Carla Laemmle: “Growing up on the Universal lot, near the New York street, was like a dream come true”

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As the niece of Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studio in 1915, Carla Laemmle lived a long and happy life. Born in Chicago in 1909, she passed away 104 years later in Los Angeles where she almost lived her whole life. She was the last link to Hollywood’s silent era, since she appeared in a few silents made at Universal, including “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) starring Lon Chaney and with Ms. Laemmle as the prima ballerina (she was a trained dancer, taking up dancing at age 7).

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Publicity still of Carla Laemmle, ca. 1930. Photograph: Carla Laemmle

Her full name was Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle; her father, Joseph (1854-1929), was the first Laemmle family to travel from their native Germany to America in the 1880s. He was followed in 1884 by his younger brother Carl (1867-1939) who was only 17 at the time when he made it to Chicago.

When I first met with Carla Laemmle in 2008, she was then 98, living all by herself and taking perfectly good care of herself. After I rang the doorbell, a tiny and slender woman with curly, white hair and bright eyes let me in and welcomed me warmly in the privacy of her Los Angeles home on North Serrano Avenue, close to Paramount studios. During our talk and the afternoon we spent together, she joyfully reminisced about her childhood, when she had the privilege to live and grow up at Universal studios, owned by her uncle, Carl Laemmle. “Growing up on the Universal lot, near the New York street, was like a dream come true,” she said.

Carl Laemmle had founded Universal in 1912, and three years later he realized his dream with the opening of the Universal studios (on March 15, 1915), located on a 230-acre ranch in North Hollywood. “A whole city where everyone is engaged in the making of motion pictures, a fairyland where the craziest things in the world happen,” he issued that day in nationwide a press release.

I know you and your family still lived in Chicago back then, and you were only five years old when Universal opened its doors, but did you by any chance attend the opening celebration?

I wish I could say yes, but I didn’t. I did hear all the stories about it as I grew older, what a major event it was, and about the thousands and thousands of people who showed up. It was an unforgettable day for my uncle.

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March 15, 1905, when local residents, some of them with American flags, arrived at Universal to attend the opening ceremonies. Photograph: Marvin Page Motion Picture and Television Archive

What kind of a man was your uncle Carl? How do you remember him?

He was very remarkable. When he arrived in America, he had only 50 dollars in his pocket, which his father had given him. But he was a man with a vision, as we would find out later. By 1906 he owned already two nickelodeon theaters in Chicago, he then began distributing films and his ultimate goal was to make films of his own. Once the studio [Universal] was there, he was capable of showing what he was able to do. Like all the other Hollywood pioneers, he had very talented people working for him and with him. A lot of films he made in those early years were Westerns, because on the backlots of Universal, there were farms, horses, a chicken ranch, etc. He was also a very disciplined man, and when I was a young actress, I once had a nude photograph taken of me. Everything was covered, so you couldn’t see anything, but he insisted on having the negatives destroyed, because he was shocked that I didn’t wear any cloths. I could understand him; if you look at those old movies, there was never any kind of nudity. And on the lot, my uncle was known to everybody as uncle Carl, because he brought the entire family over from Germany and gave everybody a job. My father took care of the real estate activities for Universal.

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Carl Laemmle, a.k.a. ‘uncle Carl.’ Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

You were born in Chicago [1909] and spent the first twelve years of your life there with your family, before coming out to California [1921]. Can you tell something about that and what it was like to adjust to a new life here?

When we moved from Chicago to California, my father was not doing very well. All his life, he’s had heart problems and various other ailments. So uncle Carl wrote him a letter and talked him into coming to California, because the climate was so much better here. It would be better for his health, and that was the main reason for us to move to California. We arrived here in January 1921 and moved right to Universal which had only been here for six years [the studio officially opened in March, 1915]. All around the studio, there was this wild country – no hotels or buildings or anything. At night you could even hear the coyotes. At Universal, there were only two houses on the front lot of the studio property: the police chief lived in one of them, the fire chief in the other. When they moved out, we moved in: my mother, my father, my grandmother, and me. On the front, our house had a huge, green lawn. It was all so wonderful and amazing, there was also a driveway and a double-garage. It was a charming, little house. The location was wonderful, you had the mountains behind Universal, and the zoo in the back of the property where they just had about any animal you could imagine. You’d wake up in the morning, hearing the lions roar. I lived on the Universal lot until 1936 when my uncle had to sell the studio. It was a wonderful and unique experience to live there, to grow up there. It’s something you can hardly explain now to anyone, especially since the studio has changed so much. I remember Universal as a small city, like a sort of fantasyland. I was living a fairy tale existence. Growing up there was very, very special. There was a little studio hospital very close to our home, with a doctor there at all times, there was a post office, a police office… This city was my uncle’s dream, you know, to have a studio built as a town specifically for the purpose of making movies. And he was very good at it: he knew what the public wanted to see, he hired directors, writers and actors who knew their job. Right behind our house, there was the complete set of the New York street. To this very day, I can still pint out exactly where our house used to be. So, when we were forced to leave Universal in 1937, my mother, grandmother, and I moved to a place in Hollywood. Shortly after our move there, my grandmother died, and my partner Ray Cannon came to live with us. Ray was divorced and his wife had taken just about everything and he really didn’t have much money. Neither did I, just what I earned in movies. In between, I also worked at dance clubs like the Paris Inn in Los Angeles later on, saving my money wisely. In 1953, our house was sold, and we moved to a house on North Serrano Avenue. The house I still live in right now [also on North Serrano Avenue], I bought in 1976.

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On the right, the entrance of Universal studios ca. 1917. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Why didn’t you become an actress, or maybe even a leading lady at the time? I mean, looking at the old black and white publicity stills of yours, you had all the charm and charisma of an actress.

At first, uncle Carl thought it would be a good idea for me to become an actress and give me parts in his films, but I had been taking dancing lessons – I was about seven when my mother first enrolled me in a dancing class – and I preferred to become a dancer rather than an actress. Besides, I really didn’t have an opportunity to pursue acting. I honestly don’t know if my uncle had much faith in me to be an actress. When Junior [Carla’s nephew, Carl Laemmle, Jr., 1908-1979] became manager when he was 21 [in 1929, as a birthday present from his father, uncle Carl], he didn’t believe I would turn out to be an actress. I wasn’t given an opportunity to do anything except for little bits here and there. Earlier, I did a few things at the studio, like when I was sixteen, I played a prima ballerina in “Phantom of the Opera” [1925] and in “King of Jazz” [1930]. I performed on an enormous piano keyboard. I did a ballet dance on point on top of those huge keys, and in another sequence in that film, I did an Italian Tarantella with a chorus behind me. So in those two movies, I performed only as a dancer.

Where and how did you go to school in those days?

I didn’t go to a regular school while I lived on the lot: I had a private teacher who taught at the Hollywood Hotel. We had this table in a little room, that was it. When I wasn’t there or when I was taking ballet lessons, I could hang out on the sound stages at Universal. I could literally go anyplace, and one of my first memories was visiting the lavish set “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” [1923] with Lon Chaney playing Quasimodo. He was the first actor I saw at work at Universal. It was all very impressive and spectacular to me as a young girl. He did all his stunts himself, climbing down the church and all of that, and he could only work for a few hours a day. Every morning it took him two hours to put on this tremendous make-up all by himself, but because it hurt his mouth so much, which was totally deformed because of the make-up, it was too painful for him to have him on the set all day long. But he was a remarkable and gifted actor and I was very fortunate to be that close to him at the time to see him actually at work on a film like “Hunchback.”

You also worked with Erich von Stroheim, didn’t you?

I did a screen test for Erich von Stroheim in the early 1920s, he and my father were very close; they always spoke German when they were together [laughs]. Stroheim was a genius, there’s no doubt about that. The biggest mistake he made, was that he wanted his sets to be as authentic as possible, everything had to look real, it had to be real. For example, all the actors who played aristocrats in his films, had to wear the most expensive underwear with the most expensive lace available, because that’s what aristocrats wore in real life. His Monte Carlo set in “Foolish Wives” [1922] had to be an exact duplicate of the original building. I always thought Stroheim was a very kind and easygoing person, but everything had to be exactly the way he wanted it; he was a perfectionist, so he even watched over every tiny detail. The screen test I did for him, doesn’t exist any longer. I had it with me for a very long time, but it simply disintegrated. When we still lived at Universal, it was just lying there in our garage and we didn’t really take very good care about it. We didn’t think about that at the time. But there are still picture stills of it.

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The Monte Carlo set of Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 silent screen classic, “Foolish Wives,” on the backlot of Universal. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

What about Irving G. Thalberg, the ‘boy wonder,’ who first worked at Universal before becoming the right hand of Louis B. Mayer at MGM?

Irving G. Thalberg was a very brilliant young man, uncle Carl always spoke very highly of him. He was in his early twenties when he began working at Universal and almost right from the start, he was allowed to have full autonomy in whatever decision he made. He couldn’t get along with Erich von Stroheim though, because he was spending too much money. They always argued about that. When Thalberg worked for my uncle, he was engaged to my niece Rosabelle Laemmle – she was uncle Carl’s daughter – but after they broke up, he was approached by Louis B. Mayer, began working for him, and married MGM actress Norma Shearer a few years later. Rosabelle then married another man. She passed away a long time ago [in 1965 at age 64].

What caused in your opinion the downfall of Universal in 1936 which subesquently forced the Laemmle family to move out of Universal?

Junior started out with a great job when he made “All Quiet on the Western Front” [1930]. It earned him a Best Picture Academy Award, and later on he introduced the horror cycle with the “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” films which earned him a lot of success – I appeared in the opening sequence of “Dracula” [1931] – but when he began making films that were too expensive for Universal, spending too much money and having too many flops, his father [uncle Carl] was forced to sell the studio in 1936, and we all left the studio a year later. It was a big heartbreak to move out.

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Carla Laemmle in the opening scene of Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931). Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Could you tell something about your partner Raymond Cannon [1892-1977], a very productive screenwriter in the 1920s and 1930s?

He was very important in my life. We first met at Universal in 1935 when he was working there as a director. He had already written a few comedy shorts. When we met, we hit it off immediately. He’d had a very interesting life, as a writer-director for many years who got his start with D.W. Griffith. Although he was seventeen years older than I was, he was wonderful to me because I was an inexperienced actress, and he made me feel very comfortable and at ease. Ray had been to China, and spent several months in a Buddhist monastery. He was deeply involved with it and it became a philosophy that he lived by. Since I also became very interested in the Eastern philosophies, it became the foundation for our friendship which turned in a wonderful relationship and lasted 42 years, until he passed away in 1977. He wrote two best-selling books; how they came about is a story in itself. It was around the 1940s that he became very ill and almost died. His doctor told him to quit the movie business and go fishing. So he did just that. As most people know very little about the fish they catch, their names, and the best way to catch them, he decided to write a boot about it, titled “How to Fish the Pacific Coast” [published in 1953]. In the meantime, I was still doing movie work now and then. When Ray began writing the book, I got an old second-hand typewriter from a neighbor living on our block, and taught myself to type. Another book Ray published in 1964, was “Sea of Cortez.”

Have you ever thought of writing your memoirs? Your own history, or the family history?

There will be a book coming out, covering my life history, scheduled for next year. Rick Atkins is currently writing it [the book was published in 2009, titled “Among the Rugged Peaks: An Intimate Biography of Carla Laemmle”].

Los Angeles (California),
April 2, 2008

+ Miss Laemmle passed away in Los Angeles on June 12, 2014, at age 104, of natural causes.

FILMS

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) DIR Rupert Julian, Ernst Laemmle (uncredited) PROD Carl Laemmle (uncredited) SCR (novel ‘Le Fantôme de l’Opera’ by Gaston Leroux) CAST Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Carla Laemmle (Prima Ballerina, uncredited)

TOPSY AND EVA (1927) DIR Del Lord, D. W. Griffith (uncredited) SCR (adaptation by Lois Weber) (play by Catherine Chisholm Cushing, novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe) CAST Rosetta Duncan, Vivian Duncan, Gibson Gowland, Noble Johnson, Marjorie Daw, Nils Asther, Carla Laemmle (Agel, uncredited)

UNCLE’S TOM CABIN (1927) DIR – PROD Harry A. Pollard EXEC PROD Carl Laemmle (uncredited) SCR Harry A. Pollard, Harvey F. Thew, A. P. Younger (novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe) CAST James B. Lowe, Virginia Grey, George Siegmann, Margarita Fischer, Eulalia Jensen, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Carla Laemmle (uncredited)

THE GATE CRASHER (1928) DIR William James Craft SCR William James Craft, Carl Krusada (adaptation by Vin Moore; story by Jack Foley) CAST Glenn Tryon, Patsy Ruth Miller, T. Roy Barnes, Beth Laemmle (Maid), Fred Malatesta, Claude Payton, Russ Powell, Tiny Sandford

THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929) DIR Harry Beaumont PROD Irving G. Thalberg, Lawrence Weingarten (uncredited) SCR Norman Houston, James Gleason (story by Edmund Goulding) CAST Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, J. Emmett Beck, Nacio Herb Brown, James Burrows, Ray Cooke, William Demarest, Carla Laemmle (Oyster Shell)

THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 (1929) DIR Charles Reisner PROD Irving G. Thalberg, Harry Rapf (uncredited) SCR Al Boasberg, Robert E. Hopkins CAST Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, John Gilbert, Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, William Haines, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Bessie Love, Marie Dressler, Stan Laurel, Peggy Moran, Oliver Hardy, Anita Page, Carla Laemmle (Chorine, uncredited)

THE KING OF JAZZ (1930) DIR John Murray Anderson PROD Carl Laemmle, Jr. SCR Charles MacArthur, Harry Ruskin CAST Paul Whitman, John Boles, Laura La Plante, Jeanette Loff, Bing Crosby, Beth Laemmle (‘Rhapsody in Blue’ Ballet Dancer)

DRACULA (1931) DIR Tod Browning PROD Tod Browning, Carl Laemmle, Jr.  SCR (play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston; novel by Bram Stoker) CAST Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Carla Laemmle (Young Girl Passenger)

THE ADEVENTURES OF FRANK MERRIWELL (1936) DIR Clifford Smith PROD Henry MacRae SCR Basil Dickey, Maurice Geraghty, Ella O’Neill, Gilbert Patten, George H. Plympton, Bert I. Standish CAST Donald Briggs, Jean Rogers, John ‘Dusty’ King, Carla Laemmle (Carla Rogers), House Peters, Jr., Herschel Mayall, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr., Edward Arnold, Jr.

ON YOUR TOES (1939) DIR Ray Enright Prod Jack L. Warner SCR Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley (adaptation by Lawrence Riley, Sig Herzig; play by George Abbott, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers) CAST Vera Zirona, Eddie Albert, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, James Gleason, Donald O’Connor, Irving Bacon, Carla Laemmle (uncredited)

THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS CLUB (2001) DIR Donald F. Glut PROD Buddy Barnett, Kathe Dua-Barnett, Edward L Plumb SCR Buddy Barnett, Kathe Dua-Barnett, Edward L Plumb (story by Edward L Plumb) CAST John Agar, William Smith, Bob Burns, Forrest J. Ackerman, David Donham, Daniel Roebuck, Carla Laemmle (Elder Vampire)

POOLTIME (2010) DIR Mike Donahue PROD Inge Jaklyn SCR Mike Donahue (also story) CAST Inge Jaklyn, Marcus Harwell, Jeffrey Patrick Olsen, Mark Z. Hanson, Junes B. Zahdi, Carla Laemmle (Zelda)

A SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS (2013) DIR – PROD – SCR Matthew A. Lanoue CAST Darren Gresham, Laura Morton, Jeremy Trager, Carla Laemmle (Connie)

MANSION OF BLOOD (2015) DIR – SCR Mike Donahue PROD Alicia Glaser, Andre Agazaryan CAST Gary Busey, Robert Picardo, Ray Quiroga, Tyrone Power Jr., Terry Moore, Carla Laemmle (Maribelle)

THE EXTRA (2016) DIR – SCR Mike Donahue PROD Alicia Glaser CAST Tyrone Power Jr., John Saxon, Angela Oakenfold, Ray Quiroga, Lila Urda, Tom Tangen, Eddy Salazar, Inge Jaklyn, Carla Laemmle (Minnie)