A busy 1920s Hollywood studio lot. Two well-known film stars, approach from opposite directions. They are obviously happy to see one another.
“Well, well. Boris. How on earth are you?”
“Lon. Nice to see you. I’m very well thank you, and you?”
“The same thanks. You know, Boris, I was thinking of you just the other day.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Indeed, I was reminiscing of the old barn-storming tours and trying to recall the name of a little town in British Columbia we both played. In the Kootenays, I believe.
“I remember it well, Lon. You must be thinking of Cranbrook.”
“Cranbrook! (snaps fingers). Yes, of course.”
” A pretty little town as I recall.”
“The flats were nice but the stage was rather small.”
“No, no, Boris. Not the theatre. The mountains. Ah, I love the mountains.”
“Not as fond of the mountains as you, my friend. I left a job working in the bush somewhere between Vancouver and Kamloops to join the Jeanne Russell theatre troupe in Nelson. Travelled to Cranbrook for a show and barely managed to fumble my way through the part. I had never acted before.”
“Indeed. The shows I did there were very near the end of my touring career. I rather miss the old barnstorming days. Happy times really.”
“Hard work and fond memories, I dare say. Well Lon, I must be off.”
“As must I, Boris. No rest for the wicked, as they say.”
Is it far-fetched to imagine Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff conducting such a conversation? In truth, not at all.
Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney was born April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the second of five siblings. Lon’s father Frank, having lost his hearing due to illness at a very young age, previously settled in Colorado Springs, where he honed his career as a barber. The town was a logical choice as it was home to the Colorado School for the Deaf. The school served as a social centre for members of the deaf community and it was here he courted and married the school superintendent’s daughter Emma Kennedy.
When Lon was in the fourth grade his mother was stricken with severe rheumatism and became bed-ridden for a period of years. Lon quit school to care for her. As with all his siblings, Lon could hear and speak perfectly well. He was also fluent in sign language and clever in mime, talents he put to good use mimicking friends and neighbours for the entertainment of his mother.
As Chaney’s mother’s health improved he found part-time work as a properties assistant at the local Opera House. He eventually became a full-time stage manager and, in 1902, took the stage for the first time. His comedic and dancing talents won him notice and he began touring the country in theatrical productions. In Oklahoma City he met Francis Cleveland “Cleva” Creighton, a young singer of note whom he married in May 1905.
Lon Chaney came to Cranbrook with a theatre troupe presenting the comedy “The Royal Chef” in April, 1910, seventeen months before fellow actor Boris Karloff (in his first role onstage) came through town. “The Royal Chef”, an opera in three acts set in the mythical Isle of Oolong, featured forty performers taking the stage at the old Cranbrook Auditorium (now the site of the Armond Theatre).
A lengthy and positive review mentions “Lon Chaney, as the Prime Minister of the Rajah, with a side line as Leader of the Bandits of Oolong, did a few stunts that would make a man laugh if all belonging to him were being funeralized to the bone yard. Lon is a gay and festive cuss.” The company returned a few weeks later with “A Knight for a Day,” a musical featuring “The Falling Star Ballet, The Electrical See-Saw, the Candle-light Girls, The Corsican Girls, the College Girls, and Famous American Beauty Chorus – the show of a Thousand Startling Surprises.” It, too, was well received.
By 1911, his touring days were over and Lon and Cleva were living in Los Angeles. Their careers were doing well but their marriage was not. On the evening of Apr. 30, 1913, Cleva visited backstage at the Majestic Theatre where she was spurned by Lon. She retaliated by immediately drinking a vial of bichloride of mercury. She lived but damaged vocal chords put an end to her singing career. They divorced and Lon married again in 1915 to Hazel Hastings with whom he remained until his death.
Karloff and Chaney, unarguably among the greatest stars of Hollywood, were indeed friends and mentors, although their film careers barely overlapped.
Lon Chaney died of lung cancer on Aug. 26, 1930, at the age of 47. Lon’s son Creighton, under the name Lon Chaney Jr., carved a notable niche in the Hollywood horror genre, most notably as “The Wolf Man.” He died in July 1973, six years after his mother, Cleva.
Lon Chaney maintained a quiet, if not secluded, lifestyle throughout his career, stating “between pictures there is no Lon Chaney.” His makeup techniques remain today as among the most creative and demanding while displaying a remarkable simplicity. Countless modern day make-up artists acknowledge their debt to “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
As for both Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, the masters of horror who struck terror into the hearts of so many, it is interesting to consider that, at least for one night of their lives, their biggest fear was likely how many people in Cranbrook would turn up for the show.