TAMPA — Teacher Rex Gordon can rattle off the names of many notable Hillsborough High School alumni, like race car legend Don Garlits, Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Baldomero Lopez and baseball star Dwight Gooden.
The star shining brightest now, though, is an alumnus whose fame has narrowed through the years to the field he worked in — a B-movie horror star from the 1930s and 1940s named Rondo Hatton.
Just in time for Halloween, the school has set up a memorial to Hatton in a trophy case across from the main office. It takes up an entire shelf, with photos of the actor and a brief biography arranged around the Rondo Hatton Award — a small bust of Hatton presented annually in Louisville to the best in horror cinema, literature and journalism.
"He was a big deal but he doesn’t get the attention he deserves," said Gordon, head of the Hillsborough High alumni association and a 1984 graduate. "Before there was Jason or Freddy, there was The Creeper."
The Creeper was Hatton’s signature role, a vicious, mute villain he portrayed in three of his 25 horror films — Brute Man, House of Horrors and Pearl of Death.
"His character was usually the same," Gordon said with a laugh. "He was quiet and strangled good-looking women."
Still, for Gordon, Hatton was a star mainly for the courage he showed in real life.
Voted Most Handsome Boy in his senior class, inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for his feats on the football field, Hatton went off to serve the nation during World War I — then fell victim to a disfiguring disease.
Acromegaly disease is a hormonal disorder that develops when the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone. It affects bones in the hands, feet and face, and caused Hatton’s nose, brow and chin to grow too large for his face.
"He is a role model," Gordon said. "He was dealt a setback and turned it into a positive."
The disease that stole Hatton’s movie-star good looks turned him into a movie star.
In 1930, as a reporter for the Tampa Times newspaper, Hatton was assigned to cover local filming of the movie Hell Harbor.
The director was taken with Hatton’s unique appearance, cast him in a small role and persuaded him to move to Hollywood.
"That disfigurement made him a star," said Andy Lalino, a Tampa filmmaker and B-movie historian. "People recognized him because he didn’t wear makeup. He looked the same in life as on the streets."
Most of Hatton’s movies were major studio productions, but low budget even for those times, Lalino said.
At the height of his career, Hatton died of a heart attack. He was 51,
Still, his likeness remained in the public consciousness. One example: He was the inspiration behind villain Lothar in the Rocketeer comics and film.
Hatton was an easy choice as namesake of the horror genre awards established in 2002 by David Colton, retired executive editor of USA Today.
"In an obscure genre, he is obscure but has always been a presence," said Colton, who lives in Virginia.
The Rondo Hatton Award was designed by Kerry Gammill, a comic artist and designer for titles such as Superman and X-Men. It is a handmade, miniature replica of a bust of the Creeper as he appeared in House of Horrors, a film about a sculptor who has the character hunt down and murder his critics.
Around 30 awards are presented each year.
When teacher Gordon reached out earlier this the year for an award to display at Hillsborough High, Colton readily agreed. "It should have been done years ago," Colton said.
The new Hatton display, installed Oct. 20, is getting plenty of attention.
"The first day it was there, the kids were all looking at it," Gordon said. "Later in class, I had students telling me all about him."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.