Memories of Lee: Susan Svehla Remembers Christopher LeeBooks/Art/Culture,News Fangoria Staff
Shortly after learning of the passing of Christopher Lee, FANGORIA reached out to the community to say goodbye to the genre great. Of course, after reaching out to longtime genre voice and incidental Lee cohort Susan Svehla to share her experiences with the Mr. Lee, and share she did. So without further ado…
The phone rang and I managed to answer it before the machine kicked in. A few seconds of silence and then that deep, upper-class British voice, dripping with culture, would proclaim, “Susan,” and shaking all over, I would manage to pull myself together enough to stammer, “Hello Mr. Lee, I’ll get Gary for you.” Even though Gary was speaking to one of his childhood heroes, he managed to keep a business-like tone, the result of facing several thousand high schoolers during his 39-year teaching career. As I write this, I have chills just remembering 1999 and Christopher Lee’s appearance at Monster Rally.
In person, Christopher Lee managed to overpower you just as he did in his films. He had a distinctive appearance and, unlike many of the cookie-cutter actors of today, Lee could never be confused with any other star. Next to my 5’2” frame he was a giant and stood ramrod straight. He was still as sexy and handsome in 1999 as he was when he burst through those French doors into the bedroom of Veronica Carlson in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. Christopher Lee oozed charm and charisma, walked with a commanding stride and was brilliant with fans. Christopher Lee was one of the last MOVIE STARS.
First, I need to give you a little background on how my husband Gary and I met Mr. Lee and published the U.S. edition of his autobiography, TALL, DARK AND GRUESOME. In 1963 Gary Svehla was a typical monster-loving kid. He ran to the newsstand eagerly awaiting the new issue of Famous Monsters and reveling in the new horror films on their way to the local movie house. Unlike most kids of that era, who happily tore through FM, painted their Aurora monster model kits and jammed the foyers of theaters after finding a way to convince their mom the latest horrorfest would not scar them for life (mothers were not among Hammer’s biggest fans), Gary figured he could do a magazine just like FM. So was published the first edition of Gore Creatures. Of course as both Gary and the fanzine grew, it emerged from being a childish fanzine to a mature history and criticism of horror, fantasy and sci-fi films. We found each other through friends at a sci-fi convention and our first date consisted of a trip from Baltimore to Washington D.C. in May of 1981 to attend a talk at the AFI by one of our heroes, Ray Harryhausen.
After several years of marriage, Gary finally let me start helping him on the magazine. He had been running the film program at Balticon, the Bmore sci-fi con, but was disenchanted when sci-fi cons were distancing themselves from films (or media as it was haughtily described by sci-fi fandom) and I thought it would be nice if we could do a convention that was a live version of the mag. Thus was born FANEX. Oh, those were the days as all the genre authors got along, our guest stars were just happy to meet their fans and were horrified of the idea of charging for their autograph or a photo taken with them. There were always quite a few tears when we presented the FANEX Awards each year.
This story could go on and on but it’s way past time to get back to Christopher Lee. I was getting bored with the regular FANEX and by this time there were quite a few shows competing against us in larger cities and bringing in lots of scream queens and allowing guests to charge whatever they wanted for autographs. Each year we had new and different guests, but it was time to really do a big blowout, and so Monster Rally came into being. And the greatest coup of all would be getting Christopher Lee to appear. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. He had turned down lots of money to appear at fan conventions and had never done one in the U.S. He had been to some U.S. film festivals as a judge, but was never a convention guest.
The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I couldn’t do it, so I set my sights on signing on Mr. Lee. I just didn’t expect to be terrified of him. I mean we had so many wonderful guests at FANEX and I was never nervous with them. I especially adored Freddie Francis and John Agar, Robert Wise directed me as I took a photo of Gary and him. Guests Jimmy Sangster, Veronica Carlson, Caroline Munro, Ingrid Pitt, Val Guest, Russ Tamblyn, Ray Harryhausen, Yvette Vickers and many of the horror greats didn’t stress me out at all. Many became close friends and enriched our lives in knowing them.
Eventually I thought if we brought out Christopher Lee’s autobio as a U.S. edition, I could get him over here to sign copies of the book. And that’s how Christopher Lee joined the Midnight Marquee roster of authors. Mr. Lee was never interested in signing posters and photos, he was concerned about his legacy and he felt his autobiography cemented that. We spent many hours on the phone with him as we worked on the book. He wanted the book done to his standards and with only photos he had personally selected. We got him to unbend a little to include more horror movie photos. Part of the deal for his convention appearance was that he would only autograph copies of his book. And we promised him that would be the case. Now we take our promises very seriously and explained to our volunteers that they could only get their copy of the book signed. Gary and I even followed this and got nothing signed other than our own copy of the book. Unfortunately, many of our staff and acquaintances took advantage of his good nature and were sneaking other people up to his suite to get memorabilia signed. I didn’t think people would sell out a friendship for an autograph—but that too illustrates the popularity and appeal of Christopher Lee.
We presold hard copies of the book and Mr. Lee signed them Friday, at 5:00 p.m., on the first day of the convention, as well as Saturday and Sunday morning. I stood outside the autograph room and watched middle-aged men walk away holding their book as though it was a most precious treasure. Quite a few had tears in their eyes and thanked us over and over for giving them the opportunity to meet Mr. Lee and shake his hand. And he did shake hands with everyone and allowed a quick photograph. One guest at one of the big conventions was wearing a bandage on her hand and I asked her agent if she had hurt herself. The agent said no, she was fine, she just didn’t want to shake hands with these people who were shelling out money for her signature and more money for a photograph. One of these days we’re going to write the story of FANEX and tell some of the really good stories!
We never had security guards for guests at any of our smaller FANEX conventions. But when you are dealing with a major star and non-fandom fans, well, the nuts fall out of the trees. We actually learned that lesson from a FANGORIA show where Christopher Lee appeared for two hours promoting GREMLINS 2. He did not sign autographs or meet people; he just did a question and answer session. We had traveled with a whole group of people to see him speak. I swear some crazy woman rushed out of the crowd and threw herself at Mr. Lee. He was shocked, as was the rest of the audience. So for Monster Rally we had one of our friends, a pumped-up bouncer, lead the security team (nicknamed “Team Lee”) and I brought my football-playing nephews and their teammates down from Western PA (and they grow them big up there) to join the team. We had to bring Mr. Lee through the back hallways and the kitchens to make sure he stayed safe. And after the FANGO experience, he was leery about appearing the entire weekend. But it wasn’t just Mr. Lee that needed the protection; it was Veronica Carlson, Ingrid Pitt and Yutte Stensgaard, who were actually stalked by some men. We had to get hotel security to throw them out. Mr. Lee was great with the security guys and stood outside his hotel suite telling them stories. He was happy to talk to anyone and those guys are still telling stories about their weekend with Christopher Lee. Our friends Phil Holthaus, who was in charge of security for us, and Leo Dymowski had taken Mr. Lee and his wife sightseeing and to visit an old army friend who lived in D.C. Those stories will be in the FANEX book if we ever get around to it!
The first day of the show, Aug. 6, 1999, we had an opening ceremony at 9:00 p.m. We had a monster-themed rock band play and Count Gore De Vol (former local D.C. horror show host) sang Monster Mash, while independent filmmaker/publisher Ted Bohus stepped in as MC at the last minute. The crowd was getting antsy; they wanted to see the guests introduced. Finally some technical problems were fixed (which almost caused a rebellion among the guests who were stuck waiting in a hot kitchen, giving our guest liaison Barry Murphy stress pains as he begged them on hands and knees not to flee). The lights dimmed and the spotlight hit the stage. It was time to introduce our guests. The ceremony room held about 2,500 chairs and almost every chair was filled. (We heard that many didn’t bother to attend the show because everyone said it couldn’t be done; they didn’t know me very well.)
The names were called and the guests walked across the stage to monstrous applause—1930s stars Carla Laemmle (who was in DRACULA, 1931 and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with Lon Chaney, Sr.), Jane Adams, Elena Verdugo; the heirs of horror legends who were there to accept a Laemmle Award for their fathers: Ron Chaney, Sara Karloff, Val Lewton, Jr. Bela Lugosi, Jr. and Victoria Price; 1940s stars legendary SPFX master Ray Harryhausen and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG’s love interest Terry Moore; 1950s sci-fi stars Anne Francis, Coleen Gray, Ed Kemmer, Rex Reason, Yvette Vickers; the Hammer stars: Veronica Carlson, Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Suzanna Leigh and Peter Cushing’s great friend and secretary Joyce Broughton; Linda Harrison, Forry Ackerman, Michael Ripper and finally … CHRISTOPHER LEE. The audience went wild. I sat there looking at pretty much all the legends of classic horror films, with Christopher Lee out in front; it seemed as though I was attending an event hosted by someone else. I couldn’t believe that Gary and I, with the help of friends and family, had actually pulled this off. That opening ceremony was like a dream and still seems unreal to me.
That night back in 1999 Mr. Lee spoke to the cheering crowd and then pulled Michael Ripper out of line. Ripper was Hammer’s favorite character actor, always onscreen to either help the hero or die a horrible death at the hands of the villain or monster. Mr. Ripper had Alzheimer’s, which we didn’t realize when we scheduled him. Mr. Lee’s love and respect for Mr. Ripper came through as he talked about working “the Rip.” Mr. Ripper looked really happy and I believe he remembered working with Christopher Lee. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The next day was another book signing, panels with MidMar authors and guest talks, as well as 2 or 3 movie rooms. Later that night the Laemmle Awards were presented, intricate statues designed by famed artist Henry Alverez to honor the guests. All the winners were truly touched by the award as well as by the real love and enthusiasm of the fans.
Sunday was the big day, Christopher Lee’s guest speech, hosted by MidMar writers and Hammer specialists Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller. It was an amazing event lasting over 2 hours, amazing as the talk had been scheduled for only an hour. Mr. Lee talked about his family heritage, sang opera, did his famed cartoon impersonations, including his favorite one he used to crack up Peter Cushing, Sylvester the Puddy Cat. He spoke movingly about Peter Cushing and stated that THE LORD OF THE RINGS was his favorite book and hoped that someday it would be made into a film and he could be part of it. Now since the first LOTR movie was released in 2001 and began filming in October 1999, I think Mr. Lee was just teasing the audience with a little inside information. STAR WARS: EPISODE II didn’t begin filming until June of 2000, so we were not sure if that deal was in place or not. After his talk, Mr. Lee stood outside his suite and talked to his security team for another half hour.
Even now, 16 years after Monster Rally, we still get calls from people telling us how much they appreciated meeting Mr. Lee and getting their book signed. Christopher Lee retrospectives will be showing in home theaters across the world this weekend. I think he’ll be looking down and smiling as his many fans remember the last king of horror.