The only sound in the hotel conference room was the clicking of cameras. Up on the makeshift stage sat four people, conventional in appearance, middle-aged and a bit surprised at the barrage of fluttering shutters.
Never before had the progeny of five of Hollywood's most famous monster actors -- Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., and Dwight Frye -- convened to reminisce about their elders' films. While they weren't precisely sure what to expect, it hadn't occurred to any of them that the monster fan equivalent of the paparazzi would spend a full five minutes fawning over them.
"Look at Bela Lugosi Jr.," a woman whispered to her companion. "God, it's eerie how much he looks like his father. Especially in the eyes."
Lugosi Jr., a 54-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, didn't have the haunting Hungarian accent that was a hallmark of his father's performances. Even so, the recollections of the younger Lugosi and his fellow "children of the damned," as some appreciators dubbed them, were enough to keep the crowd's attention for more than an hour. Although they probably could have said nothing and still received a standing ovation.
"Just getting this close to an actual Lugosi, an actual Karloff ... it's a thrill," said Jim Feely, a Milwaukee TV programmer in town for the Famous Monsters of Movieland Convention at the Crystal City Hyatt. "This is the closest we can get to those icons we grew up with, just to say thanks for some great performances."
The foursome -- Lugosi, Sara Karloff, Dwight Frye Jr. and Ron Chaney (great-grandson of Lon Sr.) -- spent more than three hours Saturday fielding questions and signing autographs for throngs of fans.
"I was at one of these conventions about a year ago, and the response was overwhelming, but this ... so many people! There are people here from all over the world," marveled Karloff, a 54-year-old Rancho Mirage, Calif., real estate broker. "Really, the fans are unbelievable."
Months ago, the descendants received invitations to the convention from horror scene impresario Forrest Ackerman. None of them had ever communicated with one another before, and all were intrigued by the idea of meeting face to face. So, apparently, were the 2,000-plus conventioneers.
While the offspring were signing posters, books, shirts and other items, a fan asked Lugosi, who's been trying to track down copies of all his father's films, if he owned a print of "Midnight Girl." No, said Lugosi. "Give me a P.O. box number and I'll send it to you," the fan said.
Another fan presented a 1936 original still photo of Dwight Frye to Frye Jr. for his inspection.
"I've never seen this one before," said Frye, whose father is best remembered for his portrayal of the deranged Renfield in "Dracula." "That's a good one, all right."
"Go ahead, take it," the fan said, giving the picture to an incredulous Frye, whose shocked expression looked positively Renfieldian.
"It just makes me feel warm, glad to know that this generation had some appreciation for my father's work," Frye said. "His performances in 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein' were excellent, but he got typecast in roles from which he was never able to break out -- weirdos, gangsters, Nazis. He was always very frustrated because of that." A pause. "But if Dad was here today, he'd have a whole different attitude."
Unlike the senior Frye, Boris Karloff was able to break out of the monster roles, acting in more conventional thrillers and Broadway plays (with an especially memorable turn as Captain Hook in a production of "Peter Pan") and lending his voice to children's recordings. Even so, Karloff didn't mind at all that he would be best remembered as Frankenstein's monster.
"He'd always say, 'I'm really grateful to the old boy,' meaning the monster character," she said. "He'd call him his 'best friend.' The monster was his big break, and he was grateful for that role," a part that was originally offered to Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi Jr. said his father did occasionally note that having passed on the Frankenstein part, he "gave himself some competition." But Karloff and Lugosi did work together.
Although his father's reputation for intensity and eccentricity is well deserved, Lugosi said with a smile, it isn't true that the actor asked to be buried in his cape. "That was Mother's and my decision -- we thought it was something he would have liked."
Lugosi Jr.'s eyes grew cold, however, when he brought up his dad's relationship with Edward D. Wood Jr., the notorious Grade Z film director who used Lugosi in many of his movies. "Ed Wood perceived himself as a good friend of my father's -- whether or not he actually was; the jury's still out on that," he said. "He did manage to find some work for my father in his later years, some of it good, most of it bad."
The baddest of the bad was, without a doubt, "Plan 9 From Outer Space," largely regarded as the worst film ever made. It was also Lugosi's last film. The actor died four days into production, so Wood had his wife's chiropractor take over Lugosi's part. To get around the physical inconsistency, Lugosi's stand-in was shown hidden behind a cape -- an insult to the memory of the man who defined the role of Dracula.
Regardless of dubious career finales, the memories of the cinema horror characters are embedded in the American pop psyche, and the display of appreciation for them has sparked something within their progeny.
Ron Chaney, a 38-year-old California contractor who bears little resemblance to his Wolf Man grandfather, is more inspired than ever to finish a book begun by Lon Chaney Jr. about the family. He also took the opportunity at the convention to recruit the other actors' descendants in a campaign to persuade the Postal Service to issue a series of monster stamps.
Though they'd known one another less than a day, the offspring were already talking about the future. "Who knows what we'll do, if anything," said Karloff. "But this really has been a wonderful experience, and I'm very glad I came."