Meeting Charlie Chaplin at Largo do Intendente

Even though I had worked a dozen hundred circus shows in my lifetime, I had never experienced a spectacle quite like this. It struck a chord with all of my senses — right there in Largo do Intendente.

Some say memories are in black and white, others claim theirs are in color. At times, we remember words, dates, and names, and at other times, the sights, the sounds, and the smells. My earliest memory of Largo do Intendente is in full color, aside from the silent film flickering in front of a few hundred people in 2016.

Largo do Intendente circa 1918. Photo by Joshua Benoliel

Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 slapstick film, Circus, was playing with the purple and orange city wrapping around it, cheering it on. To the left of the giant outdoor screen was a live pianist who deftly brought the soundtrack to life. Seated at a concert piano, lacquered to a high sheen and tuned to perfection, the well-dressed virtuoso would look up at Charlie and get his cues in real time. It was seamless and magical.

Graça and Mouraria, though invisible, felt like the dark backstage of some giant outdoor movie theatre.

Being circus-folk myself, and overly sensitive at that, I must say I teared up once or twice. But it wasn’t just the alcohol. Or the fact that, though having seen the film and worked a dozen hundred circus shows before, I had never experienced a spectacle quite like this. It struck a chord with all of my senses.

The drive-in style screen and the pianist illuminated solely by a humble orange glow for his keys. And the towering old buildings, the benches, bushes, trees, temporary chairs, the sheer joy and noisy lightness of each slow passing moment. There were families, couples, tourists, homeless people, intrigued old locals sticking out of numerous windows. Some were disconnected but all appeared curious and content. There was a cat or two, dogs and pigeons. It was warm and the air was fresh.

To the west of us, people wandered past, cars honked and roared up and down one of Lisbon’s busier streets, Avenida Almirante Reis. Every few minutes someone with other evening plans would pause, listen, see the crowd and the Tramp on the big screen, and decide to stick around. To the east, however, it was quiet. The neighboring bairros of Graça and Mouraria, though invisible from here, felt like the dark backstage of some giant outdoor movie theatre. It was as if this tiny park, full of life, was where Lisbon was turning in for the night.

Photo by Ellis Dixon

An hour into the film, everyone in the audience seemed entranced by the screen and the piano man. There was laughter, quiet chatter, polite head ducking; café workers and customers alike, people of multiple nationalities, every social class and age calmly watched Mr. Chaplin and the musician dance. Might something very similar have taken place here a century ago?

I had crossed an ocean and was in a place still strange and new to me, experiencing something special and unique with the people closest to me in this city. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life and, when the film ended to a roaring applause and a few modest bows from the pianist, I did not want to leave.

I would later come to find that this live piano accompaniment of the silent big screen at no charge is quite common for Lisbon, especially in the coming summer months. Hell, Buster Keaton popped up at Eka Palace a couple months ago. I like to think this is something that has been happening here since the very days of Buster and Charlie themselves.

Whatever the case may be, that night was something that can not be bottled and, therefore, will not be forgotten. I had no idea where I was at the time. But not two months later, as I casually strolled through the daytime version of Largo do Intendente, it hit me like a train. I have added quite a few memories of the place since, and I’m sure there will be many more to come.

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