Of all the ghoulish Hollywood actors since the dawn of the movies, the greatest is still Colorado Springs’ own Lon Chaney.
“The Man of a Thousand Faces’’ – as he was known – appeared in more than 160 silent films in a career that spanned nearly two decades to his death in 1930 at the age of 47.
Chaney’s unique ability to transform into any one of the 1,000 fiendish characters has been well documented by Hollywood historians. But what are often overlooked are Chaney’s deep ties to Colorado Springs and the profound effect his family had in the Pikes Peak region.
Chaney was born the second of four children. The Chaney family lived in three locations in Colorado Springs while he was growing up; 509 W. Bijou St., 738 N. Spruce St. and 802 N. Walnut St. All three houses are still standing and have been maintained.
The silent film star was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883. His parents, Frank and Emma, were deaf and mute.
Chaney’s father was a barber whose clients included Gen. William Jackson Palmer and Winfield Scott Stratton. His mother was a teacher. Her father, Jonathan Ralston Kennedy, founded the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes in 1874. Today the school is known as the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, 33 N. Institute St. in Colorado Springs, is located near the famous laboratory of Nikola Tesla.
Chaney could hear and speak, but he learned to communicate with his parents and other children at the school through pantomime. When he was just 16 years old, he appeared in the play “The Last Tycoon” with his brother, John, at the Colorado Springs Opera House. Three years later, he was traveling the country on Vaudeville stages and before long, made his way to Hollywood to settle for good in 1910.
Chaney attended Lincoln Elementary School in Colorado Springs, but had to drop out in the fourth grade to become a caretaker when his mother became ill. He later worked a variety of jobs, including leading a mule train up Pikes Peak where worked on his mimicry skills on tourists, who encouraged the young Chaney to go into show business. At the age of 13, Chaney got a job working props at the Opera House.
He later studied home repair at Brown’s Wall Paper and Paint Co. In 1899, after the Antlers Hotel burned down, Chaney took a job on the renovation crew as a carpet layer and wallpaper hanger.
Chaney’s most famous Hollywood acting parts include that of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the title character in “Phantom of the Opera.” Those Metro Goldwyn Mayer films can be seen on Turner Classic Movies about once a year.
Chaney’s 17 films at MGM earned a combined box office gross of $16.2 million at a time when the average price of a movie ticket ranged from 25 to 75 cents.
From film to film, Chaney appeared to transform himself with ease. He could not only morph his face, but his entire body would seem to change shape as he played characters with lost limbs or crippled spines.
Chaney did all of his own makeup.
By all accounts, Chaney kept his personal life private. He intentionally avoided the Hollywood social scene. He gave few interviews during his career, yet still managed to be a legend in his lifetime. When he died of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker) in Los Angeles on Aug. 26, 1930, he made sure his three siblings – John, George and Carolin – were well taken care of financially.
Chaney was revered as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors. Former actor-friend Wallace Berry said of Chaney; “Lon Chaney was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch.”
Chaney is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
At the time of the Chaney’s death, he was in contract negotiations with MGM to play the lead role of “The Count” in 1931’s “Dracula.” That part, of course, went to Bela Lugosi who went on to become a Hollywood horror film icon in his own right.
Chaney had one son, Creighton Tull Chaney, who was 24 at the time of his father’s death. After the senior Chaney died, Creighton gave up his job as a plumber and took up acting.
In 1935, MGM persuaded him to change his name to Lon Chaney Jr. The younger Chaney lived up to the name, starring in a number of iconic horror films.
His most famous role was that of a werewolf in 1941’s “The Wolf Man.” He also played “The Mummy,” “Frankenstein’s Monster” and “Count Alucard.” Lon Chaney Jr., died in 1973 at the age of 67.
Both Chaneys were honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1997, with senior as the phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” and junior as the Wolf Man.
Lon Chaney Sr., was also honored with a U.S postage stamp in 1994.
In 1986, the Colorado Springs Little Theatre was renamed The Lon Chaney Theatre. April is Lon Chaney Month in the city.
Chaney was honored with a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1929, Chaney built an impressive stone cabin as a retreat in the remote wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada near Big Pine, Calif. The cabin is preserved by the Inyo National Forest Service.
In the late 1950s, there was a resurgence of interest in Chaney.
The legendary James Cagney starred in the biopic “Man of a Thousand Faces” in 1957.
Since Chaney kept his private life private, there are no records of him returning to Colorado Springs after he left the city in the early 1900s.