The Strange
 The Strange

The Legend of Dwight Frye

When I was a teenager in the late 70's,  I used to listen to an Alice Cooper song entitled "The Ballad of Dwight Fry".  Alice, having spelled the name wrong, had written and recorded a song about the horror actor, Dwight Frye, who is best known for playing the part of Renfield in the 1931 Universal production of Dracula.  In the song, Dwight Frye goes insane and is committed to a sanitarium for at least 14 days.  "I was there for 14 days but I was not all alone. I made friends with a lot of people in the danger zone."  (Alice Cooper)

I was surprised to find out that there is precious little information about Dwight Frye on the internet but in my search I found the only authority on Dwight Frye in the western half of the United States, a person known as Sister Grimm, and I drilled her for as much information as I could get.

The first thing I wanted to know about Dwight Frye was if he actually did go insane.  Below
(in green) is an excerpt from the email she sent me: 

"The actual song title is "Ballad of Dwight
Fry", not "Frye."  I would guess that Vince (Alice Cooper) might have used that spelling as
a hedge against a possible lawsuit, not realizing that Dwight Frye died in
1944, and his son, Dwight D. Frye (currently residing in NY) has always said
of the song that he "couldn't make out the words."
  At any rate, Dwight worked frequently in films, on Broadway, and in
regional tours of plays until his death, and although his parts may not have
been large, publicized, or even credited in many instances, I don't see any
gaps in his career that would lend themselves to any extended periods of
institutionalization.  Also, as an ardent Christian Scientist, he would not
have participated in a voluntary commitment, and no legal records exist that
suggest involuntary commitment.
        I've always felt that Vince (Alice Cooper) was very taken by Dwight's portrayal of
Renfield in DRACULA - it was an extraordinary, high-energy portrayal -- and
named the song in homage to the creator of the character.  The only anecdote
I recall seeing in relation to the recording of the song was the story that,
in the studio, Vince (Alice Cooper) had a pile of folding chairs stacked on top of him, to
provide him with restraint comparable to that of a strait jacket to struggle
against for the spoken "Let me out of here" passages."

It sounds strange but I was a little disappointed that Dwight Frye did not go insane.  I still wanted to do an article on the actor, so I questioned Sister Grimm further to find out if there was anything particularly strange about him or his career.  Below is an excerpt from the second email she sent:

"There was, to my knowledge, only one thing that set him apart from the rest
of his contemporaries and hindered him from achieving greater fame in his
lifetime:  he was one of the first "Method" actors, decades before
Stanislavsky first described his "method" of creating characters on stage.
"Technical" acting, which existed before the method was devised meant that
actors "demonstrated" their character's emotions.  There was a whole
repertory of gestures that audiences could interpret as emotions: clutching
your breast to denote shock, holding the back of your hand against your
forehead showed dismay, etc.  It was like "show and tell."  In Method, you
draw from your own emotions.  Not everyone hollers when they are angry --
some people become very quiet, and it is only when you listen closely to
what they say that you discover their anger.  So instead of an audience
being told "he's angry,"  they learn it themselves.  Dwight did a play
called "A Man's Man."  It was tremendously successful on Broadway, and he
toured in several revivals of it in regional theaters (in fact, it was this
play that exposed him to Tod Browning, who later cast him in DRACULA).  In
one scene, his character fights another character off-stage, and is badly
beaten, though he doesn't admit his defeat when he returns to his wife on
stage.  A technical actor would have stood in the wings and changed into a
dirt-dusted jacket and mussed his hair.  Dwight actually had a small sandbox
off stage, and he flung himself into it to get into the proper spirit of the
struggle.  The cast thought him quite odd, and the stage crew considered him
a complete fool, giving him a very hard time because of it.  I think that's
what hindered Dwight Frye's career:  no matter how small the parts were,
he'd get into character when he was on the set -- if his character was a
flighty lunatic like Renfield or a twisted hunchback like Fritz, or a
half-wit like Hermann in VAMPIRE BAT, then obviously the other actors
weren't fond of hanging out with him.  Nowadays, you always hear of actors
on film sets who "stay in character" between scenes, but in those days, no
one had heard of it, and everyone thought it bizarre.  On Broadway in the
1920's, Dwight was considered one of the top ten actors in NY by the Times'
drama critics.  In Hollywood, his career dwindled away until he was
appearing unaccredited in films starring the same actors who were extras in
Broadway shows he starred in.
        Anyway, that's the only strangeness I can think of about Dwight
Frye.  That, and the fact that he played radio operators in 4 different films." 

There are a very few people who are currently perpetuating the career of Dwight Frye.  One of them is Sister Grimm.  Another is Dwight Frye Jr.  Who lives in NY and occasionally appears on radio shows and at horror film festivals.

I have offered to help Sister Grimm build an entire web site devoted to Dwight Frye.  So with any luck, you'll be able to come back to this page and click on a link that will take you to a place where you can learn all you wanted to know about  Dwight Frye and his career.  So please bookmark this page and come back soon!  But for now, Sister grim is available to answer any questions you might have regarding Dwight Frye.   UPDATE:  I have not heard from Sister Grimm in over 25 years.  I suspect that she is still alive because she wasn't much older than me at the time that I penned this article.  (1996)  Her website: vanished at least 25 years ago.  I did go on to help build the original Dwight Frye website along with one of his surviving descendants but it too, vanished many years ago.  However, I have found a really good section of dedicated to Dwight Frye here.

By John McMahon,

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