Charles Curtis – Creating Masks For Movies and Collectors
As I meet with people, I continue to hear the same message over and over. To expand personally, we must seek challenges and bring novelty into our lives. Making an effort to learn and do new things enriches our world and creates excitement. Always willing to explore new territory, Charles Curtis stumbled upon an engaging and lucrative career because he gave something different a try.
About 50 years ago, Charles’ kids began planning their Halloween costumes. His little girl dreamed of dressing like a beautiful princess, and the four boys had their hearts set on scary monster and superhero outfits. Because he continually says yes to new things, the commercial artist went to work in his garage and produced masks for his children to wear. Admiring those masks on the little trick or treaters who came calling, a neighbor gave the children candy and his business card. “Please ask your dad to call me,” he said.
Charles was happily employed at the time and not particularly interested in supplying masks to the gentleman’s costume shop. With his combination of God-given artistic talent and Air Force service experience, he was busy collaborating with the government on secret military designs. “I wasn’t good in algebra or geometry, but I could always visualize,” he explains. Phd engineers, working for government think tanks, met with Charles and described the new bomber or tank they wanted to build. “My job was to listen to their ideas about the military equipment and then turn it into a conceptual drawing,” he remembers.
As we sip wine in his studio, this well-read, amazingly fit, and politely opinionated 86-year-old tells me his curiosity finally got the best of him. Eventually, he set up a workshop in his garage – still as a hobby – and sold the masks he made to the costume shop. A short time later, Charles began to worry when an acquaintance arranged a meeting with a Universal Studios executive. In his talkative, storytelling manner, he tells me, “I had made masks for 3 months in my garage. I was seriously afraid Universal would laugh at me.” They certainly did not laugh. By the next Halloween, Charles was running a 200-employee factory and supplying masks to Universal Studios films.
Charles reaches for a stack of yellowed catalogs, most printed in the early seventies. As I look through the hundreds of photos of lifelike masks, I marvel at the hair, the wrinkles, every tiny and meticulous detail. Charles explains painting the masks and applying the hair is the hardest part of the craft. Bongo the Gorilla, the Pink Panther, Werewolves, Jimmy Carter, Frankenstein – they all look so eerily real. Charles reminds me he “wants them to look real!”
“The greatest compliment in the world is to be paid for the art you create.”
A contract with Disney World followed, and his company, The Savage Eye, was soon making masks for all of the souvenir shops at the theme park. His masks made regular appearances – and sometimes still do – in tv shows, commercials, and lots of advertisements. Has he seen all 30-40 movies his masks are in? No, he replies offhandedly, but he’s able to instantly recognize his masks when he does see them.
He sold his company many years ago but still has plenty of projects to keep him busy. His studio is full of commissioned watercolor portraits, an incredible pencil drawing of a mountain man, bronze sculpted mirrors, and pieces belonging to his art students. I admire a large painting of a Siberian tiger in the snow. My host, wearing snakeskin cowboy boots, admits he created the original painting for National Geographic decades ago.
Unfortunately, his studio only contains a handful of the thousands of masks Charles has made over the years. Nowadays, Charles’ masks are collector’s items, and they fly out the door as quickly as he can make them. Although Charles is full of stories, I have to coax him to tell me all he’s done. When I ask him what is underneath a sheet in the corner, he tells me it’s a mask he’s working on. “The clay is damp, thus the sheet,” he explains. When I prod him further, he lifts the sheet and reveals the mask for the upcoming remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon.
As we quietly chat, we land on the topic of continually learning and trying new things. We agree that some of our best experiences come about by accident when we stop worrying about making mistakes. Charles describes growing up poor in the Great Depression and how it shaped him. He recalls living in tents and packing crates outside Washington DC. Because “no one really kept an eye on him,” he was free to wander the area and roam the nearby woods. Charles believes he “learned to not be afraid and developed a relentless urge to try new things.”
He looks back on the “cool” parties he attended with writers, actors, and producers in grand Hollywood homes. Without hesitating, he says Raymond Massey, an Academy Award nominee in 1940, is his favorite person he ever got to meet. “I just loved that actor,” he remembers. He chuckles as he tells me the story of making puppets – which he’d never done before – to promote a film by then Mayor of NYC John Lindsay’s daughter. As a thank you gift for a job well done, the project promoters invited Charles and his wife to dinner. Charles wondered “if the food was any good” in the very empty restaurant. Then he realized the entire restaurant was rented out to thank him.
I feel lucky I crossed paths with Charles during his short time in Nashville. He heads back to California soon to help his daughter get a new mask business up and running. And to teach his grandchildren about life and “do grandfather things with them.” The National Geographic tiger I admired? Well, before our visit, Charles looked over my blog – as soon as he researched what a blog was! – and read I liked animals. When we said our goodbyes, Charles smiled and handed me a smaller, framed print of the same beautiful Siberian tiger. The special art will be my reminder to say “yes” to new things.