Charlie Chaplin

Dan Kamin’s muse inhabits his heart and his home.

When Dan Kamin first saw the silent film The Gold Rush, he was overcome with emotion, discovery, appreciation and inspiration. That was back in 1966 when Kamin was a graphic-design student at Carnegie Mellon University. “I was mowed down by it,” Kamin recalls of the 1925 masterpiece, which was written, produced and directed by Charlie Chaplin, who also starred in the movie.

Not only was Kamin struck by Chaplin’s performance—which features the famous scene of a starving, snowbound Chaplin eating a leather shoe as if it were a delicacy—but he also was impressed by the graphic quality of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, a picture of paradoxical perfection. “He is a poor man emulating a rich man,” Kamin says. “He is in morning dress, with coat, tie, bowler and cane, but the clothes are ill-fitting, some too small and some too large.” And despite having no money, he behaves elegantly and, as Kamin puts it, “with élan.”

Kamin was entranced. A student of magic since he was child, Kamin was inspired to pursue his talents, and to explore the possibilities of telling stories and getting laughs through the art of movement. Kamin’s popularity persists through his career as a comic performer—his shows incorporate words, physical comedy, mime and magic—and his expertise in all things Chaplin has won him acclaim. He has written two books on Chaplin (the most recent, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion, was released last October), trained Robert Downey Jr. for his role in the 1992 movie Chaplin and worked with Johnny Depp for his Chaplin-esque moves in Benny & Joon.

After seeing The Gold Rush, Kamin devoured every bit of information he could about Chaplin, who was born 120 years ago this month. On a trip to Philadelphia, when Kamin was 21 years old, he was driving past a small shop that sold paper ephemera and spotted a 6-foot-high poster from the Chaplin film The Floorwalker in the window. Once inside he also found a tattered 3-by-4-foot fragment of a billboard for the film A Jitney Elopement. The shopkeeper wanted $125 for both, but Kamin only had $150 in his savings—and he needed to rent his first apartment. It took him a week to decide, but he ended up purchasing both pieces, which hang in his Mount Lebanon home to this day.

So began Kamin’s collection. Thanks to Chaplin’s distinctive image and his enormous worldwide popularity, his image was seemingly everywhere. Kamin’s collection of vintage items includes extraordinary posters, more than 270 books, sheet music, magazines, statuettes, toys, pencil boxes, gloves, boxes, candy dishes, dozens of postcards, games, records and buttons. Kamin enjoys collecting because, “Each artifact reveals something. It gives a glimpse into how Chaplin was viewed and appreciated at the time.” Perhaps the rarest piece in the collection is a 1916 poster for the Chaplin film The Rink, which may be the only one of its kind still in existence.

Two pieces in the collection carry the most sentimental significance. One is a thank-you note from Chaplin to Kamin for a letter of detailed appreciation Kamin had written. The second is a gift from Kamin’s wife, Carol Fryday. As a magician, Kamin does not wear jewelry on his hands. During their wedding ceremony, after Kamin placed the ring on his bride’s finger, Carol in return handed him a gold Chaplin stickpin from about 1915. “I knew I had married the right girl,” Kamin says.

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