Carla Laemmle, Actress and Niece of Universal Studios Founder, Dies at 104

1:22 PM PST 06/13/2014 by Mike Barnes
Everett Collection

UPDATED: One of the last links to Hollywood's silent-film era, she appeared in "The Phantom of the Opera" and spoke the first line in Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula.”

Carla Laemmle, a dancer and actress whose uncle, Carl Laemmle, co-founded Universal Studios, died Thursday night at her home in Los Angeles. She was 104.

Her caretaker, Josephine Delavega, confirmed the news of her death to The Hollywood Reporter.

Laemmle, one of the few surviving actors of the silent-film era, appeared as the prima ballerina in the 1925 Universal production of The Phantom of the Opera and played a secretary who delivers the first line of dialogue in another Universal classic: Dracula (1931). She told her fellow coach passengers: "Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…"

Born Oct. 20, 1909, in Chicago, she came to Los Angeles in January 1921 after her father, Joseph, received a letter from his brother Carl, inviting him and his family to relocate to Southern California. (The studio was founded in 1912.)

They took up residence in a bungalow in Universal City near New York Street, where they remained until 1936, and she witnessed the making of many movies on the backlot, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which starred Phantom actor Lon Chaney as the hunchback. Back then, the studio had its own hospital, school and police and fire departments.

Carla's birthday fell right around Halloween, so she would always have "a combination Halloween/birthday party," she told THR's Scott Feinberg in a 2012 interview. One year, she decided to put on a "fright show" at the studio, famous for Dracula and other movie monsters such as Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.

"I called the property department, and they came up, and they rigged everything up for Halloween, you know? All kinds of spooky stuff. … They did a beautiful job with lighting effects and everything — very spooky," she recalled.

"As we were going down the pathway, this skeleton jumped out at one of my guests, and she fainted."

In a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she remembered the family being visited by a camel that 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 backlot 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.' "

In financial trouble, the Laemmle family was forced to sell Universal in 1936.

Laemmle also appeared in such films as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927), The Broadway Melody (1929), Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), His Last Fling (1935), The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (1936) and as a ballet dancer in On Your Toes (1939).

Her next movie credit came more than 70 years later in Pooltime (2010), and she has a role in Mansion of Blood, a horror film starring Gary Busey that is in postproduction, according to IMDb. In between, she worked at dance clubs.

Laemmle never married but had a long relationship with writer-actor Ray Cannon. Survivors include her great niece, Rosemary Hilb

A documentary short about her life, Among the Rugged Peaks: The Carla Laemmle Story, was made in 2011. Narrated by actress Sally Kirkland, the film took Laemmle back to the original Phantom of the Opera stage — meant to serve as a replica of the Paris opera — at Universal.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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