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Jack Pierce: Man behind the monsters

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A New DVD Pays Tribute to the Master Monster Maker
By Scott Essman
Writing about old Hollywood is tricky business, especially in the “what have you done for me lately” climate of the new Hollywood—which is why the creation of a DVD on the life and work of Jack Pierce makes so unusual a story. Many of those who work below-the-line have always been fans of Pierce, who created all the classic Universal Studios monsters. In 1999 over 100 people recruited from the crafts ranks of films and TV shows agreed to participate in a project that properly honored Pierce and his monsters. The result of this work is now a DVD that reflects their passion and interest.
To the rare uninitiated monster fan, Pierce was the makeup genius who started at Universal in the 1910’s, doing everything from stunt work to assistant directing before becoming a full-time makeup artist in the 1920’s. By the 1930’s, in succession, Pierce created the title characters for Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Werewolf of London, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and Phantom of the Opera—in addition to working on all of the sequels to those films through House of Dracula in 1945. The studio then dismissed him after he gave them 30 years without ever signing a contract.
To undertake a Pierce project that would properly reflect this great body of work, the team at first chose to present most of these films onstage through a combination of partial set pieces and accurate character re-creations. Key in executing this task were Robert Burman and his wife, costume designer Jennifer McManus. They saw the project as an opportunity to delve into something atypical but fulfilling. “What I was glad about was the ability to make classic historical characters and really do them right,” said Burman. “It was really fun to be able to update everything so that it was today’s standards with yesterday’s style.”
The group set out in the spring of 1999 casting actors who would appropriately resemble Boris Karloff, Béla Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, and Elsa Lanchester. They also sought to represent the “straight” or non-monster actors who were in the great film classics. The idea of including more than just monster characters intrigued the expanding crew, many of whom were required months in advance of the planned two-hour stage show. “Having the chance to recreate not just the monsters but the characters themselves was really a great concept,” said Burman. “That really attracted me to this.”
Scheduling conflicts pushed the project from October of 1999 to June of 2000. When some financing came through, about four months of preparation time existed. Noted McManus: “Pierce and all the people who were part of the team making those great monster movies certainly took more time than we did in this tribute. But we put our hearts into it, and I think that’s the most important part.”
Pieces of costume materials were purchased, borrowed or rented; the vast majority had to be fabricated by McManus working alone by hand. Meanwhile Burman and his team were preparing 16 makeups that would encompass the tribute – 12 of them prosthetically based. Actors were lifecasted, makeups were sculpted, molds were made and makeup appliances were fabricated in prosthetic materials—most usually foam latex. Sets were created from rentals and construction by designer John Ivanoff.
Recently, Burman reflected on the project, which finally built up to the June 17 performance and was staged only one time. “I barely remember any of it,” Burman stated. “Everything went so fast, and so much had to be done. I mean, we did get 16 people made up in a matter of some six or eight hours. With the amount of work everybody put into these characters, it was a really amazing day.” The Jack Pierce tribute is now a DVD release.

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