"The Idol Class" by Phil Posner

Originally published in Limelight, Vol. 1, #2, Spring 1995

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin is practically a national hero in Bulgaria? The Bulgarians love and revere Chaplin and his work, and his films are often shown on television. But that's not all.

In a town called Gabrovo, which has a reputation for being the home of particularly thrifty and humorous people, there's a statue (and a nice one too) of Chaplin. It was sculpted by artist Georgi Chapkunov in 1985.

The author's friend Plamen Gantchev in front of the Chaplin statue in Gabrovo, Bulgaria.


Detail of the Chaplin Statue

The Gabrovonians are a people who, through thrift and enterprise, built prosperity. Despite hardships of climate, terrain and political oppression, they came to be among the country's earliest and most prosperous industrialists and merchants. They pride themselves on their self deprecating humor, most of which is based on their reputation for extreme thrift: they cut off cat's tails to save on heating fuel, because the cats then take less time to enter or exit a house. They stop their watches at night to save wear and tear on the mechanism. Through the years the stories grew into a rich folklore.

Books of anecdotes about Gabrovo are printed in many languages and the town frequently hosts international comedy festivals. It seemed natural that they would idolize Chaplin, whose humor was international and whose poor but resourceful character was an Everyman. One might conjecture that Chaplin's alleged communist sympathies also led to a strong connection for eastern Europeans, or that they saw in him an icon of an individual always at odds with authority, as they were.

However, if you ask a Gabrovonian, he'll state unequivocally that the connection is laughter. "Humor is understandable to all", said Bulgarian humorist Ilya Beshkov. "It takes at least two people to share a laugh. Only a madman laughs alone." (Beshkov, of course, never had a DVD player.) He also said, "Humor is the blood circulation of a nation. A nation that has not created its own humor has not secured its right to existence." His countrymen, at least, seem to agree.

Some other Chaplin statues in (clockwise from top left) Leicester Square, Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum, Vevey and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.