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COLUMN: Einstein keeps them guessing almost 70 years after his death

Chaplin’s World is located in an alpine village just north of Lake Geneva

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, SWITZERLAND – If you think you are looking at an actual photo of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out at himself in a mirror, you’ve been the victim of an impressive April Fools Day joke.

The world-renowned physicist and mathematician, who died April 18, 1955 at age 76, loved stumping his students at New Jersey’s Princeton University with riddles he would challenge them to solve before the end of his lecture. He’s still stumping people around the world today as they try to fathom his theory of relativity:  E = mc2.

It was only fitting that when the former mansion of Einstein’s good friend Charlie Chaplin was turned into a world-class museum honouring The Little Tramp, a wax effigy of Einstein would be included in the life-size mannequins of Charlie’s contemporaries that are scattered throughout the building at Chaplin’s World in this alpine village just north of Lake Geneva.

I did a double-take when I visited the washroom at the estate during a press tour a couple of years ago. A gentleman with unruly locks of grey hair was standing at the sink, playfully sticking his tongue out at himself in the mirror. I almost yodelled in surprise when I realized my fellow washroom inhabitant was the spitting (or atom-splitting?) image of old Albert.

Gotcha, I could almost hear the replica of the world-renowned physicist chuckling as I realized the joke was on me. But to paraphrase another famous fellow whose likeness occupies another room in the converted mansion – Winston Churchill – in describing Russia, the elaborate hoax is “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" with depths to it that will amaze you.

The first clue that there is something wrong with this picture – other than the fact that Einstein is no longer with us – is that, although I took the photo while standing directly behind the effigy of the great man, MY reflection is nowhere to be seen.

Stumped at this realization when I looked at the photo just after taking it, I asked Yves Durand of Quebec City – the mastermind behind turning Le Manoir de Ban estate into a fascinating retrospective of Chaplin’s life and times – what the trick was. He explained that it wasn’t a mirror but a pane of glass over the washroom sink. There are actually TWO wax figures of Einstein, one on either side of the glass.

But what about all those formula jottings that appear in reverse on the back wall? Yves revealed that an artist actually painted them backwards so that they would look like a reflection of the mathematical figurings scrawled on the opposite wall behind Albert.

As mentioned, Einstein’s effigy is only one of many wax likenesses of Chaplin’s famous contemporaries and friends throughout the mansion-turned-museum, as well as in the newly-built Studio on the grounds of the estate that houses room after room of Chaplin memorabilia.

You would think that Madame Tussaud herself had overseen the creation and installation of these remarkably lifelike figures. The previously mentioned Sir Winston Churchill can be seen in Chaplin’s former study striking his famous pose of hoisting his bowler hat high in the air with his ubiquitous walking stick during the Nazi Blitz so that Londoners would know he was there with them.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., athletic actor and Charlie’s partner in the film company United Artists - along with “Mrs. Fairbanks” at the time, Canada’s own Gladys Smith more famously known as Mary Pickford – poses with a huge megaphone on a recreated set in The Studio. A film canister’s toss away from Dougie is a wax creation of actress and former Chaplin wife Paulette Goddard in a scene from their movie together, the much-praised spoof of Adolf Hitler – The Great Dictator (Chaplin’s tyrant is called Adenoid Hynkel). A continuous loop of Goddard and Chaplin runs on a monitor behind her likeness.

Just around the corner, the comic duo Laurel and Hardy stand in perplexed frustration in a scene from a movie where they played inept house painters.

Upstairs in The Studio, another wax figure of Chaplin emotes before the footlights with a replica of actress Claire Bloom in a scene from their movie Limelight. In the wings, co-star Buster Keaton sits in waxen deadpan behind a grand piano.

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, KBE spent the last 25 years of his life in self-imposed Swiss exile at Le Manoir de Ban after he was refused re-entry into his adopted home, the United States, in 1952 when he tried to return after attending the London premiere of his movie City Lights. Republican Senator Joe McCarthy was heading up a witch hunt committee seeking out “commies” in the US and his slapstick antics eventually focused on The Little Tramp and his left-leaning politics.

America’s loss was Switzerland’s gain. Today, “Tailgunner Joe” is just a smeary footnote in US history while the great “Charlot” - as his neighbours called him in this French-speaking area of Switzerland - earns a new legion of adoring fans with each passing decade.

And that is the greatest April Fools’ Day joke of them all. 

Jacko gave credit to The Little Tramp for inspiring The Moonwalk

Michael Jackson’s world-famous backward shuffle was inspired by a dance routine featured in a Charlie Chaplin movie.

But don’t just take my word for it … another Michael, one of Charlie’s children with author Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, was the pop star’s good friend. He is on record as confirming that Jackson was grateful to the senior Chaplin for giving him the idea for his iconic onstage dance steps.

Oona’s father never spoke to her or the comedian after their marriage – disgusted that a 54-year-old man with a reputation for seducing teenage girls would capture the heart of his 18-year-old daughter. This fact was revealed to me by another of Charlie’s sons, Eugene (named for Chaplin’s father-in-law who was unimpressed with this eponymous gesture) on a press visit to Chaplin’s World – a state-of-the-art museum at the comedian’s former Swiss mansion – a few years ago.

There is a wax figure of the pop star in The Studio, built to house a vast collection of the English-born comedian’s memorabilia on the grounds of the Chaplin mansion-turned-museum formerly called Le Manoir de Ban. Visitors can stand beside the Jackson effigy and watch a continuous loop of The Little Tramp walking backwards in a stylized dance that DOES look like the routine Jacko incorporated into his performances.

Eugene revealed that negotiations to film a hologram of Charlie doing his dance step alongside a live performance by Jackson unfortunately ended with the pop star’s untimely death in 2009.

How unfortunate. It would have no doubt been a real Thriller!

Ex-pat Saultite Tom Douglas is a travel and military writer now living in Oakville, Ontario. He bumped into Albert Einstein at Chaplin’s World.