103-Year-Old Star of 'Dracula' and 'Phantom' Recalls Hollywood's Halloweens Past

Carla Laemmle Halloween 1931 - H 2012
Courtesy Universal Pictures

Carla Laemmle Halloween 1931 - H 2012

On Oct. 20, Carla Laemmle turned 103. The longtime L.A. resident celebrated the remarkable occasion with friends and family, and had a lot of fun -- but not in the same way that she used to, back when she was a kid growing up on the Universal backlot.

In 1921, at the invitation of her uncle Carl -- the founder and head of Universal, and her namesake -- 11-year-old Carla and her family moved from their home in Chicago into a bungalow at Universal, located along the boulevard that used to be called El Camino Real. She lived there for the next 15 years, until Uncle Carl sold the studio in 1936.

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During those years, because her birthday falls right around Halloween, she would always have “a combination Halloween/birthday party.” She recalls, “At that time, I was studying with [the dance instructor] Ernest Belcher, and I would invite all the students.” Everyone would arrive in costume and congregate right outside of her home, where there was a tree-lined pathway.

One year, she decided to go all-out and put on a “fright show.” She recalls, “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, you know?” The same men who had helped to make Universal the home of horror throughout the 1930s proved their talent that day, too, Laemmle laughs, because “as we were going down the pathway, this skeleton jumped out at one of my guests, and she fainted.”

In the ensuing years, Laemmle proved to be a talented dancer and capable actress, and consequently appeared in two of the studio’s most famous horror films: she played the prima ballerina in the opening sequence of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) when she was just 15, and the secretary who delivers the first line of dialogue in Dracula (1931) when she was 21.

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Looking back, Laemmle realizes what “a very special thing” it was to have the sort of childhood that she did, and cherishes the “wonderful memories that I have,” particularly those from each October. Now a centenarian, she still displays a remarkable joie de vivre, makes public appearances, and acts in movies. In fact, she appears opposite Gary Busey in a tiny indie that was released just this month called Mansion of Blood. Its genre? Appropriately enough: horror.