Lon Chaney, one of the greatest stars of the silent movie era and a pioneer in the use of makeup, was known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces.” He made his acting debut in his hometown, Colorado Springs, in 1902. Yet most area residents have no idea of his local roots. File photos.

SIDE STREETS: Son of ‘Dummy the Barber’ deserves greater recognition in hometown

Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette

Published June 21, 2012

By Bill Vogrin

How do we inspire our children to dream, to work hard to overcome adversity and achieve greatness?

One way is to hold up as inspiration those who grew up down the street and went on to win acclaim. We erect statues and put their names on parks, boulevards and buildings.

Colorado Springs does have statues such as Gen. William Jackson Palmer on Diablo, explorer Zebulon Pike gazing at his namesake mountain and songwriter Katharine Lee Bates gazing at her purple mountain majesties.

There’s Broadmoor Hotel founder Spencer Penrose and gold miner/philanthropist Winfield Scott Stratton. We have Nick Venetucci, our beloved pumpkin man, and William Seymour, the first black juror in El Paso County.

We even have fictional Hank the Cowboy. (Ugg!)

But there’s a huge hole in our art inventory, specifically among our statues.

Where’s Lon Chaney?

A photo of Lon Chaney hangs in the hallway outside the Lon Chaney Theatre in the Colorado Springs City Auditorium. Photo by Bill Vogrin

Not the wolf man of 1940s monster movie fame.

I’m talking about his father, Leonidas “Lon” Chaney, who was born April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs to deaf parents. His father, Frank, was a barber and his mother, Emma, was a teacher.

It’s time Colorado Springs so honors Lon Chaney, one of the greatest stars of the silent movie era and a pioneer in the use of makeup.

Sure, the tiny theater in the City Auditorium was named for Chaney in 1986. But he deserves much more.

A small marquee identifies the Lon Chaney Theatre above a side door to the Colorado Springs City Auditorium. It was purchased by Chaney’s biggest fan, Michael Blake, a Hollywood actor, makeup artist and author of several biographies on Chaney. Blake donated the sign in 1991 after the theatre was named in honor of Chaney. Photo by Bill Vogrin

A persuasive case is made by Michael Blake, a Hollywood actor, makeup artist and author of several biographies on Chaney.

Chaney’s parents, Frank and Emma, were deaf and mute and quite poor.

Blake’s research identified nine rental houses where the family lived before Chaney left to pursue acting.

Frank Chaney was known as “Dummy the Barber,” Blake said. It was an affectionate nickname, he said, given him by his millionaire clients who included Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer and gold miner/philanthropist Winfield Scott Stratton.

Emma was a teacher at the School for the Deaf and the Blind, which her father Jonathan Kennedy founded.

She suffered from inflammatory rheumatism, Blake said, forcing Chaney to drop out of school in fourth grade to care for her.

“She was basically a shut-in,” Blake said. “She couldn’t hear or speak. Lon was her eyes to the outside world.”

While growing up, Chaney worked many jobs, including as a carpet-layer, wallpaper hanger, tour guide on Pikes Peak and prop boy at the Colorado Springs Opera House, where his brother was the manager.

He made his acting debut there in 1902 and soon joined a touring company. He eventually settled in California and went on to star in 80 silent films. But he returned many times to visit family and friends.

“This guy was a big movie star,” Blake said. “He deserves a statue, a park, a big theater, a film festival.”

I agree. We need to give our kids inspirational role models. We need to show them they can achieve great things in whatever career they choose, whether it’s public service, science, education, sports or the arts.

Lon Chaney shows them they can be the poor son of “Dummy the Barber,” a dropout caretaker for their invalid mother, and still become a huge star.

And they can be from Colorado Springs!

Lon Chaney clowns with his dog in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs during one of his many visits to his hometown after he became a silent movie star. Photo courtesy of Michael Blake.