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Hollywood's frightening face/ Silent-film legend Lon Chaney called Colorado Springs home

June 21, 2012

 Colorado Springs knew "The Man of a Thousand Faces" without his makeup.

 Lon Chaney would be the hideous phantom in the silent screen's "Phantom of the Opera" and the wild, fat-cheeked Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." But growing up in Colorado Springs, he was just that uppitty Chaney  kid, the one with the deaf parents.

 From his humble beginnings as a prop boy at the Colorado Springs Opera House, Chaney would grow into Hollywood's most versatile silent-era film star, a rare performer who did all his own makeup.

 Long before John Hurt became the disfigured star of "The Elephant Man" and Robert Englund became the ugly, razor-gloved killer in "Nightmare on Elm Street," Chaney  wowed audiences with his ability to transform himself for every role.

 It wasn't just his face that would morph. His entire body would seem to change shape, as he played characters with lost limbs or crippled spines.

 In one movie he'd play a deformed killer and the next he'd be the handsome love interest.

 "He was totally unique," says Chaney biographer Michael Blake. "You couldn't pigeonhole him as a certain kind of actor, like a romantic lead or anything, because he could do so many things. As one critic at the time said, 'Is there anything this guy can't do?'"

 Blake, along with The Gazette, will present Lon Chaney Fright Fest '99 on Saturday at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The day will include a demonstration of film makeup techniques and a screening of the Chaney classic "The Phantom of the Opera" and other film clips.

 Today, Chaney is remembered as the definitive silent-film horror actor. But that's like calling Anthony Hopkins a great horror actor because he starred in "The Silence of the Lambs."

 Horror represented a small percentage of Chaney’s 150-plus films. In fact, for his highest-grossing film of the time, "Tell It to the Marines," Chaney didn't even wear makeup.

 In the past few decades, Chaney has become associated almost exclusively with the horror genre for two reasons, says Blake, author of  “Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces."

 One reason is that "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" have become his most widely available films.

 Another is that his son, Lon Chaney Jr., a lesser actor, specialized in horror, making his name as the Wolf Man, so people tend to associate the name Chaney with spooky creatures.

 Blake first learned about Chaney Sr. when his father, Larry Blake, appeared in "The Man of a Thousand Faces," the 1957 film starring James Cagney that was based on Chaney’s life.

 Blake first saw that film when he was 10 years old and instantly became fascinated with Chaney and his mastery of makeup. As he grew older, he tried to learn more about Chaney but found there weren't any books on his life.

 So, as a hobby at first, Blake started to gather all the information he could about Chaney. Eventually, he wrote three books on the actor, and launched his own career as a Hollywood makeup man. An Emmy Award-winner for doing makeup on "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," he amassed other credits that include the movies "Star Trek VI" and “Tough Guys" and TV's "Magnum, P.I."

 Blake also has been a major force in promoting Chaney, particularly in Colorado Springs. He was behind the drive in 1986 to rename the Little Theater at the City Auditorium the Lon Chaney Theatre. When the city refused to pay for a new marquee, Blake ponied up the money himself.

 Pop culture can be so transient that we barely remember the original 007 (Sean Connery) from the '60s, let alone the original Phantom from the '20s. But Blake wants to make sure we don't forget the hometown boy who became Colorado Springs' greatest star.

 - Package editor, headline by Susan Edmondson

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