By MICHAEL IWINSKI
Carla Laemmle, the last living link to The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula, celebrated her 100th birthday last October 26. A celebration was held on Soundstage 28 at Universal Studios, and Ms. Laemmle returned to the set where she played the prima ballerina in Phantom of the Opera in 1925.
I interviewed her on the eve of her centennial celebration, and Carla Laemmle’s voice was clear and her mind sharp. Earlier this year she even penned a book with Daniel Kinske, Growing Up With Monsters. Her roots in Hollywood date back to 1921, when she arrived from Chicago at the age of 11. Her uncle, Carl Laemmle, founded Universal Studios, and she describes growing up on the studio lot as a magical time, a kind of perpetual fantasy world. It was while working for the studio that Laemmle played roles in two of the greatest horror films ever produced.
Laemmle became a cult figure in horror fandom. “I’ve been getting mail nearly every day from all over the world,” she says. Always an accommodating signer, Laemmle is flattered by the attention she still receives, but keeps it in perspective: “They praise me and flatter me so much that you can’t take it too seriously.” After all, she was only 16 years old when she performed in Phantom. Fans continue to request autographs and sometimes send gifts in the mail. “I just received a wonderful letter from an artist in Canada. The portrait he did of Lon Chaney is really excellent!”
Of Chaney’s role as the phantom, Laemmle says, “It was a closed set. I was only in the ballet sequence at the beginning, and they didn’t allow anyone in the room when the unmasking scene was being made.”
The scene Laemmle is referring to is one of the most iconic in movie history. The phantom’s mask is removed, revealing his hideously deformed face. “Only the people who were involved with the scenes were able to be on the set. It added shock value by keeping it a secret.”
In 1931 Laemmle delivered the first lines in another Universal classic, Dracula. “I was in the carriage and just read the lines that were right in front of me.” Seventy-eight years later, she recites them from memory: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
Even while it was being filmed, Laemmle felt Dracula was unique. “It was the first talking picture—the first sound horror movie being made. We knew there would be quite a bit of special interest in it. It was no longer just silent movies. That’s what set it apart at the time and made it special.”
Laemmle, who was trained in ballet, would go on to use her dance skills in musicals throughout Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. “I worked at every studio—MGM, Universal, Warner Brothers, RKO.” Thinking back to what the town was like during the early days, Laemmle feels the actors were much more approachable and visibly appreciative: “They were very gracious in those days. They knew how valuable being accessible was and were very nice.”
Carla Laemmle exudes these qualities today, something autograph collectors and horror film aficionados appreciate. Surprisingly, she is not a huge horror fan. She never even auditioned for the part in Dracula but was called in by Universal at the last minute. No director was present when the scene was filmed on a back lot, with men rocking the carriage to and fro to create the illusion of motion. “I’m not interested in horror movies at all!” Laemmle says. “But I like to watch Dracula and Phantom of the Opera when they are on.”