Event: New York Public Library’s “Jeepers Creepers, It’s Boris Karloff!”
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Bruno Walter Auditorium
October 27, 2011 – LPA Cinema Series: Jeepers Creepers, It’s Boris Karloff!
Last night, my father and I made plans to see “Out of the shadows: The Fashion of Film Noir” exhibit at the NYPL at Lincoln Center. When I got there my dad was beside himself with excitement (or so it seemed with my headphones still on) when we discovered that there would be a presentation about Boris Karloff starting right that minute. (FYI, there are tons of great free performances going on all the time in the Bruno Walter Auditorium.)
The performance consisted of four very talented voice actors on stage, reading the parts of Boris Karloff, various family members, and other industry folks like Peter Bogdanovich. The actor who read the part of Boris Karloff was fantastic. He really had the voice down. The readings were interspersed with audio of Karloff’s interviews and video clips.
I should add here that my dad is something of a film buff. (That’s putting it mildly.) I am truly my father’s daughter in this regard, but I don’t have the same kind of encyclopedic knowledge about film history. So of course I knew that Boris Karloff played Frankenstein, but last night I was presented with a lot of really inspiring information about his life and career that, as an artist and writer, was helpful to hear.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in England in 1887. He was one of nine kids. All of his older brothers had gone into diplomatic relations, and it was expected that he would, too. Instead, he ran off to Canada to be an actor. (Yeah, I know.) He worked all kinds of jobs and basically lied his way into doing theater work. Deciding that “Pratt” maybe wasn’t the best stage name, he became Boris Karloff – “Karloff” was an old family name on his mother’s side, and “Boris” he plucked “from thin air.” Eventually he made it to California, where his dark complexion typecast him for roles as gypsies, “wicked half-breeds,” Mexicans, and maharajahs.
And here’s where his story really gets me. Boris Karloff worked as an actor for twenty years before he was cast as the Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein in 1931. He never gave up. He believed in himself. He worked and worked, got better and better, and kept taking forward steps toward his dream.
Did Frankenstein make him an overnight success? No. His name wasn’t in the opening credits, and he wasn’t even invited to the premiere. At one point he spent 25 hours in costume. Frankenstein was his 81st film and no one had seen the first 80. He’d been an actor for 20 years and nobody knew it – except for him. But the film opened doors, and when asked about forever being associated with the role, he expressed gratitude – never annoyance.
In the 1950s and 60s, between Elvis and the Beatles, monster mania hit. It had a lot to do with advancements in TV and film and pop culture that I won’t go into, but suffice to say that Karloff’s association with monster movies was a boost to his career. He became bi-coastal, doing variety acts in LA and stage work in NY. He was initially terrified of being on Broadway, convinced that he was too used to multiple takes and it had been too long since he’d been on stage. Ultimately, he forced himself to work past the fear and commit fully.
I’ve heard of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG), but I never thought too much about it. Boris Karloff was one of the founders. His card number is 9. This was dangerous business at the time, and he and the other founders could have found their careers ruined. But the rights and working conditions of actors were very important to him.
One of the more surprising – and delightful – elements of the performance was the disclosure that Boris Karloff sang. (Yeah, I didn’t know either.) They played a video clip of Karloff singing Burt’s lines from “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (from Mary Poppins) in front of sharp-cheekboned backup singers, a short (but AWESOME) audio clip of him singing as Captain Hook from Peter Pan on Broadway, as well as the only known recording of Karloff singing “THE MONSTER MASH.” (It was so cool, you guys. So cool.) Here, have a picture of Karloff as Hook. According to his daughter, he loved how all the kids would come backstage to try on the hook or flying harness.
Another surprising piece of information was that Boris Karloff narrated Chuck Jones’ and Dr. Seuss’ animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I feel like I must have known that at some point, but never connected the information. After hearing his voice on so many clips, when they played a bit from Grinch all I could think was “Of course that’s his voice!”
Apparently Karloff didn’t like the term “horror.” As he put it, “horror” implied something that repels or repulses, whereas scary monster movies attract or shock the viewer. He preferred the term “thriller,” and from 1960 to 1962 he hosted a TV anthology series by that title.
Boris Karloff died in 1969, having made over 170 films. He said he was the luckiest man in the world, because he got to spend his life doing what he loved and getting paid for it. (Isn’t that what we should all aim for?) Sara Karloff, his daughter and the “only legal Karloff,” came onstage after the presentation for a Q&A. She was charming and funny and personable. She revealed that her father was an avid reader, devouring books in his downtime and leaving his work at the studio or on the stage – he didn’t bring it home with him. He was humble and never complained. She admitted that she doesn’t like scary movies. (I don’t either, Sara!) But what she stressed was that her father was a lovely, lovely man, with a sense of humor and a sense of what was right.
It was such a wonderful and inspiring event. I’m really glad the plan my father and I made coincided so perfectly with it, and that we were able to see the entire thing. (The Q&A session was kind of funny, because there were so many old NYC accents in the room.) The lessons I took away from the event are in bold throughout the text, because I think they’re necessary for aspiring artists of any type – fine artists, writers, dancers, actors, etc. – to internalize.
(We eventually made it up to the “Fashion of Film Noir” exhibit, which wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I had envisioned a smaller scale Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibit, which it of course wasn’t. There were a number of framed film stills, movie posters, and fashion illustrations, arranged by style or trend. My dad was really into it, mostly because he couldn’t believe there were pictures from so many movies he hasn’t seen. I was expecting mannequins in pretty outfits, so I was a little disappointed.)