Before finding fame in Hollywood, English horror star Boris Karloff worked his way through Canada, TERRY SHERWOOD reports…
Boris Karloff in Canada
“Vampires, werewolves, mummies that come back to life after 3000 years, can such thing be?’
That was the opening phrase that Boris Karloff spoke to you as you played An Evening with Boris Karloff and Friends LP Record.
The English actor born William Henry Pratt made a startlingly long and varied career of playing men of menace and some not so menacing figures in Hollywood. He threw people into things and off things, strangled and poisoned them yet millions cried when he died in 1969.
This life has been brilliantly and exhaustively documented in readable style by British author Stephen Jacobs in large volume Boris Karloff: More than a Monster.
Mr Jacobs spent 10 years researching facts and following the trail of Mr Karloff’s life from his humble beginning with the complete approval of Sara Karloff who opened up her knowledge of her father. One such little known fact is that young William Henry Pratt began his journey to Hollywood by spending many years traveling in the vast new unspoiled former British colony of 1909 Canada.
William Henry Pratt decided to become an actor in his native England much to his family’s objection, who hoped he would follow in the diplomatic service of the time. Pratt had the passion from treading the boards in his native country yet on of flip of a coin one side being he would go to Australia, the other Canada. It would have been very different if Australia had been the toss result.
Pratt was to be a farm worker outside Hamilton, Ontario, yet like most of his adventures did not work out. Turned out the fellow whose farm he was to work on didn’t ask for or need help. Pratt persuaded him to let his stay on as he was at loose ends having spent all his money. One wonders of the authenticity of the accounts as Karloff tended to change stories throughout the years, leave out facts. Stephen Jacobs does refute some of Karloff’s events by saying he could not of found documents stating things to the contrary.
Such were the adventures in Canada as Pratt, becomes Boris Karloff by assuming the name of character in melodrama that he performed as he toured small towns in various theatre companies which were the soul source of entertainment. Karloff learns the vagabond life of an actor such as staying in rooms when you could operate by school teachers at they were the cleanest. A domestic iron was a useful item and to be guarded as one could not only press clothes which would otherwise be pressed under a mattress, one could also fry an egg on it.
Karloff had romances, was married and divorced, composed a short unproduced two hander play in Hardesty, Alberta, about a man and wife. Karloff was even caught in fires and one of the greatest disasters in Canadian history in Regina, Saskatchewan, as a cyclone hit destroying most of the downtown and killing many in 1912. The actors stayed on to help the people and rebuild the theatre where they performed later.
Boris Karloff’s early years in Canada are a previously undocumented story of an actor’s journey. The hard work he did in odd jobs when not acting in various low paying companies that would often go bankrupt, set that physical pattern for his work ethic. It also gave him the physicality to do the roles that would be in his future.
When he did leave Canada for the great white way of Chicago and the beginning of his trek to Hollywood, Karloff would be forever linked to the history of Canada and have a great love for its nature.