The great irony about Charlie Chaplin’s long association with Waterville was it might never have happened in the first place.
As the picturesque Kerry town continues to celebrate, until Sunday, its annual festival for the legendary Hollywood star, history records that ‘the Little Tramp’ actually found himself confronted with a ‘no room at the inn’ scenario on his first visit there back in the 1950s.
Having come to Waterville with his family to sample the fly fishing recommended by his friend Walt Disney, Chaplin arrived unannounced at the reception of the Butler Arms Hotel to find his status meant little at the height of the tourist season.
“The hotel was actually full, given it was the summer season, and the receptionist didn’t recognise him” says Paula Huggard, of the present generation of the family to run the hotel. “So the great Charlie Chaplin quietly turned on his heel and drove off to find lodgings in Kenmare.”
Charlie and Oonagh Chaplin with their family in Waterville in 1961.
When Paula’s granduncle, Noel Huggard, heard what happened, he immediately drove at high speed after the Chaplins, catching up with them a few miles beyond the town, and urged them to return. Settling the Hollywood royalty with tea and scones in the same room now christened the Chaplin Lounge, Noel then unceremoniously turfed his own family out of their private quarters to make way for the unexpected guests.
As a result of his quick thinking, the hotelier ensured one of the most famous faces in the world kept returning to Waterville for decades to come.
The Charlie Chaplin sculpture in Waterville.
The fact Chaplin was initially not recognised had as much to do with the difference between his silver screen persona and the reality as it did with the town’s busy tourist season.
Kerry football legend Mick O’Dwyer was a young man when he first set eyes on Chaplin in 1959. “My mother was the head cook at the Butler Arms at the time, and I well remember seeing Charlie for the first time and thinking: ‘Sure that couldn’t be him at all.’
“But of course, we only knew him from films that were 20 and 30 years old at that point. And instead here he was, this elderly, white-haired, shy gentleman, with no sign at all of a bowler hat or cane anywhere about him.”
Micko has little doubt why the Hollywood star made Waterville his summer home for many years: “He was left alone, nobody bothered him or his family. They were made very welcome but nobody bothered them.”
In an era when radios were scarce, never mind intrusive media, Chaplin found a private haven to be the ordinary man his fame did not allow anywhere else.
“He became one of our own, really,” Micko believes. “The people of Waterville took him to their hearts, and he repaid it with a wonderful legacy we honour with this festival every year.”
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