Monster mask pioneer Verne Langdon dead at 69

Verne Langdon, writer, producer, composer and sculptor best known to horror fans for the iconic monster masks he created in the 1960s, died on January 1, 2011 of natural causes. He was 69.

A monster kid at heart, Langdon’s intricately sculpted masks, bearing the likenesses of many Universal Monsters, were initially offered in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. They would eventually redefine Halloween masks for future generations when they later appeared in department store aisles.

“Usually my favourite mask was the one I was working on at the time,” Langdon told Rue Morgue in 2010. “Some that stand out are the Glenn Strange Frankenstein Monster, Chaney Phantom, Karloff Mad Doctor and Lugosi Dracula.”

But his favourite always remained The Zombie (pictured), which he created after he left Don Post Studios, the company behind some of the film world’s most memorable rubber masks.

“I photographed it and sent the transparencies to [FM Publisher] Jim Warren. He fell in love with it and put my Zombie on the cover of his 1973 Creepy Spooktacular.”

Born September 15, 1941 in Oakland, California, Langdon moved to Hollywood in the early 1960s, designing masks for numerous films and TV shows, including the original Planet of the Apes franchise and TV series Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also conceived rides and exhibits for theme parks, such as Castle Dracula and The Land of a Thousand Faces for Universal Studios, and was a regular attraction at numerous California-based horror conventions, including Monsterpalooza. Throughout his career, Langdon was a proverbial jack of all trades, working at times as a circus clown, a professional wrestler, an award-winning TV and motion picture makeup artist, radio host and entrepreneur.

A child musical prodigy, Langdon’s rigorous work ethic is also evidenced by the more than 40 recordings that he wrote, produced or played piano, organ or harpsichord on throughout his career. Most notably, his organ playing was the spooky backdrop for the 1967 album An Evening with Boris Karloff and His Friends, which featured Karloff’s narration along with samples from various Universal Monsters films. (Langdon was also nominated for a Spoken Word Grammy Award in 2009 for A Very Special Time, a CD collaboration with actor Jonathan Winters.)

Langdon also worked in sideshows, and developed a nearly two decade-long friendship with Schlitze (a.k.a. Simon Metz), the microcephalic featured in the 1932 MGM film Freaks. Screenwriter Michael Kriegsman, who enlisted advice from Langdon for a documentary about the marking of Tod Browning’s film, says he found him indespensible. “[Langdon] was honest and forthcoming with his comments, especially when it came to the details about life in the sideshow. By page 30, I asked him to just write the damned script with me.”

In a 2009 interview with Rue Morgue, Langdon spoke of his encounters with Schlitze, the first being at a Clyde Beatty Circus show in the early 1950s: “He looked at me and then just as quickly looked away, seemingly ashamed of his imperfection compared to my perfection, or perhaps he was only tired, or possibly bored at the moment from a hard day of being on exhibit, stared at, sometimes made the brunt of laughter, like some zoo animal or stuffed, near-extinct museum species.”

Over the years, Langdon saw Schlitze dozens of times, including shortly before the sideshow performer passed away in 1971. Although Schlitze was buried in an unmarked grave, Langdon recently helped a group of fans locate his burial site and raise funds for a proper gravestone. Such a gesture was characteristic of his continuing efforts to nurture a new generation of monster kids, while paying tribute to his contemporaries and those who came before him.

“The guy packed in more lives than should be allowed,” says Kriegsman.

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