Boris Karloff, who will be paid tribute to in a Thursday, October 27 program at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, played Frankenstein’s Monster in three films, the first of which was released 80 years ago next month.
Karloff played the title characters in The Mummy, The Ghoul, and The Mask of Fu Manchu. His costars ranged from Bela Lugosi (in five movies) and Abbott and Costello to Jack Nicholson, and he went up against such filmland detectives as Charlie Chan and Dick Tracy. He himself played a detective, Mr. Wong, in a series of Monogram Pictures whodunits. The name of Karloff, who was born William Henry Pratt in England in 1887, is synonymous with classic horror, although the 150-odd feature films he appeared in between 1919 and his death in 1969 include credits in many genres. Character names like Mord, Gruesome, and the Corpse are scattered across his filmography.
What may not be so well known is that Karloff was also quite a successful stage actor. His career on the boards began with a Canadian touring company in the 1910s, and after he became an established film star, Broadway beckoned. His first major role, in the 1941 Arsenic and Old Lace, capitalized on his horror icon status. In an early example of meta-drama, he played Jonathan Brewster, the villain who is said to look like Boris Karloff. He portrayed Captain Hook (and even sang a little bit) opposite Jean Arthur’s Peter Pan in a 1950 revival of the James M. Barrie play. And in 1956, he won a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, which costarred Julie Harris as Joan of Arc. Karloff also made his mark on radio and television, most enduringly for his narration of the 1966 animated broadcast Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The Library's Billy Rose Theatre Division counts extensive documentation of Karloff’s career — including programs, photographs, and other archival material — among its holdings. There are also several biographies of Karloff, the most well known of which is Cynthia Lindsay’s 1975 Dear Boris. But for someone so familiar in so many ways, much about Karloff the man remains sketchily known by most. The program taking place Thursday, October 27, titled “Jeepers Creepers, It’s Boris Karloff!,” should help fill in some of the blanks.
Held from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Library for the Performing Arts, this story of the actor’s life and career will take the form of a multimedia “stage documentary,” with readings and impersonations by live actors, interwoven with rare film and audio excerpts. In the second half of the program, Sara Karloff, Karloff’s daughter, will take the stage for an interview and Q&A session. Come armed with a question — she won't bite! After all, one monster her father never played was Dracula.