Boris Karloff Film Festival
Oak Park Theater to feature actor with Minot connection
Before he became well known as a horror picture actor, Boris Karloff lived in a Minot boarding house and played the local opera house.
Memories of those days, along with stories of Karloff’s stage and movie career, will be the focus of a film festival hosted at Oak Park Theater on Sunday, Oct. 17.
Al Schon, owner of Oak Park Theater, and Jim Heilmann of J & S Productions said they have been planning a festival for the past year, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in postponement twice. The festival finally is going forward, featuring Boris Karloff’s daughter, Sara Karloff, 82.
Heilmann said it was a visit with Dylan Lee, store manager at Budget Music & Video in Minot, that prompted him to reach out to Sara Karloff. Lee suggested holding a monster movie festival and inviting Boris Karloff’s daughter. Discovering Sara Karloff was living in California, Heilmann made numerous inquiries.
One day he received a phone call from Sara Karloff, who indicated she really wanted to come to Minot. She said her father loved Minot and thought it was the greatest town ever, Heilmann said.
She was interested in seeing the boarding house where her father lived in Minot, but the building burned many years ago. Heilmann said that spot now is a Trinity Homes parking lot.
Sara Karloff also indicated she has old home movies she may be able to bring to the festival. She is scheduled to speak at 1:30 p.m. She will be taking questions and is expected to be signing photos before the showing of a new documentary on Boris Karloff that was released this month.
Born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887, in England, Karloff moved to Canada in 1909 and performed on stage with different theater companies. In 1915, he was with the Harry St. Clair Company that performed in Minot in an opera house above a hardware store. The former Jacobson opera house was located where the Taube Museum now sits. Heilmann said the troupe also had been in Kenmare briefly before coming to Minot.
A 1957 television episode of “This is Your Life” brought Karloff on air to shower him with memories of his past. The show included J. Warren Bacon of Minot, who provided a picture of the gabled rooming house where Karloff had lived. At one time an errand boy at the opera house, Bacon recalled Minot’s response to Karloff’s acting in noting, “In spite of the fact that he played mostly villain roles, they loved Boris.”
Schon said members of the Bacon family are expected to be at the festival. Heilmann has been working with the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce EDC regarding a lifetime chamber membership Karloff had received from Bacon during the television show. Heilmann and Schon invite other Minot-area residents who have handed-down memories of Karloff to contact them to share them.
“Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” is a new documentary from Voltage Films Ltd & Shout Factory on Karloff’s life. The documentary draws from dozens of interviews, including Guillermo Del Toro, John Landis, Roger Corman, Sara Karloff, Peter Bogdanovich, Christopher Plummer, Stefanie Powers, Lee Grant, Sir Christopher Frayling and Kevin Brownlow. Some interviewees have never previously discussed their time with Karloff. The document also includes never released audio of Karloff .
“From the moment in December 1896 when he emerged from a trap-door as the Demon King in a local parish production of Cinderella, till the day he died on February 2, 1969, the passion for acting remained undimmed,” according to promotional material for the documentary. “It drove him to rebel against family expectations, that he should train for the civil service posts his father and older brothers worked in. It drove him to escape to Canada, the moment the opportunity arose, where he could be free from family interference. And it sustained him through a 20-year struggle to establish himself in his chosen profession.”
After 20 years of obscurity, he began to attract notice in films such as “The Criminal Code” and “Five Star Final,” states a documentary synopsis. By 1931, when he played “the creature” in Universal’s Frankenstein, neither Karloff nor the studio knew what to expect. While Universal was banking on a similar success to “Dracula,” Karloff merely hoped this would win him steady work.
The creature, buried under make-up, with no dialogue, aside from the occasional inarticulate grunt, was a part that had been turned down by a number of actors. Universal didn’t even invite Karloff to the premiere. But the power of Karloff’s performance and the film itself exceeded everyone’s expectations and Universal quickly promoted the actor to star billing in such vehicles as “The Old Dark House,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat” and others.
Over the years, horror would go in and out of fashion, but Karloff remained a major name for the rest of his life. Even half a century after his passing, Karloff’s legacy continues with Guillermo Del Toro citing him as a key inspiration in his work.
It’s often noted that in life Karloff was totally unlike his onscreen persona. Colleagues recall his professionalism, kindness and self-depreciating sense of humor. But, while chronicling his career, the documentary also examines the secretive side of Boris and his deepest fear of all — the fear he might become obsolete.
Karloff also was devoted to the Screen Actors Guild, both in recruiting members and in his determination to stand up for actors in less fortunate positions than himself. At a time when his fame was still in its early days and when mere association with a union could lead to dismissal by Universal. he willingly risked his hard-won success, remaining a dedicated supporter of actors rights well into the 1950s.
When horror went out of fashion after World War II, Karloff sought fresh pastures, reinventing himself as a “legitimate” actor on Broadway, radio and later TV. Appearing in two smash hits “Peter Pan” and “The Lark”, as well as dozens of live television dramas and variety shows, it was Karloff’s most satisfying period artistically, ultimately earning him a Tony nomination for his performance in “The Lark.”
When the Shock Theatre package in the late 1950s brought vintage horror into the living rooms of a new generation, Karloff enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity, hosting the his own TV series, “Thriller,” and winning new fans in such films as “The Raven,” the disturbing “Black Sabbath,” “Targets” and as the voice of the Grinch in “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Colleagues recall his willingness to push himself physically in order to make the work as authentic as possible. But this work ethic had a downside in his personal life. Constant theater touring in the states and overseas in the early 1940s contributed to the end of his fourth marriage. When work opportunities meant moving to New York and later England, he seldom saw his daughter, Sara.
However, Sara Karloff has helped keep her father’s legacy alive, speaking around the United States and Europe at film events.
Tickets for her appearance Oct. 17 are $15 and can be obtained from Oak Park Theater or Budget Music & Video. Tickets also may be reserved for pick-up at the door by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. People with Minot-related stories about Karloff also can contact festival organizers at that email.