Is there anyone not familiar with the image of Frankenstein’s monster—a huge, grunting, threatening creature, creating chaos wherever he lumbers?
And despite numerous versions of Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale, it is Boris Karloff’s interpretation in the 1931 film and two sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, and Son of Frankenstein, 1939) that remain the gold standard.
Last Friday I had the honor of not only meeting Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, but of sitting next to her and her assistant, Jahna Hawkins, during the fifth annual Haunt at Heritage Hill.
My intention had been to simply cover Ms. Karloff’s 30 minute question-and-answer period, just prior to the showing of Frankenstein in the park's corral area.
But upon my early arrival I decided to offer my services to Ms. Karloff and Jahna, who were scrambling to set up two table's worth of Frankenstein memorabilia before fans arrived.
One thing led to another, and soon I was sharing some hastily devoured pizza with both ladies, then sitting at the T-shirt end of one table, answering questions about sizes and prices, plus giving directions to the event's maze and the park’s restrooms. (It helps that I've been a Heritage Hill volunteer for a number of years!)
Ultimately, then, my assignment developed into something much more than expected. For as Ms. Karloff—who asked that I call her Sara—said to me towards the end of the evening, "It’s different on the other side of the table, isn’t it!" And indeed it is.
I’d been on the fan's side at Heritage Hill’s first Haunt—the one featuring . Five years later, I was now helping to field questions, assist Jahna (who was dealing with the cash box and price list as Sara chatted with fans and signed photos) and confirm that "Yes, the lady at the end of the table is the daughter of Boris Karloff, the star of Frankenstein!"
So what is Sara Karloff really like? To begin with, she’s a tall, slender woman with a perfect streak of silver in her short dark hair. In manner she possesses the same easy elegance shown by her late father in his many public appearances and interviews—a very much in-demand actor right up until his death in 1969.
His daughter, a grandmother of three, spends much of the year at her home in Rancho Mirage. But every fall, Sara told me, she attends a number of fan conventions and other events. In fact by the time you read this she'll be on the East Coast for a long list of personal appearances, including an interview with Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne.
AN UNEXPECTED MOMENT
The evening of the Hill's Haunt Sara was attired in a distinctive black pantsuit, the top threaded with silver, and a truly amazing palm-sized silver arachnid on her left shoulder.
The spider, in fact, came in very handy when indicating just which one of the three of us was the guest of honor.
Since Sara was sitting at the far end of the two conjoined tables, and since the setting sun was at a disorienting angle, fans were initially presented with a dilemma: Just where was Boris Karloff's daughter, anyway?
Perhaps I can best illustrate this quandary with what happened to me. I was arranging T-shirts when a woman appeared, a few yards away, her face wreathed in smiles. Then suddenly she rushed forward and gushed, "Oh, this is such an honor!"
"Thank you," I said, then quickly redirected her to the lady sitting two chairs down—"the one in black, wearing the silver spider."
(Next time I’ll wear a name tag.)
In addition to the occasional misidentification, a few fans were absolutely tongue-tied at seeing the daughter of their horror film idol. But most came around to stating their life-long appreciation of Boris Karloff’s work, as well as complimenting Sara on the fact that she is, in her own right, a very attractive, well-spoken, and personable lady.
Almost everyone mentioned a favorite Boris Karloff role.
In addition to his three times out as Dr. Frankenstein's tragic creation, many cited Imhotep in The Mummy, released one year after Frankenstein; Captain Hook in the 1950 musical stage presentation of Peter Pan; or as the narrator and voice of the Grinch in the classic animated feature, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Whatever the case, everyone, it seemed, had something unique to say, and Sara responded graciously to each person, giving them her full and undivided attention. She also sat for countless photos, inviting fans to join her in the photo if someone was nearby to take the shot.
And, of course, Sara autographed everything that was out on the tables.
"The photos cost, the autographs are free," she quipped.
Besides an amazing array of photos of Sara's dad, as well as photos of her younger self with him, she had brought postcards, commemorative stamp packets, DVDs, some truly distinctive men's and women's accessories, and of course a good number of T-shirts, all of which were selling at a rather brisk pace.
By the time Sara ascended the podium for the Q & A portion of the program, Jahna and I were still so busy that neither one of us could focus on what was happening on stage.
I did hear Sara admit that she doesn’t really like scary movies: "I leave the room when Murder She Wrote comes on!" She also gave encouragement to an aspiring talent by stating that, like her father, the best thing is "to find something no one else has done, then do your very best work."
In time Sara returned to the table, the movie began to roll, yet there was still a stream of fans wishing to speak with her. Later one of one of the event’s stagers would tell me that Haunt at Heritage Hill has become increasingly popular with every year, and that this year’s crowd was the biggest yet.
"It’s alive! It’s alive!" chanted three or four enthusiasts just seconds before Dr. Frankenstein's creation began to move. And soon the pandemonium began—on screen, that is—for the creature was indeed alive, if not entirely ready to be introduced amongst polite society.
WAS THAT STEIN OR STEEN?
As the film intensified, Sara and I were at last able to converse a bit, albeit in quiet tones. I learned that she’d been born on her father’s 51st birthday—the actor's first and only child—and that of course he was overjoyed. For contrary to his scary roles, Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Platt) was a gentle man adored by all, children included.
As for growing up in Hollywood? Sara told me that she did attend kindergarten with Anthony Perkins—who would grow up to star in another iconic horror film—but that her subsequent years were spent living and going to school in San Francisco. In 1957, in fact, she briefly interrupted her classes to make a surprise guest appearance on the This Is Your Life show honoring her father.
Did she like the film Gods and Monsters, a dramatization of the last days of the director of both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein?
"Yes, I think it gives James Whale his due," she said.
And how about Martin Landau’s acclaimed performance as Bela Lugosi, another famous horror film star of her father’s time, in the modern classic Ed Wood? "He told me he wanted his next role to be that of portraying my father!"
The evening was coming to a close and it was time to pack up. As Jahna and the Hill's staff transported what was left of the boxed Frankenstein memorabilia to their car, I escorted Sara out of the now almost pitch-black park—except, of course, for the orange lights lining the historic buildings, plus some still-active features of the Halloween spook-tacular.
"Uh-oh," said Sara, eyeing a number of rather menacing-looking ghouls, dead ahead. "May I take your arm?"
Noting that I'm also rather lukewarm about the more macbre aspects of Halloween, I added, "Wish I had one of those torches from the movie!"
She laughed, and somehow we made it through the gauntlet unscathed.
As we neared the park's gates, however, Sara paused for a moment to look back at the still-busy event: children and teens dashing about in Halloween regalia, screaming happily, and the century old schoolhouse and Episcopal mission looming in the background.
"This is a fascinating place!" she said, gazing about in admiration.
Then it was on to the car, with hugs and thanks exchanged all around.
And oh yes . . . aside from her father’s films, what are her favorite movies?
"Comedies. Especially Blazing Saddles and"—wait for it, wait for it—"Young Frankenstein!"