Dakota Datebook

Boris Karloff

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Today is the birthday of William Henry Pratt, the great-grandnephew of Anna Leonowens, the inspiration for the book and movie, “Anna and the King.” He was born in England in 1887.

This man was a charming and gentle man who later became an actor in the United States. In 1943, Pratt performed at the Fargo Theatre in “Arsenic and Old Lace” with the original New York cast. In this instance, the show carried its own lighting system, which had to cut directly into the high line wires of the NSP company. While the cutover was made, the theatre was completely dark, and the set was in place only five minutes before the opening curtain.

William Henry Pratt was not going by his given name at that point; he was using his stage name – Boris Karloff. Yep, that’s right, this was the man who would become one of the most memorable actors in horror film history, playing roles such as the monster in “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” in the 1930s.

Karloff had spent a great deal of time in North Dakota prior to his Fargo Theatre appearance. In fact, in his book, The Story of North Dakota, Erling Rolfsrud wrote, “Boris Karloff, for over a year, appeared in new plays every week at the Jacobson Opera House in Minot.”

Mark Timbrook, of the Ward County Historical Society, indicates that Karloff performed at Minot’s Grand Theatre as a member of the Harry St. Clair Stock Company out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. In 1914, Karloff had 106 roles in a 53 week tour across the Midwest, including Minot. Shows at the Grand ran on Monday and Thursday evenings and during the weekends, following “special moving pictures.” Tickets cost 10 and 15 cents, and seats in front went for 20 cents.

Karloff got mostly good reviews, usually playing older men and villains. One play, called “The Dope Fiend,” garnered a review that stated, “Minot will have the opportunity, at popular prices, to see one of the highest class productions the company (has) yet given here. An excellent vein of neat comedy, thrilling dramatic situations, and pathos are so neatly interwoven in the particular story, that it lacks nothings that will cause the interest to flag from the rise of the curtain until the fall of the last.”

Other actors appearing in Minot during that time included Mary Pickford’s sister, Lottie. She was also doing some of her best work on the silver screen at the time, ultimately acting in 49 silent films. In Minot, she starred in the play, The House of Bondage, a story on white slavery.

Another actress who appeared in Minot was May Irvin, who became a player in the real-life controversy surrounding the origin of 1000 Island salad dressing. While hotel magnate George Boldt’s chef has been given credit for inventing the dressing, May Irvin said that a part-time kitchen worker made the dressing and shared it with her. Ms. Irvin, in turn, shared the dressing with her friend, George Boldt, who passed it on to the chef, who promptly took credit.

Speaking of controversies, movie-goers didn’t know the name of the actor playing the Frankenstein monster, because when the names of the cast were listed, the part of The Monster was credited as “himself.” However, when “The Mummy” came out the following year, Karloff’s name was displayed, and his fame as the “The Master of Horror” was secured for all time.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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