Waterville Golf Club: Why did Charlie Chaplin go to this resort every year? The script was simple: a five-star resort, a golf club and a great writer who had never come anywhere else. Click here to watch the original short – Charlie Chaplin Goes to Waterville
It’s time to check in to the 28-room house and historic schoolhouse on the grounds of Waterville Golf Club, on the western outskirts of New Orleans. A housekeeper sponges down bathroom tiles and a golf-club member prepares to tee off, while Chaplin (with pal Leo Frank), unobtrusively waits for the fairway to clear.
Having written his famous film, The Great Dictator, at $65,000 a week in 1936, the comic actor – or Gestapo agent, depending on who’s right – chose Waterville Golf Club because it looked like an easy five-star retreat. “It’s a great resort with great golf clubs,” mused the film’s producer, Josef von Sternberg. “I’ll write a script in which Chaplin sits down every year and says: ‘Charlie, you always come here! You must come every year!’”
“Is that the golf I saw on the news,” asks one reporter. “Even the golf here is freaky – at which point Chaplin lowers his eyes to the screen and says: ‘You know, journalism is clearly the devil’s business.’” Charlie does this every year, only to have Sternberg, who commissioned this from a British photojournalist, withdraw his guarantee. Though Frank’s suicide in 1940 helped seal the film’s fate, Sternberg never retracted his threat. It is for this reason, no doubt, that an opening scene in The Great Dictator – Chaplin in a boat hitching a lift over Lake Pontchartrain – shows the actor sailing out to a familiar cove, only to find it has collapsed in on itself.
Nowadays, you’d be surprised to learn that yes, the legendary comedian really did get fed to a boat. In fact, after notching up just one victory on the links, Chaplin, who lived just two miles away, began frequenting the club’s bar. “I still have the list,” he once remarked, of cocktails he downed there.
Chaplin, pictured, arrived each year after Frank, known as Little Leo, had died, just one of many reasons why the retreat (now owned by Kelly Hotels) continues to be famous. For decades after his death, anyone lucky enough to visit Waterville could take in as part of their “vacation” a game of poker with Chaplin – who knew many St Louis Post-Dispatch journalists by first name – and his longtime friend, writer Damon Runyon, aka Mr Lucky. “He was the best poker player around,” said one guide, laughing. “Whenever he was in town he used to show up at the clubhouse on his way to Earl’s, the local whiskey.”
Of course, the attraction of the resort is not just the golf. There’s a great-grandmother’s restaurant in the main house, where you can munch the famous Imperial Salad – roast duck, sweetbreads, olives, pine nuts, sautéed apples, poached broccolini – and chat to locals, and a roast duck dinner in the schoolhouse. Walk down the winding, verdant mule path and pass the museum, in the old seaport, containing a set of original lanterns, shawls and World War I uniforms. Then climb back up and out of Waterville, to take in the view. It’s the closest Charlie Chaplin ever got to being a real dictator.
The Waterville Golf Club
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