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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chaney Does a Texas Carnival

I thought I was done with Halloween for this year till providence guided me to a trade account of beaten but unbowed Lon Chaney (The Lonster for those who revere him) dragging weary baggage to an El Paso pre-Halloween appearance circa October 1964. Junior’s a cautionary fable for all of us tempted to light up a Lucky or have that second snifter. He’s what happened to those who took career paths better left alone. I understand Lon began at plumbing and excelled at it. Lean times forced him into movies. He could barter Dad’s name for better money than was in fixing commodes. I always felt sorry for young Chaney and might even have taken up fishing had opportunity arisen to join the committed angler lakeside (Lon enjoyed best the simple pleasures in life). Texas hosts found Chaney's a rather sad, sweet face under the make-up as he joined celebrants at the Western Playground Amusement Park that October 17-18. Right now I’m making personal appearances to see where my ego belongs, said easy-to-like (their words) Lon. I want to find out if I’m an egomaniac or an introvert, and how the public feels about me. Yeah, that’s a quote. Chaney was 58 here. Wouldn’t he know by now? Maybe one of the carnys supplied pre-interview libation, for El Paso’s honored guest seized bully pulpit to sound off on what’s wrong with the whole horror movie business. Monsters should be entertaining without being ridiculous, said Chaney. "The Wolf Man" was a highly popular piece of celluloid. We didn’t clown it up. We worked at it sincerely and did it honestly. Perhaps wistfully, he’d add, The good old monster shows are still the most popular.

His "old monsters shows" served Lon best, for recent ones he’d done were little to brag on. 1964 had so far tendered Face Of The Screaming Werewolf and Withcraft (the latter released a month prior to his El Paso visit). I'd seen Werewolf at the Liberty (and remember thinking what a neat title that was to be appended to such a miserable film) with a thing called Curse Of The Stone Hand. Both were out of Mexico and plenty dire. It would be interesting to know how many (or few) bookings this combo managed nationwide. Chaney had last done reasonably classy work in AIP’s The Haunted Palace, from late 1963. Otherwise, features amounted to short weeks with A.C. Lyles’ ongoing outreach to vintage westerns, where cast members likely spent breaks talking of how good movies used to be. Maybe that inspired Lon to look back longingly on days past, even as he claimed to receive twice as much mail from 1964 fans. His manager in tow claimed 467 film credits for the actor and declared it a world’s record. Chaney himself added that that he’d been in show business almost sixty years … which, according to the doubtful trade scribe, means he was wowin’ ‘em in the front rows from his cradle. Still, it was a sympathetic piece. At least Lon was out there pitching, and not too proud to reveal the title of his latest, Cannibal Orgy: The Weirdest Story Ever Told, which emerged finally as Spider Baby in 1968.

All of which reminds me of George Reeves sawdust tours too lightly attended in the late fifties. If only we’d all been there to cheer Lon and tell him how great he’d always been! Reporting from El Paso acknowledged he was the idol of the younger set. They didn’t know the half of it. I’d have flipped had Lon Chaney showed up for one of our mangy carnivals, but all we got were bumper cars and caramel apples good for AM belly aches. Were there fan-snapped fotos made of Chaney that October? I’ll bet a few El Paso attics hold mementos we’d all like to see. For myself, late Lon sightings would be limited to Screaming Werewolves and what was left of him in Witchcraft, and yes, I too was sympathetic. His Larry Talbot became a friend for life thanks to stations close around liberally playing The Wolf Man during the sixties. He was handsome then in a doomed kind of way. What happened to Larry seemed almost to be happening to Lon as well. Something about those sad eyes bespoke hardship on screen and off. His might have been the first movie character that made me want to cry for him. Things start off well for Larry, then go horribly amiss. Sort of like Chaney’s career at Universal. Those Inner Sanctums to come were like one man’s journey through disillusion and beyond. Who’d have expected Chaney to become such a fine character actor in the fifties? You wish he could have held things together a little longer, but Lon was game all the way to a 1973 end, and there’s plenty in that to admire for El Paso fans grown up and the rest of us who missed out on a Halloween treat to surpass any we’ll get in 2009 bags.


Blogger Booksteve said...

The first fan letter I ever wrote was to Lon after FJA ran a piece in FM about how he wasn't in good health. Seems like that wasn't long before he died and, with the time lag between writing and publication, I have no idea if Chaney ever even saw mine or anybody else's letters but I like to think we cheered him just a bit. I was about 13 years old when I wrote him.

7:57 AM  

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