From fool to fame: the life of Lon Chaney

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

If ever a man were born to entertain, it was Lon Chaney. Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs on April 1, 1883. He was the second of four children, and the family lived on Bijou Street near the downtown district. His parents, Frank and Emma, were both deaf but his father, nicknamed “Dummy Chaney,” made enough to live on by working as a barber for Phil Strubel. Lon later cheerfully attributed his father’s success to the fact that people could talk to Frank all day and he didn’t seem to mind.

In the fourth grade, Lon left school because he was needed at home to help his mother, who suffered from inflammatory rheumatism. The boy was already mastering the art of pantomime as a means to communicate with his parents and to entertain his family. Many an evening at the Chaney home consisted of Lon putting on silent plays for his family, re-enacting characters and situations he had witnessed in town that day. His talent for contorting his body and face into all sorts of positions amused his family, but little did they know that such a talent would also bring Lon world-acclaimed fame.

By age twelve, Lon was proving a useful source of income at home. He worked as a tour guide to escort tourists to the top of Pikes Peak before he and his older brother John secured employment at a local theater. Lon worked as a prop boy, earning .25 cents per night. A few years later, the family had saved enough money to send Lon to Denver, where he learned to hang wallpaper and draperies and lay carpet. In 1900 he was back in Colorado Springs, working as a painter.

Still, young Lon could not stay away from the stage and secured a job at the Colorado Springs Opera House. By 1901, after studying makeup techniques in vaudeville and perfecting his own skills, Lon and John formed their own acting company and produced their first play, “The Little Tycoon.” For the next twelve years, the pair traveled throughout the Midwest and the south. Lon performed a variety of duties in addition to playing on stage, but his contorted and varied characters quickly earned him the nickname “Man of a Thousand Faces.” In 1905 he married a 16-year old actress named Francis Cleveland “Cleva” Creighton in Oklahoma City, and the couple remained in town long enough to have a son. Lon’s career was put on hold as he and Cleva worked to support the baby, whom they named Creighton.

Eventually the stage called to Lon Chaney once more. For the next several years he and Cleva eeked out a living with traveling shows and by performing for money on street corners. The couple would sing and dance while young Creighton gathered tossed coins off the sidewalk. The year 1910 found the Chaneys in California, with Lon working various stage shows in San Francisco while Cleva danced and sang in cabaret shows.

By 1912, Chaney was ready for the movies. He played tiny, uncredited parts in no less than an amazing 38 short silent films through 1914. Such work became a strain on the Chaney marriage, and Cleva attempted suicide backstage in Los Angeles in 1913. The poison she swallowed was not fatal, but it did ruin her vocal chords. After years of jealousy and fighting, Chaney left her. Creighton was sent to a children’s home while Lon continued his career. During 1915 he wrote two films, directed both as well as five more, and played in 32 films. He also remarried to chorus girl Hazel Hastings and reclaimed his son.

Chaney’s biggest break came in the 1919 film The Miracle Man about a con artist pretending to be a crippled man who is healed. By 1920 the Chaneys were living in an average Los Angeles neighborhood with a larger-than-life household consisting of Hazel and Creighton, as well as 5 ½ year old Roy Willard who was inexplicably listed in the census as an uncle, and Hazel’s sister and her husband.

The family no doubt moved to larger quarters after 1923 when Chaney donned pounds of makeup and latex to play Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And his incredible made up disfigurement as the maniacal Erik in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera further escalated him to stardom. So unrecognizable were his many characters that he soon became the darling Mystery Man of Hollywood. “Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” was the tongue-in-cheek quip of Tinseltown.

It is no wonder then, that Chaney commanded his personal privacy and spent his off time with his family at his cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His true friends understood, but Hollywood was less forgiving. Despite descriptions of him by friends and colleagues as a fun loving friend, good natured and a wonderful father, Lon’s refusal to attend very many events or grant interviews, combined with his gruesome characters, made him appear odd to the world. “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” the famed actor once explained, but to no avail. Thus the man who worked so hard to understand people like his parents who were labeled “different” was so labeled himself.

In 1929, Chaney swallowed a piece of fake snow during the filming of Thunder that allegedly required throat surgery. But the real malady was throat cancer. The acclaimed actor made one talking movie, a remake of one of his earlier films called The Unholy Three. Then he retired to his cabin in the Sierras and died on August 26, 1930. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California. During his funeral, MGM stopped all production on the studio lot and honored him in silence. Hazel died three years later.

Lon Chaney’s legacy carried on. His son, Creighton, had been discouraged from going into theater because the lifestyle was so unstable. Following Chaney’s death, however, Creighton decided to utilize the vast amount of experience he learned from the father. Against his own wishes but at a producer’s urging, he took the stage name Lon Chaney Jr. and went on to fulfill roles his father might have played. Among them were Of Mice and Men in 1939, The Wolf Man in 1941, Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942, and several subsequent “Wolf Man” and other horror movies. Lon Jr. died in California in 1973. His mother, Cleva, who had some bit parts in the movies during the 1950’s, died in Sierra Madre in 1967.

Together, father and son made well over 300 films. Today the Chaney cabin in the Sierra Mountains is on the National Register of Historic Places. Chaney’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to promote their famous grandpa. In Colorado Springs, the Lon Chaney Theater at the Colorado Springs Auditorium puts on performances and honors the man who only wanted to talk to his parents.

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2 thoughts on “From fool to fame: the life of Lon Chaney

  1. Doug Evans

    Thank you for more information on Lon Chaney Sr and Jr. I had no idea the man I had watched as a kid was Mr. Chaney Jr. Not knowing how great his Father was . I hope Colorado Springs never destroys the Lon Chaney theater. Thank you very much

    Reply

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