Chaney Heir Tells of Turbulent Family Story That Led to a Book and Musical

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Ron Chaney on the set of “A Thousand Faces” at the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter. Photo by Chuck Colby.

By Doug Marrin

The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter scored an enormous hit last Thursday with the world premiere of “A Thousand Faces: the Lon Chaney Musical.”

Lon Chaney is perhaps best known for his ghoulish roles playing Frankenstein, the Mummy, and Dracula. What is lesser known, however, and what the musical is about, is the fascinating and turbulent lives of the Chaneys in their acting dynasty that spans over 100 years. It is the result of the creative endeavor of grandson Ron Chaney to tell his family’s story. Ron was in town for a couple of weeks leading up to the opening weekend and took time to tell us more about the Chaneys.

“The entertainment business is really hard on families,” began Ron. “My own family is indicative of that.”

Before we go further, let’s clarify who’s who, as Ron did for me.

Lon Chaney Sr. (1883-1930) was a stage-actor-turned-silent-film star known for his remarkable ability to transform his appearance with makeup. This landed him a variety of horror roles and the title of “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Ron’s great-grandfather.

Lon Chaney Jr. (1906-1973) was a prolific actor who followed in his father’s footsteps in horror films but also starred in westerns and dramas. Ron’s grandfather, or “Grams,” as Ron called him.

Lon Chaney Sr. was known for his makeup artistry which landed him many ghoulish roles in the silent film era. (L) on the set of “The Miracle Man” (1919), (R) in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) Photos: Wikipedia.

You might imagine that such fame would lead to a storied life of comfort and ease, but not so explains Ron. Lon Sr. and Lon Jr. had marriages dissolve under the heat of an acting career. Getting caught in the fallout, Ron’s father was sent to military school after the divorce.

“That’s not a real good upbringing,” says Ron. “My father had a lot of heartache from that.”

That heartache turned Ron’s father away from a career under the spotlight, although the doors were wide open for him. He was a Chaney, after all. But unfortunately, the split from acting couldn’t prevent a separation between Ron’s parents. His father left when he was young.

But in an ironic twist of fate, his parents’ divorce put Ron back in touch with his family’s acting roots. After the divorce, Ron’s grandfather, Lon Jr., helped look out for his son’s family. Ron remembers visits with “Grams” but had no idea how internationally famous his grandfather was.

“I knew he worked, but he would be home whenever we visited,” says Ron. “He would tell us stories about his job with the studios and coworkers. But I didn’t think too much about it at the time.”

All of that changed later when Ron studied his grandfather’s career. Suddenly, all of those stories Grams told him about his job became much more than cute little anecdotes grandparents say to their grandchildren. His grandfather had worked with movie stars and famous people and was a famous movie star himself.

Looking back, Ron remembers a tug in his heart at this time. The pull of the lights, camera, and action has always been in his soul. It’s the Chaney DNA. “I always had a desire to be in the business,” says Ron. “I’ve felt that since childhood.”

But having a desire, a calling, or a famous name doesn’t pave the way for such dreams. Ron graduated high school and started a family. In a twist of the Chaney legacy, Ron put his family first and his Hollywood ambitions on hold. “But it never left me,” he says.

Grams passed away. Ron traveled to San Diego to help his grandmother pack up and move. During the sorting and organizing, Ron came across boxes in the garage marked “Picture Book.”

“I popped one open and saw all the photos grams collected for this book he had been working on,” recalls Ron. “I remembered him working on it sometimes when we visited.”

At the time, he remembers Grams telling him, “I’m writing this book about my family, my father’s, and my career. Together, we have 100 years in the entertainment business. I’m calling it, ‘A Century of Chaneys.’”

“When I found it,” says Ron, “I knew that this is what I was supposed to be doing. But I still had a family to support and didn’t want to repeat the same Chaney family splits in my family.”

Lon Chaney Jr. played a wide range of characters in his prolific career. (L) in “Girl of My Dreams” (1934). (R) in “The Wolf Man” (1941), Photos: Wikipedia.

So, Ron continued on but found time to dabble with his grandfather’s book as he had time. He convinced his reluctant grandmother to help with the stories, but she sadly passed away before much work could get done. Ron had other writers take a crack at it without success. Ron forged ahead, putting the stories of his great-grandfather and grandfather together piece by piece as best he could. And as he did, an amazing story began to unfold.

Lon Sr.’s parents were deaf. They opened the first school for deaf children in Kansas in the 1860s. The sign language and gestures that Lon Sr. learned as a boy in communicating with his parents accentuated his acting talent on stage, especially in silent films. He could express thoughts and emotions through body language that other actors could not.

But the biggest story of the book may not be found in the photographs and fame of its two main characters, Lon Sr. and Lon Jr. The real message might be found between the lines—the story of the people around them that has been turned into a musical.

“Our story is also about perseverance,” says Ron alluding to the generational Chaney familial troubles inflicted by Sr. and Jr. in their careers. “It doesn’t matter what family you’re born into because we’ve all experienced difficulties in life. It’s about picking yourself back up from what you’ve been handed and moving on.”

As the book came together with its vivid imagery, Ron felt more and more it should be made into a movie. However, a few forays into the Hollywood scene shut that down immediately. “I found out quickly what the sharks in Hollywood were all about,” says Ron. “I’m not selling my soul.”

But one day, he received an email from a Sam Scalamoni, who had visited the Lon Chaney Sr. Museum in Colorado Springs. Scalamoni is a musical director and told Ron that he believed the story of his great-grandfather would make a great musical.

Ron began meeting with Sam and investors. Eric Lane wrote the story. Composer Rachel Devore Fogarty wrote the music, and Kevin Fogarty created the lyrics. All the writing, rewriting, planning, and discussions felt warm and familiar to Ron. The Chaney genes had found their way back home. This is where he belonged.

“I think people will be blown away by this musical,” says Ron. “I think they will be amazed and inspired. They’re going to laugh. They’re going to cry. It’s a very emotional play. There is something in it that everyone can relate to.”

“So many people have told me stories of growing up watching the Chaney films and the excitement it gave them,” adds Ron. “It’s very endearing to me that my family has given so many thrills and treats to people for over 100 years now. I am proud of this, and it’s wonderful to be a part of the ongoing story through this musical.”

Ron expects his book to get published this year. “A Century of Chaneys” has grown to two volumes. Not bad for a guy who didn’t think he could write.

“A Thousand Faces: the Lon Chaney Musical” runs through May 1 at the Encore.

More information can be found at https://theencoretheatre.org/

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