When the ‘Grinch’ fished Siltcoos
The Karloffs’ link to local past
Dec. 21, 2022 — Boris Karloff was a British actor who rose to fame in the first half of the 20th century and was eventually regarded as the most iconic horror movie actor of his time.
Born William Henry Pratt in 1887, he immigrated to North America as a young man, first to Canada before reaching Hollywood in the 1920s.
It was there, in 1931, after first appearing in 81 other films, he landed the role that would gain him widespread fame — the title character in the Universal Pictures classic “Frankenstein.”
After that his career would take off. In the 1930s he would star in “The Mummy” and “The Invisible Ray” in addition to dozens of other films from a wide variety of genres.
It was after the completion of the filming of “Tower of London” in the second half of 1939 that Karloff and his then-wife, Dorothy Stine Karloff, visited Oregon for a vacation.
Mrs. Karloff, who was raised in Portland, might have been what initially attracted the couple to the northwest.
Newspapers around the state reported sightings of the two during this period.
First came reports in local newspapers of beachcombing at Agate Beach north of Florence.
Then a report of a sighting at a movie theatre in Medford where it was confirmed that while Karloff was, “not quite as terrifying appearing in person as on the screen, he certainly could not be classed as a ‘glamour boy.’”
The story, from the Nov. 3, 1939, edition of the Medford Mail Tribune, was not afraid to hold the Karloffs to a standard befitting of Hollywood elite, as it was mentioned that both their suits “seemed to be in need of a good pressing.”
The same article said Mr. Karloff enjoyed his vacation in Oregon and “thought the Oregon coast an especially delightful place.”
Maybe that’s why, when the Karloffs returned a year later in the fall of 1940, they made their home base the town that is almost the exact middle point on the Oregon Coast: Florence.
Sightings of the film star and his wife started popping up in papers on the coast in October 1940.
According to the Siuslaw Oar [now Siuslaw News], there was something else about Florence that appealed to the Karloffs besides the great fishing and beautiful scenery: the residents’ ability to not make a big deal about their special visitors.
Though the title of the Oct. 10, 1940, story called attention to the visit in its headline “Screen Artist is Florence Visitor,” the blurb in the local paper reminded Florencians the proper way to treat visitors who wished not to be made into a spectacle.
“Keep it quiet — notables are that way — but Boris Karloff and Mrs. Karloff have been dividing their time for more than a week at our two hotels,” the story read. “Silently, lovingly, longingly breathing in the complacent rest from his Frankenstein exploits on the screen — well known to all those who attend the better shows. But it’s to be kept quiet. If this gets out the family will fade from view — but everyone will say: ‘Sure I saw them but didn’t dream who they were.’ They will be back.”
As mentioned, the Karloffs split time between the Florence Hotel on Bay Street and the Regan Hotel (today the Lighthouse Inn) on Highway 101 while touring the area.
From their headquarters in Florence, the Karloffs toured the state, visiting Timberline Lodge, attending an Oregon vs. Washington football game in Portland and fishing as many lakes as Boris could get his guides to stop at.
The Karloffs arrived in Florence that fall intending to stay a week, but it was almost a month before they headed back to California. They also ensured themselves a return visit, this one even longer than a month, when they bought a 280-acre tract on Millers Arm of Siltcoos Lake.
News of their purchase spread quickly. Almost every paper in Oregon mentioned it on their front page.
While in New York a few months later to make his Broadway debut as a gangster in the play “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Karloff was asked of his Oregon venture. He mentioned his “greatest delight” aside from acting and gardening, is “his daughter Sara Jane Karloff Pratt.”
He said he bought property in Oregon and she was to be brought up there.
“If she wants to be an actress I’m going to make it hard for her,” said Karloff. “Just so that she can really find out whether that is what she wants. She is going to get a truly normal life. I only hope she grows up to look like her mother — and not like me.”
It appears Mrs. Karloff took care of the planning as, in the spring of 1941, local papers mention her meeting with local contractor Martin Peterson who was hired to build a road connecting Canary Road to the property.
That project was said to be completed in July 1941.
The house was completed by 1942. Details are limited but one story mentions the Karloffs filling it with antique furniture.
Though no signs point to the Karloffs making it their main residence or raising their daughter Sara there as Boris had hoped, it appears the family spent significant time at their house on Siltcoos Lake during the next few years.
Karloff loved to fish, an obvious benefit to life on Siltcoos. He loved fishing so much that, on two different occasions in 1945, he was listed as a competitor in the Siuslaw River Salmon Derby on the Siuslaw River. How many he caught was never mentioned.
In 1946 the Karloffs divorced and, soon after, the house and property were sold to Bill Singer, who said at the time of purchase his mother wished to turn the location into a resort. A short time later, Singer sold the property to Herb Robbins of Eugene.
Robbins leased the house to Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Lent and their children Beverly, Carol, Gary, Judy and Joy Lynne. The family was living at the location when, in July 1958, an electrical fire started and burned the house to the ground.
According to the Siuslaw Oar, despite the efforts of 15 volunteers from the Siuslaw Rural Fire Department, only a chimney remained when the flames were finally extinguished.
It was not long before the time “when Frankenstein lived on Siltcoos” became all but a legend.
Karloff would go on, in 1966, to narrate and provide the voice for the title character in the animated version of the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a role that would eventually rival Frankenstein as his most famous.
Critics at the time widely panned the half- hour made-for-television special but Chuck Jones, its animator, knew it was destined for greatness — specifically because of Karloff’s performance.
In a letter to Karloff’s sixth wife Evelyn, Jones explained.
“It now seems apparent that ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ will be a Christmas feature on television for as long as anyone can envisage,” wrote Jones. “In my opinion the major reason for this is that Mr. Karloff gave such a thoughtful and understanding reading of the script. I think it is entirely appropriate that children for many generations will find joy and a deeper understanding of Christmas through the skill of your husband.”
Jones could not have been more correct.
Karloff passed just a few years later in 1969. But his former property south of Florence was never forgotten by locals. Many people know the story of when Karloff lived on Siltcoos and it’s considered an import- ant part of Dunes City history.
Finding the location today is not an easy task. According to Bob Serra, former editor of Siuslaw News, there was still some evidence of the Karloff house before the turn of the last millennium.
“I recall rowing to where Boris Karloff’s dock was likely located in the north cove of Miller’s arm on Siltcoos in the 1980s and ‘90s,” said Serra. “There was a kind of boulevard of tall old trees on each side of a clearing that led from the dock to a place where the home must have stood. The only trace was a brick hearth and part of the chimney that remained after the fire.
“I found a couple tiles from perhaps the kitchen. The big find was the dump not far off of the lake. It was made up of mostly ‘Four Roses’ whiskey bottles.”
According to Serra, even the scant evidence he found over 30 years ago is mostly gone now.
“The rows of old trees and other signs of the Karloff compound were done away with when the timber company clear cut and replanted the property in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s,” he recalled. “The last time I went exploring I found no signs of the old homestead.”
With all physical evidence gone, only the stories remain.
So now, when “The Grinch who Stole Christmas” comes on television for the 13th time this holiday season, you can tell your own story of “When the Grinch lived on Siltcoos Lake.”