Charles Chaplin and Edna Purviance
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Charlie Discovers Edna
A Wonderful Bit of Chance and Speculation
Two Lives in Two Different Worlds
Written and Research By Linda Wada © – January 17, 2005
Released – September 10, 2006


It was Christmas 1914, but Charlie’s life had never been filled with fond Christmas memories. In contrast to Edna’s festive family gatherings, Chaplin’s memory of Christmas was when he and his brother Sydney got oranges and a bag of sweets at the grim and dispiriting London workhouse.

Charlie spent New Year’s Eve 1914 with the Anderson family in Chicago, and continued working there into January. At that time, Edna was wrapping up a visit with her old friends and family in Lovelock.

With Edna and Charlie in different parts of the country living very different lives, the odds seem very long that they would meet just a few weeks later.

In Chicago, the winds whipped over Lake Michigan toward the warehouse district on Argyle Street. Charlie gathered material and plot ideas for his first Essanay project. Hoping to follow the success he had with Mabel Normand, he set out to find a leading lady who was photogenic with a comedic sense. But just being pretty would do in a pinch.

After selecting his crew in Chicago, he began working out some ‘business’ in a small scene with a young actress Gloria Swanson.

Chaplin in Chicago
Charlie Chaplin with Spoor and Anderson in Chicago, 1915. Photo: research collection copyrighted.

Chaplin was more in control now, but filming in Chicago fell short of the working conditions he was used to in California. ‘A park, a policeman and a pretty girl are all I need…’ he proudly proclaimed! But Chicago’s snow, cold, and wind were not suited for park scenes in winter.

The Chicago Essanay studio, its location and restrictive staff routine were just not working with Chaplin’s style of creating. Other pressing problems, like non-arrival of promised bonus pay, made Chicago feel colder by the minute.

While Chaplin struggled on in Chicago to complete his film, Edna was back in San Francisco anticipating the biggest social event she would ever attend, which was also the biggest social event up till that time for the West coast.

January 1,1915, The Review-Miner announced that, ‘Miss Edna Purviance and Mrs. Myrtle Bell returned to the coast on the No. 5 this morning after a Christmas visit with their mother, Mrs. L. Nurnberger.’

Edna and Myrtle were returning to a city bubbling with excitement! The Panama Pacific International Exposition was about to open in San Francisco in February 1915! Unlike today when interest in World Fairs has diminished, people from all over the globe made their way to the San Francisco for this event. San Francisco was celebrating its return from the great historical tragedy, the earthquake of 1906.

The World Fair in San Francisco had been in planning as early as 1904, but the 1906 earthquake brought everything to an abrupt halt. News of the event traveled as quickly as possible via telegraph lines and people escaping the ruined city by train. Eventually, accounts appeared in newspapers worldwide.

San Francisco 1906 Earthquake
San Franciso City Hall and the surrounding area few days after the April 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

With the World Fair, San Francisco was showcasing the vibrant new city arising from rubble and ash. San Diego was co-host of the event that same year. The World Fair was a moment for all of California to shine!

Celebrations filled social calendars for weeks in advance and ladies and gents trotted to countless balls scattered about the town.

One of the
HOTTEST tickets in town was for The Great Civic Center Auditorium-Exposition Masque Ball. This grand event was the jewel of the pre-opening festivities! Over 25,000 people participated, arriving from all over the world to be a part of what was the grand opening of the San Francisco Civic Center.

San Francisco new Civic Center
The new San Francisco Civic Center.

The San Francisco Examiner wrote: “Having risen from ruin, having built the world’s greatest exposition, and having made of one of these buildings a permanent and beautiful memorial to both achievements, San Francisco will celebrate tonight.”

Saturday Night, January 9th, 1915, all eyes were on the Civic Auditorium and the Masque Ball!

The program and maps for the evening’s events appeared everywhere, and one reader of all those details was Edna Purviance.

In the Monday, January 4th, 1915, edition of the San Francisco Examiner, an article ‘City is Ready for the Civic Ball’ listed places to purchase tickets for the ball. The Tait’s Cafe was listed as one of four eateries in town where tickets were available. (This appears to be the same cafe, that Chaplin mentioned in his autobiography, where an associate had mentioned noticing Edna.)

The Tait Café was a popular cafe near the theatre district. It was a great place to meet and watch people in 1915.

It’s likely Myrtle and her husband all had tickets to attend the January 9th event. The sisters were very close and loved going to high-profile occasions. But Myrtle’s marriage was also in trouble.

But the idea that Myrtle would forego the biggest masque ball in the history of San Francisco seems highly unlikely. Myrtle attended nearly every masque ball her whole life in Nevada!

Edna certainly could have gone with a beau, but if she did, there were no published reports. It has been written that Edna was getting over a failed love affair about this time. Regardless, there was no way Edna would miss this event!

Edna loved dressing up and going to dances and balls, but she was always dressed in more modest or elegant attire – unlike her sisters. Bessie had once arrived in costume as a musical note, and Myrtle once appeared as a flower!

Edna didn’t dress in amusing costumes and favored more classic styles.


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