Life on Universal Studios lot
Carla Laemmle lived a fairy tale existence after she and her parents moved to the Universal Studios lot in 1921 when she was 11.
Her father, Joseph, was the brother of Universal Studios chief Carl Laemmle and when Joseph’s health began to fail, Carl invited the family to leave Chicago and live on the lot because the climate would be better in California.
“There were two houses with a long front lawn and a little hospital,” recalled Carla Laemmle, who is celebrating her 103rd birthday Saturday with a party at the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. She will also be appearing Oct. 30 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ screening of the 1925 classic “The Phantom of the Opera,” in which she briefly appears.
Carla Laemmele remembers the family frequently being visited by a camel who wandered over from the lot.
“They had a wonderful zoo,” she said. “A camel would get loose and somehow he would trek up from the back lot and start grazing on our lawn. I would take out a little bowl of oatmeal and lead it to one of the garages and call [the zoo workers] and say, ‘Your animal is here.”’
Her on-screen history is just as fantastic. She was in 1931’s iconic “Dracula,” and “Phantom of the Opera,” and got to know screen legends such as director-actor Erich von Stroheim.
Film historian Scott Essman, who specializes in Universal horror films and knows Laemmle, said that she is almost “the last tie to an era that is pretty much gone. When you talk about these great Universal films of that period — we are at a point now that it is all memory.”
Today Laemmle is a tiny woman with curly, white hair and bright dancing eyes. She welcomes her visitor with a warm hug. Her house, where she’s lived for some 60 years off of Melrose Avenue near Normandie Avenue, is decorated with several photos of her including one in which she is rather scantily clad.
“I have some pictures that I’m not able to hang up there,” she confided with a smile.
“Tell her the story about the nude pictures,” piped up Laemmle’s grand-niece, Rosemary Hilb, who is an organizer of the birthday party. “Carl Laemmle was so upset,” said Hilb. “He thought he had destroyed them, but she was able to keep a set.”
“Everybody said you have a beautiful body and at that time, I thought, well I don’t mind showing it,” Laemmle said, smiling. “They are in very good taste but he frowned on that.”
Laemmle didn’t go to a regular school while she lived on the lot from 1923-36. “I had a private teacher,” she said. “At that time she taught at the Hollywood Hotel. She had a little table and there was a little room.”
When she wasn’t at school or taking ballet lessons, Laemmle would hang out on the sound stages at Universal. “I could go anyplace,” she said.
She visited the lavish set of 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which starred Lon Chaney as the hunchback Quasimodo. “It was a church scene and he was climbing down [the church],” she said. “That was pretty fabulous to see.”
Two years later, she appeared as a prima ballerina in the Paris Opera House dance sequence in “Phantom of the Opera,” with Chaney. She also appeared with ballet companies in various movies during her years on the lot. “One was ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929,”’ noted Hilb. “She had a big scene that Erte designed and she has a dance where she dances out of a clamshell.”
Laemmle famously uttered the opening line in “Dracula,” in which she tells the fellow passengers in the coach: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age....”
There are myriad ties to Hollywood’s fabled past. “My father was very good friends with Erich von Stroheim,” said Laemmle of the famed director (“Greed”) and actor (“Sunset Boulevard”). “Once he made a screen test with me and that was wonderful. He and my father spoke German together.”
Laemmle appeared on stage in her teens and early 20s as an actress and a dancer in 1928-29 in light operas at the Shrine Auditorium. She was married very briefly.
“He was in the service and I met him during the war,” Laemmle said. “He was very handsome and he was a singer, but it was one of those stupid things for me to do. I was only married for three weeks because he had another wife....”
“And children,” added Hilb.
“You had a very important boyfriend, Ray Cannon,” Hilb said to her aunt. Cannon wrote the play “Her Majesty the Prince,” which Laemmle starred in at the Hollywood Music Box in 1936.
“Oh yes, I had a wonderful, wonderful relationship with Ray Cannon. He was a writer and director at Universal. He lived with my mother and me until he died [in 1977]. It was a beautiful experience to be with him.”
During the 1940s, Laemmle worked at dance clubs like the Paris Inn in Los Angeles, and according to Hilb, saved her money and invested it wisely.
She’s continued to act occasionally, appearing in low-budget independent films. She just finished a part in a new Web series called “Broken Dreams Blvd,” written and directed by Kevin Jordan.
The birthday party Saturday evening, said Hilb, will feature film clips and a slide show of vintage photographs of Laemmle. “There will also be a performer who does ‘20s music,” she said.
“We are incredibly honored to have one of the last living links to the silent film era at our home at the Silent Movie Theatre,” said Mya Stark, director of development and outreach at Cinefamily. “Our audience skews young and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for them to experience and celebrate somebody who was at the birth of cinema.”
So what is Laemmle’s secret to longevity?
“I never thought about age,” she explained. “I always had a feeling that I was in my 20s.”
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