

I FOLLOW LUNCH WITH A STROLL through Piazza San Marco and down a warren of streets and squares. Costumed revelers are everywhere, as are photographers documenting them. In piazzas, on the street, and in cafés, those in fancy dress prance, preen, and pose, drawing a storm of camera clicks. Occasionally Charlie Chaplin acts the provocateur and jumps into the frame; he even uses his cane to challenge sword-wielding gentlemen in powdered wigs. This sort of intrusion is usually met with an increase in clicks, but sometimes I’m treated to a high-decibel tongue-lashing from a photographer focused on the fancy costumes.

Many revelers have congregated on the stairs of the Accademia Bridge, which I cross on my way to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This bastion of 20th-century art is known for its canvases by Braque, Picasso, and Kandinsky, among others, but I always pause at the marble plaque inscribed “Here lie my beloved babies,” commemorating the 14 little dogs buried here—near Guggenheim’s own ashes. Peggy Guggenheim was a mistress of whimsy, a wealthy American expat who held court among—and supported the work of—some of the most talented artists of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Whenever I see the famous photo of her in her star-frame glasses, I think of Carnevale.

CHARLIE IS A CREATURE of habit in Venice. Every visit to Carnevale includes a walk along the Zattere, where crowds give way to light. Wide open, this waterfront promenade was constructed in the 16th century as a landing dock. When the air is cold and the city’s narrower streets lie in shade, the Zattere hoards the sun’s rays. It also is home to several restaurants, pastry and gelato places, and the Billa supermarket, with perfect picnic makings: an assortment of cheeses and produce, fresh butter, yogurt, salami, cookies, and bread. More than once I’ve seen a pigeon marching the aisles here—Piazza San Marco refugees?

Charlie also always takes in a ride on a vaporetto (water bus) at night. In the dark, with electric lights twinkling, it seems that Venice’s gorgeous buildings are whispering, “Sure, we have the threats of high water, pollution, and weathering, but can’t you see our pride and our resilience? So far, we are survivors.” In more ways than one, this is a moving experience for the Tramp, who is also a survivor.

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MOST OF THE NIGHTS WHEN I'M in costume I angle for a seat at Caffè Florian, the Carnevale meeting place frequented by the more elegant and fashionable costumed merrymakers, many of them from France, England, and Germany. Florian, which opened its doors in 1720, sets the stage with genteel murals, gilt accents, and tables just big enough for two cups of hot chocolate or flutes of champagne. This time, however, Charlie has other ideas. He is finding Florian too Carnevale cliché and wants to attend one of the high-class masquerade balls. It’s something I’ve resisted because of the expense (upwards of $350), which would also compel me to stay even if I wanted to leave early. Besides, I don’t think it’s the Tramp’s milieu. (Actually, that’s not true; he attends a snooty party in City Lights.)

But Charlie prevails. His choice: a minuet ball held in a gold-and-mirrors room at the luxe Hotel Danieli. Included in the ticket are dinner, dance lessons, and live chamber music. Around the white-clothed dinner table, a hundred or so elaborately costumed people speak in hushed tones as they trot out their best eating and drinking manners. Between courses they learn the minuet, courtesy of a professional Italian dance troupe. Many display a physical posture—elegant, erect—probably unknown to them in their day-to-day lives. The century definitely is not the 21st. These folks are living their best—timeless—selves.

“I think we all long for the elegance of the past,” says a woman seated at my table dressed in a cleavage-enhancing gown of mauve watered silk. Our tablemates nod in an old-fashioned way. We sip wine, soak up the candelight, and later dance slowly, deliberately, gracefully. The evening flies by.

IT'S MIDNIGHT BY THE TIME I head to Florian (old habits die hard). The place is packed, and those waiting to get in are restless. After ten unhappy minutes of being pushed and not catching the doorkeeper’s eye (surely he’d let Charlie in if he saw him), I get a sharp elbow in the ribs from a “Greek god” repeating “Permesso, permesso”—let me by—as he makes his way to the door. I say nothing, elbow him back, and then leave the crowd. Feeling a little sorry for myself, I stroll slowly along some of my favorite streets near the Fenice theater, past a woman dressed in a colorful crocheted Carnevale gown. I silently express my approval, and she is visibly grateful. Then, hearing voices, I dart into a tiny alley, where I find three men in overcoats and huge frizzy wigs singing an a cappella aria. Facing them, I lift my cane and conduct. Their performance inches up a notch. Several photographers take shots. The singers pull Charlie in next to them, into the picture. It occurs to me that this scenario of rejection and redemption is the most Chaplinesque I’ve experienced, ever.

The next morning, crack of dawn, cane in hand and costume packed in my duffel, I make the short walk to the vaporetto for the airport. I pass the fish market, where I spot shrimp, crabs, calamari, sole, swimmers I don’t recognize. On a tray lie several fat eels. I see that at least one is wiggling around and think that maybe, as Chaplin might, I should throw the eels back into the water and slapstick my way out of there. In a cosmic coincidence, the fishmonger could pass for the sneering villain—that big guy with the mustache—who gives the Little Tramp big grief in his movies. I leave the eels just where they are.

On the vaporetto, enjoying my last bit of Venice, I see, at water level, the smooth moves of a gondolier as he tilts forward on his black boat to ease it through the water. My body instinctively tilts forward in response, and I’m already thinking about my next Carnevale. Then I notice a young Asian woman staring at me, looking from my eyes down to my cane and back. With a grin of discovery, she settles against her seat and says to me, “You’re Charlie Chaplin.”

Even though I am free to talk, all I do is smile.

Editor at large Sheila Buckmaster and Mr. Chaplin plan to attend Carnevale in 2013. Italy-based Dave Yoder photographed Milan for our July-August 2011 issue.

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