Lon Chaney - CSPM

Lon Chaney

by Leah Davis Witherow, CSPM Curator of History

Famously, the Man of a Thousand Faces had very few words to say about his private life. He once told Screen Secrets magazine that he generated more publicity by being silent about his past than if he were more vocal. How appropriate, considering Lon Chaney was a world-famous silent film star renowned for his lead roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. Although he may not have talked much about it, Chaney’s roots in the Pikes Peak Region ran deep — his experiences growing up here influenced his choice of career and shaped his talent.

Lon Chaney’s maternal grandparents, John and Mary Kennedy had three children: Emma (his mother), Mattie, and son Orange; all three of whom were born with hearing loss. John Kennedy established the Mute Asylum in Baldwin City, Kansas in 1864 and served as the Steward of the Olastic Asylum before arriving in Colorado in 1873. The next year, he established what would become The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind (CSDB). With a $5,000 appropriation from the Colorado Territorial Legislature, the facility opened in a small house on Cucharras Street before a building site of 10 acres was donated by General William Jackson Palmer’s Colorado Springs Company. Three of the thirteen students enrolled for the 1874-1875 school term were the children of founder Jonathan Kennedy.

Lon’s father Frank Chaney was born in on April 3, 1852 in Carroll, Ohio. He lost his hearing after contracting typhoid fever at the age of four. Lon’s mother, Emma Kennedy was born on October 13, 1855 in Lawrence, Kansas, and had hearing loss since birth. As author Michael Blake has stated, in addition to providing educational and vocational opportunities for students, the CSDB “served as a magnet for social activities for all of the city’s deaf community.” After meeting at the school, Frank and Emma were married in her parent’s home on December 5, 1877.

Colorado Springs Opera House at 18 N. Tejon Street, ca. 1900
S2017-.17 Lon Chaney and Marceline Day in the motion picture, The Big City, 1928

Lon attended several elementary schools and stated he had a “reasonably happy” childhood. He played sports and had many friends. However, in 1893 his mother Emma became bedridden with inflammatory rheumatism after the birth of her last child George. Lon dropped out of fourth grade to care for her and his younger siblings. As biographer Blake describes, “It was here that Lon began to develop the talent that later won him praise as one of the great mimes of the silent screen. For three years, Lon took care of his mother in the silence of her bedroom, relaying the events of the day to her…Using every dramatic technique he could invent, Lon mimicked his friends and neighbors at play and work, and even performed an occasional skit. Through this daily ritual Chaney’s talent of pantomime, with his graceful movements and his expressive hand gestures, began to grow and take shape.”

As his siblings grew older, Lon went to work to help support the Chaney Family. During the summer months he worked as a tour guide on Pikes Peak, and was often employed as a wallpaper hanger and carpet layer by Brown’s Wall Paper and Paint Company on North Tejon. Chaney was introduced to the inner workings of theater through his older brother John, who was a stage hand and later stage manager at the Colorado Springs Opera House. Young Lon worked there as a “prop boy,” and stage hand, occasionally appearing as an “extra.” According to grandson Ron Chaney, Lon first took the stage in a production titled The Little Tycoon, which he co-wrote with his brother John. The show traveled around the country and Lon went with it.

By 1910, Lon Chaney was living and working in Los Angeles. After a public scandal involving his wife Cleva Creighton, Chaney left stage acting for work in the silent film industry. Starring in over 150 films, he became a Hollywood legend. For his craft Chaney underwent tremendous physical suffering, binding his feet to his thighs behind him to play an amputee in The Penalty, and wearing a 50lb artificial hump on his back for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He also mastered the art of “stage makeup.” He famously transformed into any character — completely unrecognizable from himself. In fact, despite being one of the biggest movie stars of the era, Lon Chaney could walk the streets of any major city incognito. Throughout it all, he never forgot his friends and family in Colorado Springs. In 1925 he held a special screening of The Phantom of the Opera for the students at the CSDB. One of the brightest stars ever to emerge from Colorado Springs, April is officially “Lon Chaney Month.” In 1986, the theater at the Colorado Springs City Auditorium was renamed in his honor. 

This photograph is of the Lon Chaney Theatre at the Colorado Springs City Auditorium. 

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