During these lost years on Earth--September 14, 1878 to
July 6, 1921--a curious shadow of Charlie Chaplin lived,
worked and died. Billie Ritchie acted alongside Chaplin in
Fred Karno's English music-hall troupe, and when Chaplin
made the move to America, off the vaudeville stage into
moving pictures, Ritchie followed.
Though Billie Ritchie may have created the character
Chaplin used on his rise to fame (the role in the sketch
'Mumming Birds'), Ritchie appeared to become another
Charlie Chaplin on film. He wasn't the only one--so popular
was the creation of the baggy tramp that by 1917
Chaplin felt moved to take the movie imitators to court.
In his autobiography, Chaplin asserts, "As the clothes
had imbued me with the character, I then and there decided
I would keep to this costume, whatever happened." (1)
But no mention is made of his peer Billie Ritchie.
In fact, Ritchie contended the image was his. He told
interviewers in 1917: "I first used my present make-up
in my vaudeville act with my three sisters in 1887...
Two years later I again used the same make-up
in the character of the street musician in 'Early Birds'
while with the Karno company. I claim that I am the
originator of this make-up and of the comedy that is
associated with the make-up." (2) Most likely the tramp
with moustache, cane and bowler became a stock character,
but Charlie Chaplin gave the most memorable and
These days it's even difficult to find footage of Billie Ritchie.
An introduction to the video remains of 'Live Wires and
Love Sparks' warns that "the only surviving original print
is missing the final few feet of action," (3) then a scowling
Billie Ritchie appears. He has on the familiar uniform
worn by Chaplin, yet he presents a different soul in there.
He's not a doppelganger, he's a Halloween imitation with
enough of something original showing through the disguise.
Before the film is gone, he's been chased by clowns up onto
the roof and off. Lost in the dream, Billie Ritchie is left
stranded in the air, at the height of telephone wires,
as the film runs out before it's even done.
At L-KO studios, Billie Ritchie made films with titles
like 'Love and Surgery', 'It Might Have Been Serious',
'Hearts and Flames', 'Bill's Blighted Career',
'The Curse of Work', 'A Doomed Hero', and
'Life and Moving Pictures.'
Then in 1919, ostriches on the set of his comedy
attacked him. He never did recover.
Within two years he died from those pains.
The gray details of his career require powers
of investigation into the loom of the past 90+ years.
Following a false lead (perhaps a wrong citation)
pointing to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette of
Tuesday, June 8, 1915, I searched in vain for
a paragraph on Billie Ritchie. Instead, I was socked
to find a comic strip entitled 'Flooey and Axel'
above the For Rent and Real Estate classifieds of old.
There (four years before Ritchie's tragic confrontation
with the birds), in 4 panels, is a man in black being
preyed on by an ostrich.
(1) My Autobiography; Charles Chaplin;
Simon and Schuster, NY; 1964; p.146
(2) Motography, January 6, 1917
(3) Slapstick Encyclopedia Volume 5;
Chaplin & Company: The Music Hall
Tradition; Kino Video, NY, 1998
Writing excerpted from an essay by Allen Frost
appearing at Habits of Waste