By Randy Bowser – author of KARLOFF The Authorized Play
As a young “tween” I wasn’t allowed to go to scary movies, watch scary TV shows, or buy any but “funny animal” comic books. Curious and inventive kid that I was, I discovered that late at night, without rousing my slumbering parents, I could verrrrrry quietly sneak down to the living room, keep all the lights off, turn on the TV with the sound down to an almost inaudible level, and watch the well-worn, scratched and crackling 16mm prints of ancient and forbidden horror movies our local station played before signing off. The hypnotically humming cathode-ray tube of our bulky TV console would bathe me in magical, blue, spasmodically flickering light as I sat inches from the screen and drank in the awe and mystery of intense, scenery chewing actors such as Lugosi, Lorre, Chaney Jr. and – KARLOFF!
FLASH FORWARD FIVE DECADES:
My lifelong admiration for Boris Karloff which began during my youthful adventures in surreptitious late-night TV viewing, inspired the most rewarding project of my life – the production of a “one-person-play” endorsed by the star’s only child, Sara Karloff, and simply titled, “KARLOFF.”
STEPPING BACK A BIT:
By the time I’d hit on the idea of writing a biographical play about Karloff, I had long been involved in theatre as an actor, director, musician and designer. Years earlier, my introverted teenage self had discovered a strong affinity for the stage, and for many years my involvement in play productions had provided most of my life’s highlights.
Like everyone who has ever acted, I’ve had acting heroes providing powerful inspiration – Olivier, Barrymore, Anthony Perkins– but Boris has always had a special niche in that pantheon of greats. I had always felt there was something deep and maybe even tragic in the persona of Karloff that always glimmered through the heavy layers of makeup. Karloff is an acting hero because he is one of those rare performers who consistently transcend their roles and reach audiences with an honest display of humanity that remains hidden in lesser performers. That’s the man I wanted to re-discover and explore in a stage play.
(One of the best portraits of Boris – by Yousuf Karsh)
Ideas are cheap. Following through on them is the tricky bit. But I was determined to make the idea of a Karloff play come to life, rather like Karloff himself who brought a certain monster to life back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. I was determined to learn more about him, and also hoped to get the blessing of Sara Karloff who runs Karloff Enterprises. I knew Sara controls the likeness rights to her father, but didn’t know if she also controls her father’s life story rights. If she did, there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to afford to go ahead with the project.
Sara Karloff turned out to be extremely welcoming of my idea, placed no obstacles in my way, and even provided me with a starting point. There were two books she requested I make my primary sources: “Dear Boris” by longtime Karloff family friend Cynthia Lindsay, and the most recent and complete (encyclopedic!) biography, “Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster” by Stephen Jacobs.
(click image for the book’s website)
I devoured many books and articles during the research period of the project, but Sara had certainly steered me in the best direction of what bios to focus on. Lindsay’s book is a Valentine to her dear friend, Boris, and her central theme of what a kind, personable and well loved man Karloff was became the guiding light for the whole project. For sheer mass of detail and documentation, Jacobs’ book will forever remain the definitive reference book for Karloff’s remarkable life. The majority of the play’s scenes and anecdotes spring from the pages of “More Than a Monster.”
Something else extremely helpful: Sara put me in touch with author Stephen Jacobs, and his immediate response to the idea was as enthusiastic as hers. He became so critical to the development of KARLOFF that I consider him the script’s dramaturg. He lived through many drafts with me, giving me consistently helpful feedback.
Since the time the script was completed, Stephen Jacobs and Sara Karloff both have remained its most enthusiastic fans and supporters.
(Boris in a “Lights Out” radio drama in KARLOFF – photos by Steve Anchell)
FIRST DRAFT: Months of research left me buried in hundreds of pages of notes. When I caught my breath, I worked my way through a first draft, using as many accumulated anecdotes and quotes as possible. After a couple months of non-stop work, I was excited to write “Finis” on the last page of the draft. When the buzz of accomplishment wore off, I sat down to take a critical look at the script and was instantly slammed with reality: The thing would have taken four hours to perform on stage! Worse – it was too literal, dry, and came across as more of a lecture about Karloff rather than any kind of viable theatre piece.
Gloom. I had become more of a Karloff Fan Boy than ever, but had only the barest suggestion of a stage play to show for my months of work.
TWENTY DRAFTS LATER: After a period of recuperation, I managed to take off my Karloff fan hat and pick up my playwright hat. I started whacking away at the material, determined to shape it into an Entertainment. The goal of writing a script is to entertain, to transport – and if the possibility of enlightening an audience also emerges, all the better. Draft after draft, my Editor’s hat kept me ruthlessly re-shaping the material. Stephen Jacobs started reading drafts once I felt I was getting closer to something actually stage-worthy. Utilizing Stephen’s feedback, and listening to recordings of myself reading the script, a more dynamic structure started revealing itself. New winds of inspiration carried me along until I finally had something I could go into rehearsals with.
(Karloff relives the scene from “Frankenstein” when The Creature sees light for the first time – photo by Steve Anchell )
What had emerged was a story about self realization. A story about the indomitable human spirit. Karloff’s life had emerged in a non-linearly presented series of vignettes. The story is of a very determined man who overcame physical and cultural handicaps to become an unlikely success in his chosen field of acting, by making the most out of an equally unlikely opportunity when he was cast in the role of a monster.
The central metaphor of the play: The Frankenstein Monster trying to grasp light when he first sees it, representing Boris, and all of us bumbling creatures, trying to reach and understand more than we’re capable of comprehending.
The script for a stage play is only theoretical. A show doesn’t truly exist until it’s up on a stage in front of an audience. But it’s a big handicap when a new play is debuted outside of the major entertainment centers of New York or Los Angeles. I live in Salem, Oregon, where there’s been only one local theatre group over the last 60+ years, and that group sticks to doing and re-doing the same sure-fire Broadway hits that most community theatres rely on. But this is where I live, and Salem was the only option open to me as a venue for KARLOFF‘s premiere. I was determined to make the most of a less-than-ideal situation and get a debut production of the show up in front of an audience here in sleepy and not-so-big Salem.
I cast a well-known local actor who had the maturity and gravitas for playing Boris, and rehearsed with him over the course of four months. While we worked, the other elements were coming together. I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise most of the production money. I secured a theatre to rent, a tech crew, performance dates were set – it was all coming together.
DISASTER STRUCK: After those four months of hard work, my actor had to drop out due to health reasons. The poor guy’s back was in horrible shape, and he couldn’t do much of the staging the show called for. I reluctantly let him bow out, but it was too late to cancel or postpone the show. Somehow, the show, as the saying goes, had to go on!
And the show did go on. I stepped into the role. I threw caution to the wind, relying on my many years of acting experience to get me through the ominous task ahead, starting with memorizing the 2 hour monologue which KARLOFF is.
I may have written the script, but that’s not the same as memorizing it, and developing a performance!
(Boris tells the audience a story in KARLOFF – photo by Steve Anchell)
It had been tempting to cast myself in the first place, but tough director that I am, I felt I wasn’t especially ideal casting for the role. I’m a tenor, while one of Karloff’s most distinctive traits is his rich baritone voice. Boris was never beefy, but he was always strong, and his physical prowess was always apparent throughout most of his career. I, on the other hand, am slightly built, and my face looks nothing like Boris either. I knew that if the show was being done professionally and I tried out for it, I wouldn’t make the first call back.
All of those reservations had to be cast aside. I had to throw myself into the role and do my utmost, letting the chips fall where they may.
Who’s kidding who though? It was a thrill to portray this one-of-a-kind actor I’ve admired all my life.
(Boris begrudgingly adapts to a wheelchair in KARLOFF– photo by Allied Video)
I am happy to report that those who attended the show’s premiere run or have seen the show’s video say they really enjoyed my performance, and tell me I captured the essence of the man. I apparently did justice to my material. BUT I do look forward to new productions with actors more closely suited for playing The King of Horror.
(KARLOFF’s singing curtain call)
Sara Karloff was so supportive of the project, she flew up from California to see both performances on opening weekend. For obvious reasons, the wonderful praises she heaped on the show are the most treasured pieces of feedback I’ve gotten about KARLOFF. One of her immediate responses was to say “It’s superb!” At the Q&A session with the audience after the show, she choked me up when she said, “You nailed my father.”
(Sara Karloff and playwright Randy Bowser in a post-performance Q&A -photos by Steve Anchell)
The day after opening night, Sara and I were interviewed on camera and the 6 part video is up at YouTube. Sara talks about the show and also shares great anecdotes about her father. Here’s the link to Part One, and from there it’s easy to use the menu and see the rest of the segments:
Derek M. Koch won the coveted Rondo Hatton Award in 2015 for his great horror-oriented blog, “Monster Kid Radio.”
(Derek M. Koch)
A few months before the play opened, Koch interviewed me about KARLOFF, and became so intrigued with the play’s concept, he came to see it twice, he loved it so much. One of his “Monster Kid Radio” entries is his rave review, coupled with the interview he conducted with Sara Karloff during her stay for the premiere.
For a taste of what Sara, Derek and the premiere audiences saw, here’s the “Official Trailer.”
Now in the wake of that debut production, I know KARLOFF works. My time-hopping, multimedia dreamscape of a play has been embraced by audience members of all ages, some of whom were already Karloff fans, many who weren’t, but are now. The show is a goldmine waiting to be discovered by a professional producer who can bring it to larger audiences hither and yon.
That’s where I am now. I’m trying to bring the script to the attention of someone, or several someones who can take KARLOFF to the next level. It will happen, I would just prefer it to happen sooner or later!
(A tense scene in KARLOFF )
The majority of contemporary “one-man-shows” are about the creators. Actors write autobiographical pieces and perform the scripts themselves. KARLOFF is in the mold of the more traditional shows about historical figures which are often written by playwrights, and then performed by others. Examples are “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce, made famous by Julie Harris, and “Paul Robeson” by Philip Hayes Dean which James Earl Jones performed many times.
It continues to be a point of some confusion that KARLOFF wasn’t written as a vehicle for myself. I get inquiries from people asking when I’ll be bringing the show to their area. The answer is that I have no plans for doing that. It’s my script which I’m promoting. That text is a separate entity from the debut production. I needed to get the show up on the boards and out there into reality, and so produced the initial production with me in it, but now it’s time for a name actor (or two – or three!) to assay the role of Boris in professional productions. That is what I’m now working toward. Show business is a tough nut to crack though. It’s almost impossible to land the script on the desks of producers – But I’ll keep trying!
As of this writing, there is one new production of KARLOFF coming up for Halloween, 2016. Pandaemonium Shadow Shows will present one of Arizona’s finest actors, Charles Prokopp, in a production at the Cabaret Stage in Tucson, AZ’s premiere performance space, The Temple of Music and Art.
“…I’m a Karloff fan who attended one of the opening shows in Salem. Both the play and Randy’s performance were excellent. I found “Karloff” to be entertaining, humorous, and also incredibly moving…” audience member Laura Waters
“…KARLOFF is the perfect mixture of history, humor and imagination. Karloff comes alive as the play moves through a life time of memories…” audience member Cynthia Sloane
This image from “Karloff The Play” on Facebook proves that even Boris enjoyed reading the play!
The show’s website has more photos, interviews, reviews, videos, and info about licensing productions:
(In KARLOFF, Boris contemplates the fate of his beloved London at the height of the WWII blitz )
I want to thank Kevin G Shinnick for giving me this opportunity to let the readers of Scarlet The Film Magazine know about the show.
I welcome hearing from any and all who have an interest in Boris Karloff and this one-of-a-kind show, KARLOFF. Inquiries and other correspondence about KARLOFF may be directed to:
Long live Karloff the King!
Randy Bowser – author of “KARLOFF”
Below: Boris in two of his stage triumphs, “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Peter Pan.”