How a horror movie icon was made in England but born in Kamloops

William Henry Pratt came to western Canada in 1909, and began acting in 1911; but it would be 20 years before he became a star.

  • Oct. 18, 2016 8:00 p.m.

Actor William Henry Pratt in about 1923.

Until the early years of the last century, it was not uncommon for young English gentlemen of a certain class to find themselves with a one-way ticket to Canada (or Australia or the United States). These were often younger sons in large families, for whom there was no possibility of family support; and sometimes they were men who found it difficult to settle down to a traditional lifestyle in the United Kingdom. They preferred the freedom, mobility, and wide open spaces that Canada provided.

They were known as “remittance men”, as they were given a remittance of cash before they left, with the tacit understanding that they wouldn’t come home again. One of these remittance men was William Henry Pratt, born in Camberwell, south London, England in November 1887 as the youngest in a family of nine. The Pratts were sufficiently well-off that young William was educated at private schools and at King’s College, London, where he trained for a career in the British consular service. However, he neglected his studies and failed all his exams, preferring to spend his time taking in London’s rich theatre life.

In early 1909 he received a small inheritance and set out for Canada, where he intended to make a life as a farmer. He spent some months working on a farm outside Hamilton, Ontario, then made his way west to Vancouver, where he found work as a manual labourer: one of his first jobs was working at the PNE grounds, digging out the race track and fairgrounds for 25 cents an hour. A job at a real estate office was short-lived, and he eventually found work with the B.C. Electric Railway Co., doing whatever was required, including digging ditches, surveying, and shovelling coal.

However, Pratt’s real ambition was to become an actor. He contacted three touring acting companies that came through Vancouver, but with no luck. (Touring companies made a sometimes precarious living by travelling constantly, putting on plays and theatrical entertainments in towns and cities that were not large enough to support their own acting company; a vagabond, gypsy lifestyle that probably appealed to Pratt).

He eventually contacted a theatrical agent in Seattle, and lied by saying that he was an experienced stage actor. Pratt was working as a surveyor at Lillooet Lake near Pemberton when he received word that he was to join the Jeanne Russell theatre company, which was performing in Kamloops. Thus it was that in September 1911, after almost two years in Vancouver, he boarded a CPR train in Vancouver and passed through Ashcroft on his way to join the company in Kamloops.

He was tall for the time (5’ 11”), and had managed to conquer a habit of stuttering, which made his rich, deep accent impressive. Another note in his favour was that the Jeanne Russell company did not have a good name in the business, and was always looking for actors. Years later, Pratt wrote that “It had such a bad reputation that no one would join it. That’s why [the agent] sent for me.”

Pratt was hired on the spot, and sat in on some of the company’s Kamloops performances as an observer before being given his first role: that of an elderly husband in a play called The Devil (given Pratt’s later career, the title of the play might be seen as an epic piece of foreshadowing). The company had left Kamloops by the time Pratt first took to the boards; it made stops in Salmon Arm and Vernon, although Pratt later recalled that he did not make his stage debut until the night of November 24, 1911 (his 24th birthday) in Nelson.

He did not get off to a good start, saying of his first performance that “I had finally become an actor, but I mumbled, bumbled, missed cues, rammed into furniture, and sent the director’s blood pressure soaring. When the curtain went up I was getting $30 a week. When it descended, I was down to $15.”

Still, it was better than digging out the PNE grounds at 25 cents an hour, and Pratt stuck with the company, spending several months touring western Canada. In June 1912 the company, which was flat broke, arrived in Regina, and the next day a cyclone hit the city. The company disbanded, but Pratt stayed to help clear up the debris. A few more labourer jobs followed, but it was not long before Pratt found himself back in the theatre with a series of companies touring Canada and the States.

He eventually arrived in Hollywood, where he worked as an extra in silent films, gradually working his way up to bigger roles. When talkies came in in the late 1920s, Pratt’s theatrical training and rich voice enabled him to make a successful transition to talking films.

In 1931 he was spotted in the Universal Studios commissary by director James Whale, who was looking for someone to play the monster in his film version of Frankenstein. Whale asked Pratt to test for the role, which he was given, and which launched him to stardom, 20 years after he got his acting start in far-off Kamloops.

Have you never heard of William Henry Pratt? That’s understandable. At some point between leaving Vancouver and arriving in Kamloops in September 1911, Pratt had decided he needed a somewhat more impressive stage name than the one he had been born with. One of the plays in the Jeanne Russell company’s repertoire was called The Man in the Box, and featured a character named Count Karloff, whose surname Pratt appropriated. As for a first name? He chose Boris, because he said it sounded foreign and exotic. So while William Henry Pratt was born in Camberwell, it’s fair to say that Boris Karloff—one of the most famous horror movie actors of all time—was born in Kamloops.

 

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