Although Lon Chaney Sr. is best known for his roles as the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Michael Blake likes to remember him as a genius who advanced the art of movie makeup.
"Considering what he had to work with, it's amazing what he did," said Blake, 28, a San Fernando Valley makeup artist. "And he had a dominating charisma on the screen."
Chaney will be the subject of a presentation Blake is to give to the Downey Historical Society at 7:30 tonight in the Downey City Council chambers, 11111 S. Brookshire Ave. Blake has researched Chaney's life and films since, at age 10, he saw the biographical movie, "The Man of a Thousand Faces."
Appearing with Blake tonight will be Chaney's grandson, also named Lon, who lives in Downey. He is the son of Lon Chaney Jr., who became famous for his roles in the film "Of Mice and Men" and several Universal horror films.
Owns South Gate Firm
The current Chaney owns National Processing Industries, a manufacturing firm in South Gate. He is the first true Lon Chaney; the name was merely adopted for the stage and screen by his grandfather, whose name was Alonzo, and father, whose name was Creighton. The famous name has caused curiosity in his business dealings.
"I have people who I have talked to and they want to know if he is any relation and I say, yes, he is the son and grandson of Lon Chaney (junior and senior)," said Edith Gregory, who described herself as Chaney's "girl Friday."
Blake estimates Chaney Sr. made 150 films in his 16-year film career but that only 20 or 30 of those still exist. Chaney died of cancer in 1930 at age 47. Chaney Jr. died in 1973 at 68.
Contrary to popular belief, Blake said, the elder Chaney did not make his fame as a horror film actor. That reputation was created after his death by horror journals such as Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters," Blake said.
"Even in his day he was not referred to as a horror actor. In fact, he was referred to as the greatest character actor on the screen," Blake said, "and that's how he referred to himself."