Carla Laemmle, a dancer, actress and niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle who grew up at her uncle’s studio watching movies being made, died Thursday night at her home in Los Angeles. One of the last links to Hollywood’s silent film era, Laemmle was 104.
“Her heart just stopped,” Laemmle’s great-niece, Rosemary Laemmle Hilb, said Friday, noting that she had been in good health.
She was born Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle on Oct. 20, 1909, in Chicago, where her father, Joseph, and his brother, Carl, had emigrated from Germany. Her uncle opened a theater in Chicago to show the then-new medium of motion pictures and founded the Universal Film Manufacturing Co. in 1912 with a group of partners before buying them out. A few years later, he moved to Los Angeles and created Universal City as a vast production facility. Carl’s cousins, Max and Kurt Laemmle, later founded the chain of theaters that today shows art-house films.
In 1921, with Joseph in poor health, Carl invited his brother’s family to live in a bungalow on the movie lot. His niece, who changed her name to Carla in the ‘30s, was 11 when they moved.
“It was like a little city,” Laemmle told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “It had everything. It had a hospital, a school, a police and fire department and even a zoo.”
In later years, she told stories of wandering the facilities during production of the 1923 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Lon Chaney, and other silent films.
She became a ballet dancer and actress and, after having a screen test with director Erich von Stroheim, was put under contract.
Her film appearances included “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) and “Dracula.” For that 1931 classic starring Bela Lugosi, she spoke the film’s first lines: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age .... “
Laemmle (pronounced LEM-lee) continued to dance in Los Angeles and had other small movie roles.
In a 2012 interview with The Times, film historian Scott Essman called Laemmle nearly “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.”
At the time, Laemmle was looking forward to her 103rd birthday party.
“I never thought about age,” she told The Times. “I always had a feeling that I was in my 20s.”
Laemmle, who had a brief marriage that was annulled, had no children and is survived by extended family members.