Frankenstein's monster was seen, in person, by many people in Minot, N.D., for more than a year.
Yet residents of Minot and the surrounding communities were not afraid of him - they were entertained. He was Boris Karloff, an aspiring actor who later became famous for creating, on screen, the characters of Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy, Fu Manchu, James Lee Wong and countless other ghouls, monsters and mad scientists.
Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887, in the London suburb of Camberwell. He was the youngest of nine. Pratt's parents died while he was a youngster, and his older siblings tried to persuade him to seek a profession in the consular service. He applied at King's College, but found himself attracted to the stage. Because he considered himself to be the "black sheep" of the family, he figured his only recourse was to flee to Canada or Australia. With a coin flip, Pratt chose Canada and used his inheritance to sail to Ontario in May 1909.
Arriving in Canada penniless, Pratt took odd jobs to keep from starving. He saved enough money by 1910 to respond to an ad in Billboard magazine, which took him to Seattle. He met with an agent, who got him a job with the Ray Brandon Players. While traveling by train to join this acting troupe northeast of Vancouver, he invented his stage name, Boris Karloff.
For the next two years, Karloff learned the craft of acting while performing in southwestern Canada and northwestern U.S. In late June 1912, he took a break to canoe while touring around the city of Regina, Sask. When he returned, he found his living quarters had been destroyed by a tornado that killed 28.
The Ray Brandon Players disbanded because they lost nearly everything in the Regina tornado. Karloff soon received word that another minor acting company out of Prince Albert, Sask., was hiring. He joined the Harry St. Clair Players, a group active playing in small towns on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
In 1914, Karloff's acting troupe of seven received an engagement at the Jacobson Opera House in Minot (there is also evidence that some of their productions were staged at the Grand Theatre in Minot). Martin Jacobson was a local hardware dealer who, in 1901, built an opera house on the northeast corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. The Taube Museum of Art is now located there. Jacobson hired Albert Ferry Bacon, who operated a sign company in Minot, as manager of the opera house. For nearly 20 years, the opera house was the region's center for entertainment and cultural events.
Karloff was the main performer for Harry St. Clair's actors. "Having a peculiar faculty for learning lines easily, I always drew the biggest part. Half the time, the director simply picked out the part with the most pages and tossed it to me," Karloff once said.
Karloff and his fellow actors were such a hit in Minot that they were held over for 53 consecutive weeks. He played 106 different parts during that time. When the productions called for more than the troupe's seven actors, St. Clair enlisted help from local talent. During his year in Minot, Karloff learned to live with very little money and bought most of his clothes in local pawn shops. He lived in a "no-cooking" boarding house, where he claimed he learned to fry an egg on the bottom of an inverted flatiron. When he needed an errand performed, he would contact 11-year old J. Warren Bacon, son of the opera house manager.
When his engagement in Minot was over, Karloff joined the Billie Bennett road company, which began playing in Los Angeles in 1917. One of their productions caught the attention of movie star Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks gave Karloff a small role in "His Majesty, The American" in 1919. For the next dozen years, Karloff played supporting roles in 60 silent and 20 sound movies.
Karloff received his big break in 1931 when director James Whale cast him as the monster in the classic movie "Frankenstein." Karloff was one of the most popular actors on the screen throughout the 1930s, starring in nearly 40 films.
This phase of his career came to an abrupt end in late 1940. Joseph Kesselring had just written a play about the strange happenings in a quaint Victorian house in Brooklyn occupied by four insane siblings. The name of the play was "Arsenic and Old Lace." The role of the homicidal brother, Jonathan Brewster, was created especially for Karloff, but he was reluctant to return to the stage. When he was shown the dialogue about why his character had killed someone, the line read, "I looked like Boris Karloff." Seeing this, the actor accepted.
"Arsenic and Old Lace" opened on Jan. 10, 1941, to excellent reviews. It ran for more than 1,400 performances on Broadway. It was then taken on the road. It was booked into the Fargo Theatre in 1943, and Karloff returned to North Dakota.
After his stage success, Karloff returned to the screen and appeared in more 50 movies and nearly 300 television shows. On November 20, 1957, he was honored on the television show "This Is Your Life." J. Warren Bacon of Minot was among those who paid tribute to Karloff. He died of emphysema on Feb. 2, 1969.
"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: firstname.lastname@example.org.