By Larry Meredith
In the 1930s Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi ruled a film genre to a degree that has perhaps never been equalled. In the 1940s, these two film giants mere joined by a third legendary actor, Lon Chaney, Jr. As the classic films featuring Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man are rediscovered by each new generation of horror film enthusiasts, "the three r's" most remembered for bringing these characters to life remain as popular as ever.
But it isn't just their films that keep the Chaney, Karloff and Lugosi legacies alive. The families of the three performers are very much in the public eye. They correspond with admirers of their famous namesakes and meet fans in person at various collecting shows. All three families work with individuals and companies wanting to develop products based upon the three monster characters. They also market their own lines of memorabilia and, in general, work to carry on the legacy of their famous family names.
The U.S. Postal Service issued postage stamps commemorating Karloff, Chaney, Jr. and Lugosi. The three families initiated this project and are working with the Post Office on the undertaking. Their goal is to get stamps issued that will not only recognize the horror movie genre, but also the contributions of the three legendary actors. Although the Post Office is very secretive about commemorative stamps and will not announce its decision until October, all three families are hopeful and say it looks promising.
In addition to discussing the commemorative stamp project, the families of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. gave us some fascinating insights into the lives and careers of the three distinguished actors. They also shared their personal remembrances, described the family memorabilia they own, and told us what they're doing to preserve and enrich the legacy of the three most famous movie monsters of all time.
Lugosi, the first of the three great monster legends, was born Bela Blasko on Oct. 20, 1882 in Luaos, Hungary. He started performing on the Hungarian stage in 1901 and began his film career in 1915. After making several films in Germany, Lugosi came to the United States in 1921 and began playing character roles on both stage and screen. He successfully played the title character in the stage version of Dracula from 1927 to 1929, and was cast in the now-classic film version in 1931. In the early 1930s and into the 40s, Lugosi continued to play the Dracula vampire, frequently partnered with Karloff.
The two actors shared billing as the most formidable duo in the history of the horror film genre. Some say that Karloff was technically the better actor, but few would deny that it was Lugosi who had the superior screen persona. No actor could portray darkness and evil like Bela Lugosi. After a decade marked by money, marital and drug problems during which his career faltered, Lugosi returned to the screen in 1956, completing three films before his death that same year. He was buried with his Dracula cape.
The famous actor's son, Bela G. Lugosi, remembers his father as "a good family man who passed on a wealth of worldly knowledge." Family photos show that Bela G. Lugosi - who was born when the elder Lugosi was 56 - spent time on the set with his father at an early age. He remembers being on the set of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 (he would have been about 10), and recalls watching Lugosi perform on stage during a summer stock tour. When asked about his father's accomplishments, Lugosi says his dad was very proud of being an American. He also recounts that his father was constantly striving to perfect his craft, and always tried to give a top-notch performance whatever the film.
Bela G. Lugosi has a significant amount of his father's memorabilia, including citizenship papers, scrapbooks, letters, costumes, contracts and signed photos both in and out of character. Lugosi doesn't sell or trade his dad's memorabilia because he is keeping it for his children and grandchildren, and regards himself as "the keeper of the flame." He also said his father was good with fans and a willing autograph signer. Bela Lugosi's signature is currently valued at $275, a signed photo $1,275.
Like the children of the Karloff and Chaney families, Bela G. Lugosi is continually involved in licensing issues related to his famous father. As a celebrity rights attorney, he tends to be closer to this issue than members of the other two families. According to Lugosi, the heirs of celebrities have certain rights under the California Celebrity Rights Act and Federal trademark laws. Under the California law, heirs have the right to the use of the deceased celebrity's name, likeness, voice, signature and persona for 50 years after the star's death. Under federal trademark laws, the heirs have similar rights forever as long as they make use of the legacy.
Lugosi was involved in a 13-year legal battle with Universal Studios over rights related to his father. He lost the suit, but won the rights when the California law was passed. While Universal developed the makeup used on Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man and therefore has the rights to it, Lugosi claims he has the rights to Dracula's makeup because his father created the character on the Broadway stage.
Anyone wanting to use the Dracula image on a T-shirt, for example, must license the image and pay a royalty to the Lugosi family. The same is true in the case of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's Monster but, in addition, a license must be obtained from Universal, Lugosi said. Lugosi and the other families try to make this process as easy as possible for the licensee, but they understandably want licensed products to meet certain standards.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887 in Dulwich, England, a London suburb. Karloff emigrated to Canada in 1909, where he was attracted to the stage a calling he would return to many times throughout his film career. He played a number of minor stage and screen roles in Canada and the United States until the mid-1920s, when he started getting better parts. Karloff's first success came in 1931 when he reprised his stage role in The Criminal Code. An even bigger break came later that year when he was cast as the monster in Frankenstein, a role that Bela Lugosi had turned down, reportedly because it wasn't a speaking part.
Karloff went on to a film career that included 167 pictures spanning more than 50 years. Although he will forever be remembered as Frankenstein's Monster, Karloff gave us many other memorable performances on stage, screen, television and records. He died in 1969.
Karloff's daughter, Sara Karloff, notes that her father had a reputation for being a mild-mannered, kindly man who performed many acts of charity for needy children. She remembers him as "a gentleman with high standards of conduct" whose humility was particularly evident during the Great Depression.
"He was appreciative of his success, and grateful for being typecast because it kept him working and out of the bread line," she said.
However, like many other children of famous parents, Sara admitted that being the daughter of Boris Karloff had its drawbacks. "People had preconceived ideas of what I would be like, and they talked about my behavior because I was his daughter," said Sara, noting that she wasn't cut out to follow in her father's footsteps. She recalls the time he performed in the stage version of Peter Pan with Jean Arthur in which Karloff played both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Watching the play from backstage, she remembers her dad telling her it was obvious she had no interest in acting since she paid most of her attention to Nana the dog.
Sara Karloff says her father was especially proud of his association with the Screen Actors Guild and his 1941 Broadway stage performance as Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. He also was proud of the Emmy he won as the voice of the Grinch in the television special How The Grinch Stole Christmas, which became an instant television holiday classic. He enjoyed cricket, gardening, reading and animals, and at one time kept 22 dogs.
Karloff corresponded regularly with his fans and was a willing autograph signer. While playing the two parts on stage in Peter Pan, he took time between scenes to sign autographs for children in his dressing room, Sara Karloff said. A Boris Karloff signature is listed at $250 in The 1994 Sanders Price Guide to Autographs. Signed photos go for $650.
"He didn't collect his career," says Sara Karloff of her famous father, which explains why she has very few pieces of her dad's memorabilia. In 1957 Boris was given his monster neck bolts on the television show This Is Your Life. Unfortunately, the bolts were stolen along with Karloff's gold Screen Actors Guild card in a London burglary. Sara does have her father's money clip inscribed with his signature, which she says means a great deal to her. Asked about the value and collectibility of her father's memorabilia, Sara said she was amazed when she heard that a 1931 Frankenstein one-sheet movie poster sold for $198,000 at a 1993 Odyssey Auctions sale - the highest price ever paid for an original movie poster.
In 1993 Sara Karloff formed Karloff Enterprises with the objective of "preserving, protecting and sharing my father's memory." In this endeavor, she is actively involved in promoting the commemorative stamp project, speaking to collectors and fans at various functions, licensing others to produce Karloff items or otherwise use his persona, and marketing her own line of Boris Karloff collectibles, including T-shirts, caps, calendars, mugs, clocks, watches and other items. In this capacity, Sara says she frequently has the opportunity to speak with her father's fans, an experience she describes as "always a heart-warming, fun, delightful experience."
LON CHANEY, JR.
The only American-born actor of the three famous monster stars, Lon Chaney, Jr. was the son of Lon Chaney, the famous "Man of a Thousand Faces" profiled in the 1957 James Cagney movie of the same name. Born Feb. 10, 1906 in Oklahoma City, his real name was Creighton Chaney, which he used until 1935, when he changed it to Lon Chaney, Jr. He had begun his film career three years earlier, but didn't achieve real success until 1940, when he starred in the critically-acclaimed Of Mice and Men.
During the 1940s Chaney, Jr. played a succession of monster roles, including Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and gave several performances as the character for which he is perhaps best remembered - the Wolf Man. An imposing figure with craggy features, Chaney, Jr. performed in about 150 pictures, mostly horror films and westerns, where he usually portrayed a monster, villain or some other heavy. He made his last film, Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, in 1973, and died that same year.
Lon Chaney, Jr. is survived by his grandsons, Ron and Gary Chaney. Ron remembers his famous namesake as "just grandfather, not a star." Chaney Jr. lived much of his life in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., some 60 miles south of Universal Studios in Hollywood, where many of his most notable films were made. Chaney recalls that his grandfather loved children, liked to hunt, fish and cook, and was not into the Hollywood lifestyle. He also said his grandfather was a willing signer of autographs - much moreso than his great-grandfather, Lon Chaney, Sr. -which accounts for the fact that Sanders lists a Lon Chaney, Jr. autograph for $375, while the older Chaney's signature commands $1,225. Ron Chaney remembers his grandfather signing photos for fans to the end, even though he was very ill.
Chaney has a treasure house of collectibles from both his grandfather and great-grandfather. Among his Lon Chaney Jr. memorabilia are signed photos taken by Clarence Sinclair Bull, Georgr Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise as well as several llxl4 unsigned photos. He also has books, signed contracts, hats and the Wolf Man's teeth from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In addition, he has purchased many items from other collectors over the years but hasn't sold any of his grandfather's personal memorabilia.
Chaney said he has sold generic movie stills, lobby cards and posters and bartered for more significant items. He has, for example, parted with signed photos of Chaney Jr. in trade for hard-to-find posters and lobby cards from the early 1930s films when his grandfather was still using the name Creighton Chaney.
Some years ago, while going through some of his grandfather's things, Chaney said he came upon material for a book that Lon Chaney, Jr. was writing at the time of his death. Ron has decided to complete the book, which will be titled A Century of Chaneys, a reference to the collective number of years Lon Chaney Sr., his wife Gleva and Lon Chaney, Jr. appeared in films. According to Chaney, the book will present the life stories of the actors in an entertaining way and include previously-unpublished biographical facts and photos, as well as never-before-revealed makeup secrets. Ron says he is completing the coffee-table book as a labor of love, and doesn't expect it to be a best seller. Rather, he is doing it as a tribute to his family and as a legacy for fans of the horror movie genre.
In 1992 Ron and Gary Chaney formed Chaney Enterprises to preserve their family name and to market licensed Chaney products such as art prints, photos, sculptures, limited edition memorabilia, T-shirts, models, watches and other items. Ron attends various Hollywood collecting shows where he mingles with his grandfather's and great grandfather's admirers.
"The response of loyal fans is amazing," he said. It was at one of these shows in 1993 that Ron met Sara Karloff and Bela G. Lugosi. From this meeting the idea for the commemorative stamps was born.
In addition to the ongoing stamp project, it is rumored that Universal is interested in reassociating itself with the three movie monster legends that exemplified the studio in the early 1930s and '40s. If this is true, perhaps we'll be seeing more of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. We sure hope so!