‘Mann’ of a thousand faces

By on January 16, 2019

You could say Kelly Mann celebrates Halloween every day of the year.

In fact, the 59-year old Lititz native has made a career out of it: for years, he’s worked as a makeup, special effects artist, or mask maker for several major Hollywood films.

Artist in the making

“I was first bitten by the ‘monster bug’ at about four or five, when I saw a scene from ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon,’ he explained. “As a teenager, I found out about ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ magazine which I bought at Bell’s Bookstore (once located on Main Street in Lititz), a kind of Teen Beat for monster movie lovers at the time. I soaked up all the knowledge I could from reading and re-reading those.”

Growing up near Brunnerville, the future artist was also a fan of “Doctor Shock” on Saturday afternoon television ­ a horror host that ran classic monster films and did magic and shtick comedy. Further inspiration would come from one of his art teachers.

“Mrs. (Faith) Lange was a great art teacher at Warwick, and encouraged my painting and sculpting by allowing me to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do so long as it was challenging,” he said. “She taught me the fundamentals of sculpting.”

After graduating from Warwick High School in 1977, he would attend York Academy of Art. There, one of his instructors, Othmar Carli, not only allowed him to sculpt a monster mask, but taught him how to make a two-piece plaster mold. Although Mann had been making facial masks previously, that knowledge opened alot of doors. Paid jobs would soon follow ­ the first being a WGAL production of ‘Station to Freedom’ during the late 1970s. The show was a dramatization of how Mennonites in Lancaster helped smuggle runaway slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad before the abolition of slavery.

Kelly Mann doing lab work for the feature film “Dennis the Menace.”

“I did a few makeups on that show,” he recalls. “I did some whipping scars on one actor who played an escaped slave; and I also made a gunshot wound on the shoulder of a protagonist played by actor John Weiss.”

During the spring of 1981, he had the chance to return to Warwick, lending his talents to the school’s production of “Camelot.”

His skills were already well-known throughout the area.

“By then, I’d graduated from York Academy, and I had befriended Dirk Large,” he said. “Dirk came to an audition held by a local theatrical company with whom I’d done some makeup and acting. Although Dirk could appreciate monsters, he was more science fiction centered.” The director of that theatrical group became the guest director at Warwick for the senior play that year. Large and Mann were picked to design sets as well as create armor and special effects for the production.

Hollywood beckons

In 1982, Mann would leave the lush farmland of Lancaster County for greener pastures ­ it would be the words of advice from friend Bill Hager, who told him that he had probably gone as far as he could locally.

“I needed to go to Hollywood,” he recalls. “I had just gotten married and my parents were moving to Arizona.”

The couple was offered a job to travel with their friend Steve Brubaker and his wife performing comedy/variety shows at schools, theme parks, and college campuses. Brubaker’s show “Stephen and Other Dummies” gave Mann a real-life feel for a performer’s often grueling schedule. The lifestyle didn’t sit well with his wife, however, so they separated. After leaving the show, he would temporarily move in with his parents in Casa Grande, Arizona. But after a short time, he finally made the big leap to Los Angeles ­ he had some friends from Pennsylvania who lived near the city, and invited him to stay with them until he got on his feet. He soon found freelance work with several companies building miniatures for film and television. Every so often, he’d also have the opportunity to create makeup.

On the set of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors” in Among other duties for the classic horror movie, Mann would act as the puppeteer for the “Freddy TV head.”

“Out of necessity, I’d become sort of a ‘jack of all trades,’ he recalls. One of his favorite memories was working on the set of A Nightmare on Elm St. 3: The Dream Warriors while employed at Image Engineering. He would help create several pieces of movie magic for the film including the melting tricycle, making child bones and skeletons, and even creating a puppet head for the “Freddy TV.”

There was also a memorable scene involving a roasted pig.

“I reluctantly told them I could make this real roast pig into a puppet by adding some wood and metal hardware to its skull and jaw, and work it through a hole in the tabletop,” he stated. “They said that they wanted to shoot it just after the week-long Christmas break. After we got back, we learned the power had been turned off in the warehouse where we were shooting so the fridge was not kept cold. After what was really more like a week and a half, that pig was ripe!”

Still, he was able to make the best of it, working his creation through 35 takes until the director was satisfied.

Mann later served as shop foreman for Kenny Myers’ CMI makeup studio. There, he had the chance to work with a Hollywood legend.

“We were working on ‘Dennis the Menace,’ he remembered. “In that film, veteran actor Walter Matthau plays Mr. Wilson. For his stunt effects, we needed to make a full head life cast. I had previously made life casts of many actors, but Walter Matthau was (to us) like royalty. We wanted him to be as comfortable as possible. It was common knowledge that Matthau loved Mozart, so the team rushed out that morning to purchase a CD of Mozart’s greatest hits to make the actor feel more at ease. Matthau finally arrived, and the team carefully described to him the process of putting on a bald cap for the job, and how the alginate would cover his entire head. With his nostrils kept open, the final step was to encase the head.

“He was fine with it all, Mann recalls. “Mozart playing softly in the background. We alerted him to let us know if he became claustrophobic or anything.” The alginate slowly began to set. Next, the experts began the plaster bandage process, being very mindful of Matthau’s breathing.

Suddenly, there were grunting sounds which were heard emanating from the white shape encasing Matthau’s head.

“Before we could ask what the problem was, we saw his right hand shoot up before him, and he began conducting!,” Mann recalled. “He wasn’t in any distress. He was enjoying the music. He told us later he’d been a guest conductor for the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra.” During his time in Los Angeles, Mann became friends with several mask enthusiasts. What many of these hobbyists collect are the kind that have great value, many of which were made in 1963 at Don Post Studios. Eventually, a gentleman named Verne Langdon bought out this company, and decided that he wanted to create masks of famous Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman.

“Those original masks influenced me and others through the ad pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine, and can fetch many many hundreds of dollars now,” he said. “Those rubber masks made me want to make monsters.”

A fresh palate

By the turn of the new century, Mann’s type of work had been replaced by computerized special effects. Sadly, many places he’d worked at had closed up shop. His parents then asked him to move to Arizona to be closer to them. He did, but there was no way to make money creating monsters in Phoenix. So he decided to teach himself how to build a website and soon found a new career as “The Mask Doctor,” repairing and preserving collectible movie props and masks. Through this venture, he would become known as the world-renowned mask repair expert. Then in 2002, a collector friend of his introduced him to the person who changed his life all those years ago ­ Verne Langdon. They would become great friends, and began making new masks under their own company entitled Studio Quality Masks.

Mann, a Lititz native, transforming a regular human into “The Grinch.”

“Verne passed away in 2011, but I still work with the family to keep his memory alive. I have learned that there is so much the past masters can tell us,” Mann says. “History is important.”
Since 1986, he’s been involved with designing makeup and effects nearly each year for Lancaster Sertoma Club’s Chicken Barbecue kickoff show. In 1999, he helped develop what is now the state-of-the-art motion picture makeup “Skin Illustrator.” He’s also been associated with The Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, creating and designing the makeup for their production of ‘Shrek The Musical’ in 2014.

He’s also involved in an ongoing project of his own: an online makeup history course.

Looking back on his forty-plus year career, Kelly Mann takes nothing for granted.

“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “Fortunate that I have had so many really good friends, and still do. I’m fortunate that my parents nurtured my artistic abilities, tolerated my monster hobby and made me get an art education. My life didn’t go exactly as I’d planned it all those years ago, but I wouldn’t change it if I could.”

“My journey has taught me that if you set a plan and work at it and take adversity as opportunity, all things can work out.”

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423. 

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