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The Man of a Thousand Faces in Nelson

It’s sort of well known that before earning stardom as Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff performed on the stage in Nelson. But it has not been previously revealed that another future horror movie star appeared there as well.

Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Co. at Kamloops in September 1911, despite having no stage experience. He was actually an Englishman named William Henry Pratt. Part of his stage name probably came from a character in the play The Man on the Box.

Decades after the fact, he recalled (erroneously) making his stage debut in Nelson. In fact, it probably happened in Vernon or Salmon Arm, which were the next stops after Kamloops, but for some reason Nelson stuck in his brain.

“I made my first stage appearance playing the elderly husband in a play called The Devil … in Nelson,” he said in a 1953 interview. However, he later admitted: “I can’t remember what the next town [after Kamloops] was, maybe Nelson or Fernie, or is my geography all wrong?”

He did perform at the Nelson opera house twice, in November 1911 and February 1912, although he was not mentioned in the reviews.

Nelson Daily News, Nov. 18, 1911. Boris Karloff was a member of the cast. He recalled making his stage debut in a Nelson production of The Devil. He might have had the play correct, but was wrong about the city.

During the first visit, he celebrated his 24th birthday. On the return visit, he stayed at the Queens Hotel (now the site of the Mountain Hound Inn), where he was recorded in the guest register as “B. Korloff,” along with Margot Beaton, who was Jeanne Russell’s sister — and Karloff’s paramour, named as “co-respondent” when his first wife petitioned him for divorce in 1913.

He was still nearly 20 years away from the first in a string of successful horror movies and Hollywood immortality.

A few years before Karloff got there, another future star had already performed at the Nelson opera house. Lon Chaney appeared on April 11, 1910 in a musical production of The Royal Chef.

Nelson Daily News, April 10, 1910

The review the following day in the Daily News claimed that The Royal Chef

was greeted last night by the largest and most enthusiastic audience seen in the opera house for many a long time and the production fully deserved the generous patronage bestowed on it … Mr. Chaney fairly divided the comedy honors with Mr. Conley and the whole production was thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish by an overflow house …

The company announced it would return for two shows later in the month. On April 25, they performed A Knight for a Day, following it up the next evening with a repeat of The Royal Chef with an enlarged cast. It was again a hit.

“As on the first occasion, Mr. Chaney, as Lord Mito, ably assisted Mr. Conley and came in for his full share of applause,” the Daily News wrote.

Nelson Daily News, April 24, 1910

Nelson Daily News, April 26, 1910

The newspaper’s hotel arrivals listed Chaney, his wife, and other members of the company as staying at the Grand Central Hotel (where the Nelson and District Credit Union is today). The tour also took them to Kelowna and Revelstoke that month, but I’m not sure where else.

Lon Chaney, during the production of The Miracle Man, 1919. Wikipedia photo

Chaney was then 27 and his wife Cleva 21. They had a four-year-old son Creighton (who later became a horror movie actor himself, known as Lon Chaney Jr.) but I don’t know if he was with them on tour.

In 1913, Cleva went to a theatre in Los Angeles were Lon was managing a show and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride. She survived, but her singing career was ruined. The couple divorced.

Chaney went into films and appeared in many character roles. He became known for his skill with makeup, earning him the nickname The Man of a Thousand Faces. His most famous starring roles were the silent horror films Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

He died of a throat hemorrhage in 1930, age 47.

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