Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Boris Karloff, dressed as a pirate, rode down Broadway on a blustery cold November morning, on a float designed to look like pirate ship. In honor of Frankenstenia's Boris Karloff Blogathon, and in honor of Thanksgiving, we have a look today at Boris Karloff's participation in the 1950 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The New York Times reported the scene in its Friday, November 24th edition the following day. The giant balloons in the sky were nothing that would be familiar to today's cartoon-watching, video-game playing children. Sailing above them, were the un-merchandised and generic Dachshund, a Gnome, a Clown, and a Fish. The St. Bernadette Cadet Corps “blared the approach” of Boris Karloff, “the ‘bad man’ of the films, who, this time, was garbed as the swashbuckling Captain Hook, in command of his pirate ship and flanked by his buccaneers.”

Then the reporter notes that the cheers for Karloff erupted into a huge “din” for Hopalong Cassidy, played by William Boyd, “in full regalia.” We’ll discuss a film that parodied the “Hoppy” phenomenon of the early 1950s at a later time. For now, we have the image of the aging icon Karloff perhaps surpassed by a newer hero. But only temporarily, for Hopalong Cassidy is remembered now only by older Baby Boomers, and Karloff has achieved immortality, curiously not only for the body of his work, but also for the single role of Frankenstein’s Monster that shot him to stardom in middle age.

That was the early ‘30s, but by the late 1940s Mr. Karloff’s career was seemingly on the wane. His last film in the previous year of 1949 was “Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.” Despite the honor of having one’s name actually in the title of the movie, Mr. Karloff’s monster image now was poked fun at, his eerie screen persona perhaps demystified, if not actually debunked. It wasn’t that hard to do, for Mr. Karloff, as many have noted, conveyed a gentleness that brought a depth of humanity to his roles. We discussed Boris Karloff’s humanity, despite his monster image, a few weeks ago in this post. He wasn’t just Frankenstein’s Monster, he was Pagliaccio, Cyrano, and Hamlet, playing Frankenstein’s Monster. If Pagliaccio, Cyrano, and Hamlet did not speak majestic passages but, rather, grunted and stumbled around a lot.

He could also convey, superbly, heartrending innocence.

Boris Karloff’s stint on the parade route as Captain Hook was a day off from his current gig, which was to play the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in the Broadway musical “Peter Pan”, opposite fellow Hollywood escapee Jean Arthur in the title role. “Peter Pan” opened at the Imperial Theater on April 24, 1950. In early October, the play moved over to the St. James Theater, where it remained until January 27, 1951, for a total of 321 performances.

Author Beverly Bare Buehrer in her Boris Karloff: a Bio-bibliography (Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1993) notes that the role was exhausting for a man of Karloff’s age (he would be 63 years old on November 23rd, Thanksgiving Day), with six costume changes, and three makeup changes. When the show closed in 1951, he then toured in the road production.

The opening night notices raved in delight at the turnabout for the old monster. The New York Journal American coyly noted, “Boris Karloff’s Captain Hook is no more scary than Boris Karloff’s Mr. Darling, who is no more scary than Tinker Bell.”

The New York Herald Tribune called Karloff “captivating.”

And the New York Times announced, “This is Mr. Karloff’s day of triumph.”

Did the kiddies waving at Captain Hook on the passing float know that? Or, were they just craning their heads, waiting for Hopalong Cassidy, who they knew from TV, a more intimate friendship because Hoppy was in their living rooms and not down at the neighborhood movie house (where he used to be the previous generation).

“He is at the top of his bent,” the Times crowed.

Did the parents of the kiddies pay special attention to the grand old thespian in the pirate costume, batting away the burst of snow flurries with his hook, and whisper to their children, “That’s him! That’s Frankenstein! That’s the Mummy!” while they disbelieved?

“Mr. Karloff is an actor of tenderness and humor, with an instinct for exact inflection,” so the New York Times lovingly paid the old monster tribute on his opening night on Broadway.

At the end of the parade route, Santa Claus, and parade marshal Jimmy Durante, and Hopalong Cassidy, and Boris Karloff extended their holiday greetings to the crowd in front of Macy’s. Perhaps that was the moment Karloff entered the pantheon of giants in the world of children, standing shoulder to shoulder with Hoppy and Santa, in front of a store with an enormous toy department.

He had entertained children before, on the screen, and privately in hospital wards, and on the Broadway stage. The recordings would follow, and his famous turn as the “Grinch”, which is still shown on television where Hoppy once ruled the roost but now no more. Boris’ magnificent “exact inflection” is heard every December by children sitting in front of…the television.

Perhaps in a way, that Thanksgiving Parade, rather than his opening night, was his “day of triumph”.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Grinch, and the same to Captain Hook.


Caftan Woman said...

When my time machine is perfected the first thing I want to do is see Boris as Captain Hook.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Me, too, Caftan Woman. Let me know when you finish that time machine. We'll pack sandwiches and make a day of it.

George said...

A great story about Karloff I knew nothing about. I suspect all Boris fans too young to have seen him in person would shell out a considerable sum to take a trip in that time machine, too!

Gord Shriver said...

I never knew Boris had been in the parade as Hook. This is great to learn.

Gord Shriver, author, "Boris Karloff: The Man Remembered"

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you George, and congratulations on your book, Mr. Shriver, and thank you for adding to what we know about Boris Karloff.

I don't suppose much has been made of Karloff's Thanksgiving parade stint as it was really a small footnote in such a long and varied career. I believe the parade was televised locally to New York audiences in those years. I wonder if a kinescope exists somewhere? That would be our time machine.

Pierre Fournier said...

A kinescope would be great. Surely, there's a photo in a newspaper archive, somewhere.

Wonderful post, Jacqueline. Thank you!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Pierre, and thanks for hosting this wonderful blogathon on Boris Karloff. I've loved reading the other posts.

katie weener said...

I only knew him through my dad's mouth. He always shared some experiences with Boris movies. I am searching about him. And this one is another learning facts for me. Thank you.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome Katie, and thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was too young to see Karloff on stage as Captain Hook at the St. James Theatre but I cut my teeth on the LP he recorded with co-star Jean Arthur.
Karloff had a nicely produced bass-baritone which did very well with the songs Leonard Bernstein wrote for this version, a much better score than the one that replaced it when Mary Martin and Cyril Richard played the parts later. I loved Karloff's weekly TV show "Thriller" in the early 60's.
I'm pleased to know that he was not spooky at all when not performing and was generally considered a "sweetheart" by all who knew him.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome to the blog. I've never heard the whole LP, I envy you that, but I did recently get to hear one song, the brief "walking the plank" number. I agree, he had a very nice voice. I was surprised. I'll have to track down the rest of the score sometime. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your memories of Boris.

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