Kage Baker loved Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I mean really, in a familial, beloved-elder-relative sort of way.They permeated part of our childhood. Especially Kage’s, giving her a life-long affection for conflicted villains and noble anti-heroes. Decades later, her version of The Hero’s Journey (The House of the Stag) would cast the evil Dark Lord as the hero.
Though both gentlemen played many more parts than their iconic monster roles, they will always be best remembered as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature. We watched them in everything they did, though, as pleased to find a “new” old film as if we were finding home movie reels.
Mr. Karloff, of course, succesfully mutated over the years of his illustrious career until he was the ultimate slightly scary Grandfather – Granddad Boris, Kage called him affectionately – and even to people too young or too deprived to know him as Frankestein’s Creature, he is THE Voice of the Grinch. (Accept no substitutes.) And he survived to play disarmingly dotty roles in television shows, notably The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild, Wild West.
Mr. Lugosi was always more the slightly distant, inhumanly elegant uncle; the one you wished would teach your Dad how to pick a tie, and would quiz you on Latin declensions. He had been a romantic lead in Europe, before he found his tormented fate and fame in Hollywood. I always thought he was perfectly believable as a mad (but well-dressed) doctor, or a suave and civilized vampire – it was when he played the unshaven Igor that my willing suspension of disbelief slipped. He was so sinister and poised.
Being industry brats as we were, we kids were always taught never to bother famous people – don’t stare, don’t ask for autographs, don’t make comments when you meet then in Hughes Market picking up a gallon of milk. And we took a perverse pride in not gawking at the famous faces: we were in the know, we got backstage, we heard the stories.
Kage and I had and heard family stories about lots of stars, including Mssrs. Lugosi and Karloff. They both lived in Hollywood, back when even big stars lived near the ordinary people in their trade. Bela Lugosi, for instance, once made a very admiring and reverent remark in praise of Mama’s, mmm, derrriere as she posed on a ladder for a lighting check. It made her laugh to the end of her days. And Kage delighted in the story, which helped permanently humanize the monsters for her.
I often wondered, anyway, just how securely Kage was fastened into her own time-frame. For her, that story may well have been a memory, not just the tale of one. She talked about both Karloff and Lugosi as if she had seen them clearly, sometimes. She might as well have seen Karloff walking his terrier along the narrow streets above Highland Avenue. Or seen Lugosi returning to his bungalow courtyard in the eredawn, still in evening clothes and cape after playing Dracula on stage, frightening a neighbor half to death with a bow and a flourish and a drawled, “Good morning, neighbor.”
And today we are not only smackdab in the middle of monster season, it is Bela Lugosi’s birthday – Happy Natal Day, my very dear sir! Many happy returns of the day! Or something …
Tomorrow: Miss Muffin, Mr. Singh and shambling neighbors