It’s funny how ideas or discoveries sometimes reach critical mass.
In one infamous example, working independently, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray each filed patent documents for the telephone on the same day. (Some argue Bell stole Gray’s idea, but that’s another matter.)
I experienced something along the same lines in April 2005 when, in searching the online B.C. vital events index, I discovered that long before becoming famous, movie monster Boris Karloff got married in Vancouver — something no one had ever mentioned.
What I didn’t find out until more than a year later was that English Karloff biographer Stephen Jacobs made the same discovery at the same time.
The information had been available for 20 years for anyone inclined to look — providing they knew Karloff’s given name was William Henry Pratt. Finally, two people an ocean apart latched onto it almost simultaneously.
Jacobs went on to write the definitive Karloff biography, More Than a Monster, published this week in North America. He kindly sent me a copy.
In addition to detailing Karloff’s Vancouver marriage to Grace Harding in 1910, Jacobs traces the budding thespian’s early stage career, which took him through Nelson.
After immigrating to Canada from his native England, young Billy Pratt held a series of jobs, including ditch digger, real estate agent, and streetcar track layer — all the while unsuccessfully seeking theatre positions.
Finally, one day while working with a survey party at Lilloett Lake, he received a note from a theatrical agent telling him to join the touring Jeanne Russell Co. at Kamloops.
“It had such a bad reputation that nobody would join it,” Karloff said. “That’s why he sent for me.”
Karloff left his axe sticking in a tree and caught a train for Kamloops, arriving there in the last week of September 1911. Either en route or shortly thereafter, he adopted his famous stage name, claiming Karloff was from his mother’s side of the family.
(In fact, it was more likely taken from a novel and play called The Man on the Box, which featured a character named Count Karloff — and was part of Jeanne Russell’s repertoire.)
After sitting in on some rehearsals, Karloff joined the cast in the next city on their tour — which many years later he claimed was Nelson.
“I made my first stage appearance playing the elderly husband in a play called The Devil … in Nelson,” he said. However, he later admitted: “I can’t remember what the next town was, maybe Nelson or Fernie, or is my geography all wrong?”
In fact, Salmon Arm and Vernon were the company’s next two stops after Kamloops. But they did later perform in Nelson, and the city stuck in Karloff’s mind — perhaps because he celebrated his 24th birthday here, on November 23, 1911.
No matter where it happened, it was not an auspicious start.
“I had finally become an actor, but I mumbled, bumbled, missed cues, rammed into furniture, and sent the director’s blood pressure soaring,” he said. “When the curtain went up I was getting $30 a week. When it descended, I was down to $15.”
Still, he stayed with the group, and returned to the old Nelson opera house in February 1912. A list of hotel guests in the Nelson Daily News showed “B. Korloff” registered at the Queens Hotel on Baker Street (the present site of the Mountain Hound Inn).
Another signature belonged to fellow cast member Margot Beaton, whose real name was Helene Ripley. She was Jeanne Russell’s half-sister — and Karloff’s paramour, named as “co-respondent” when Grace Harding petitioned for divorce in 1913.
The company also played Rossland, Trail, Grand Forks, and Cranbrook before going bust in Regina just before the city was flattened by a tornado. Karloff found work clearing up debris and later joined another theatre company in Prince Albert.
Fame and fortune as Frankenstein’s monster was still nearly 20 years away.
Although some half dozen other books have been written about Karloff, Jacobs’ easily outdistances them. It is by far the most detailed biography and the only one to properly note its sources.
Separating fact from fiction was not always easy, however, as Karloff often misremembered or deliberately obscured his past. (In addition to Grace Harding, he had up to four other secret wives, whom he never talked about. They rarely mentioned him either.)
But Karloff was of otherwise sterling character, the antithesis of his stage and screen roles. He was a gentleman and generous friend in contrast to the villains and monsters he usually played.
More Than a Monster is an authorized biography, endorsed by Karloff’s daughter Sara. It’s available through amazon.ca.
Local impresario Richard Rowberry plans to revive Karloff’s debut play, The Devil, this Halloween at the Capitol Theatre, as part of the second annual Nelson arts and heritage festival.
Greg Nesteroff is a reporter for the Nelson Star.