By: Dr. Elizabeth Gritter, Assistant Professor of History, IU Southeast
One of the most interesting tidbits of information that I uncovered when doing oral histories last year for the Bicentennial Oral History Project was that Vincent Price, the actor most known for his portrayal of villains in horror films, had spoken at IU Southeast. David Rainbolt, the longtime technology coordinator of IUS’s Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence informed me of his visit during my oral history of him although he did not know details.
Being a lover of classic films since I was a child, I naturally was interested in finding out more about his visit. I was delighted to discover later in the IU Southeast archives a folder on Price’s visit when doing research into what the first buildings were on the New Albany campus. I also uncovered a little bit of information on his visit from the IU Bloomington archives.
Price spoke for seventy-five minutes on the history of villainy to a record crowd in the Hoosier Room of IU Southeast on Sunday, September 27, 1981, at 7:30 p.m. as part of events celebrating IU Southeast’s fortieth anniversary. His speech was free and open to the public, and he was the featured guest of the celebrations.
Earlier in the day, he had made an appearance at the ninth annual IUS Student Foundation Regatta, a series of paddleboat races with all proceeds going to the Student Foundation Scholarship Fund. Price received a gift from the foundation and watched several paddleboat races; the event raised $1,000.
At the time of his two-day visit to IU Southeast, Price was seventy-years old and had appeared in more than one hundred films beginning in 1938. With degrees from Yale, the University of London, and the California College of Arts and Crafts, he also was a noted art collector, gourmet, author, and college and university lecturer, and had done significant work in television and theater including early in his career for Orson Welles’s famed Mercury Theatre and performances on Broadway.
By the time he appeared at IU Southeast, he had made about twenty college appearances that year; in fact, for the past twenty-five years he had spoken at colleges nationwide.
Of his 105 films by the time of his visit, Price had played villains in only thirty of them. In fact, a performance I personally like of Price is his portrayal of a non-villain in the film noir classic Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Yet, Price was most known for being a villain in horror films and he capitalized on that in his speech.
Nearly 800 people crowded into the 600-plus seat Hoosier Room to hear Price while about 400 others watched on television monitors scattered throughout the University Center. Never before had so many people heard a speaker at IU Southeast. His talk was titled “The Villains Still Pursue Me: The History of Villainy.”
“I am a famous man,” Price told the standing-room-only crowd. “It doesn’t matter what for. All of us in acting have an image. It is this image that gives an actor his fame. It’s the fame that gets you your next job.” He said he had had fun playing villains and had to balance comedy and horror. “It’s good if we can make you scream then giggle. But, God help us if we make you giggle than scream,” he said. In his animated talk, he spoke about his nearly fifty-year long career and he was frequently interrupted with applause.
By interspersing readings from various plays and poems throughout his talk, Price illustrated villains in the theater in many forms, and he told anecdotes about his movie career. The Louisville Times reported, “He quoted Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, and several times he delighted the audience with the diabolical laugh that added terror to many of the horror movies he starred in.” He also gave insight into villains. He said that they were usually motivated by one thing, revenge: “Vengeance is the word—getting even. Villains are fascinating people.” Before his speech, he told a reporter that most of the villains he played were not really villains: “He was somebody who was put upon.”
During his speech, he said he especially enjoyed playing vengeful villains with one of his favorite parts being the murderous husband in a play called “Angel Street,” which later was made into the famed and very good movie Gaslight (1944) starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Another favorite part of his was in the movie Theatre of Blood (1973), where he played an actor who murdered critics who wrote bad reviews about him. “It was a part very close to an actor’s heart,” Price said.
In addition, Price gave insight into acting in saying, “Acting is kind of a two-way make-believe. The actor has to know about his character to believe in him. If I can believe in him, I can make you believe in him.” Price also revealed: “I’m not really a villain. I’m sort of a pussycat.” He said the favorite leading lady that he had worked with was Ava Gardner, commenting, “She’s the sexiest.” After the speech, Price shook hands with anybody who wanted to, and the Louisville Times reported that the audience comments were all good.
The day after his speech, Price spoke to art and drama classes at IUS, where he entertained questions from students and spoke to about 400 faculty members and students. He also spoke to speech majors. He discussed art, recent movies, cooking, media, and communication, and he urged his listeners to visit museums of the Midwest because these instituations bring together some of the greatest art in the country; Louisville’s J. B. Speed Museum was on his list.
He especially liked the current box office hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. When pressed for his own “recipe for life,” he summed it up “with one word, curiosity. I’m infinitely curious about what my fellow man has achieved and is achieving.” He praised the late Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as masters of communication and said that President Ronald Reagan excels before the television camera: “He really marries it, he knows it and he uses it.”
After his visit to IU Southeast, Price continued to appear in films and on television, and he provided his voice for animation and narration of films as well. He also provided the spoken word narration for Michael Jackson’s famous song and album Thriller (1983). His last appearance on film was in Edward Scissorhands (1990). A lifelong smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1993 at age 82.
IU Southeast was clearly graced by the visit of Vincent Price to campus. A fascinating man, he revealed that he was more than just an actor playing villains. He had a long and prolific career in show business and was well versed in a number of topics including art and cooking.
He clearly lived life to the fullest and was willing to impart his wisdom to others. His visit must have been unforgettable for those students and faculty members who crossed paths with him.