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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Carla Laemmle, 104; actress with silent screen debut

NEW YORK — Carla Laemmle, a dancer and actress whose screen career began in the silent era and ended with newfound celebrity in the Internet age, died June 12 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 104. Her grandniece Rosemary Laemmle Hilb confirmed the death.

A niece of Carl Laemmle, a founder of Universal Studios, Ms. Laemmle had a modest resume of bit parts in films of the 1920s and ’30s.

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Those roles, according to the Internet Movie Database, included auction spectator, coach passenger, and oyster shell. And though it was an oyster shell of spectacular proportions, her credits were not the stuff of which careers are made.

But what made Ms. Laemmle a fan favorite at autograph shows and horror-film conventions in recent years was her durable, genial existence, which encapsulated nearly a century of Hollywood history.

Reared on the Universal Studios lot, she had a charmed cinematic girlhood, with the studio sets her playground and animals from Universal’s in-house zoo her de facto pets.

A wide-eyed beauty, she made her first screen appearance in “The Phantom of the Opera,” the 1925 Lon Chaney silent. After the coming of sound, she uttered the opening line of the 1931 “Dracula.”

Her last screen appearance of the period came in 1939 with “On Your Toes.” But fittingly for one who got her start in horror films, Ms. Laemmle’s career, after a six-decade hiatus, rose from the dead at the dawn of the 21st century, with credits including the Web series “Broken Dreams Blvd.”

The daughter of Joseph Laemmle and the former Carrie Belle Norton, Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle was born in Chicago. When she was 11, the family moved to California for Joseph’s health at the invitation of his brother Carl.

Carl Laemmle, an immigrant from Germany, had become a successful operator of nickelodeons in early 20th-century America. In 1912, he helped found Universal Motion Picture Manufacturing Co., a progenitor of Universal Studios.

Three years later, in the countryside near Hollywood, Laemmle opened Universal City Studios, a self-contained metropolis with its own police and fire departments, hospital, sound stages, and zoo. Joseph and his family were installed in a bungalow on the grounds.

Every morning, as Ms. Laemmle recalled, she was awakened by the roaring of the zoo’s lion. Stepping outside, she might encounter its resident camel, whom she named Houdini for his frequent jailbreaks, breakfasting on the lawn.

“I would go out with a little bowl of oatmeal, and he would follow me very dutifully,” she told Los Angeles magazine in 2011. “And then I would go phone the back lot and say I had Houdini and would you please come pick him up?”

Carl Laemmle was renowned for providing work to of relatives. (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/has a very large faemmle,” Ogden Nash once said.) Ms. Laemmle was no exception.

When she was a teenager, her ballet training landed her the small role of the prima ballerina on the stage of the Paris Opera House in “Phantom.” Disliking the name Rebekah, she adopted Carla, in her uncle’s honor.

In “Broken Dreams Blvd,” which stars Danny Aiello, she played the operator of a Hollywood tour company.

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