When Dracula Did Jersey…

I was contacted last week by Lisa Rose, a feature writer for the Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey. She was working on a feature about Bela Lugosi’s summer stock New Jersey tour stops in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her article, reproduced in full below, featuring quotes from Frank Dello Stritto, Bela Lugosi Jr., and Arthur Lennig, was published in The Star-Ledger on Friday, October 14, 2011. You can view the original article at: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2011/10/when_dracula_did_jersey.html

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The Star-Ledger, October 14, 2011

When Dracula Did Jersey…

By Lisa Rose

lugosi1.JPG

Bela Lugosi, who won fame in “Dracula” (1931), performed in New Jersey, with shows in Trenton (above) and Newark (below).

Eyeing necks and stretching syllables, Bela Lugosi established himself as a Hollywood horror giant in 1931 with “Dracula.”

The Hungarian actor reveled in the dark romance of the role, delivering a portrayal that continues to influence depictions of lonely immortals, from “Twilight” to “True Blood.”

Lugosi’s monster movies are legend, but lesser known are his travels as a live performer. The star lurked around New Jersey stages during his pre-vampire days and toured the local summer stock circuit after fangs went out of fashion post-WWII.

Between Tinseltown and Transylvania, the Garden State is spattered with Lugosi landmarks.

The classically trained actor joined a Hungarian drama troupe in Newark after immigrating to the United States in 1920. His English-language stage debut was in Atlantic City at the now-closed Apollo Theatre. Lugosi led the cast as a conquistador named Fernando during a test run for a 1922 off-Broadway play, “The Red Poppy.”

When the drama moved to a downtown Manhattan theater, the New York Times noted: “Bela Lugosi is a newcomer of quite splendid mien, romantically handsome and young. Hungarian though he is said to be, he looks every inch the Spanish pirate of romance.”

Later in his career, he returned to the Jersey footlights in traveling productions of the black comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace.” On stages in Trenton, Newark and Landing, he vamped in a role that poked fun at his own murderous movie persona. (Boris Karloff created the character on Broadway).

Film historian Frank Dello Stritto says Jersey audiences of the era saw a different side of the actor, a man who knew little of vampires before first embracing the cape on Broadway in October 1927.

“He would bring nuances into roles that movies couldn’t capture,” says Stritto, co-author of “Vampire over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain.” “There was no time to get a great performance out of him in some of the cheaper movies he made. People like me write about his films as great events, but they would be just a week out of his life sometimes.”

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Writer and film professor Arthur Lennig saw Lugosi onstage in “Arsenic” and in a revival of “Dracula.”

“I fell in love,” says Lennig, author of “The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi.”

Lennig continues, “I’m a heterosexual, but I fell in love. He was aristocratic, aloof, mysterious. He was seemingly more intelligent than other people. He had all those arrogant qualities that are so ingrained in me. He just had that image of a bad guy. If he worked at the local candy store, he would look like he was handing out poisoned chocolates.”

Lugosi’s son, Bela Jr., vividly remembers visiting Lake Hopatcong during an “Arsenic” tour in July 1949. Father and son bonded while boating, sinking paddles into the blue on a perfect summer day.

“It was my first experience canoeing,” says Bela Jr., 73, a lawyer in Los Angeles, who is working on a book with Lugosi scholar Gary D. Rhodes. “I was upsetting my father a bit because I kept rocking the canoe and he thought we were going to tip over.”

The actor’s last Garden State jaunt was considerably less idyllic as his health declined and his marriage fell apart. Film gigs were scarce during the tail end of the Truman years, when aliens and robots eclipsed vampires and zombies on the big screen.

“The industry died in terms of old-time horror films,” says Lennig. “They were making films about giant ants or giant rabbits, atomic bombs. The mad scientist working in his basement, that was gone. It was over. The conventional horror films, even the bad ones, they weren’t making.”

Six years before Lugosi died at age 73, he struggled to win over a new generation of cynics with an ill-fated revue. The “Big Horror & Magic Show” premiered on Dec. 26, 1950, at the RKO Capitol Theatre in Trenton and closed abruptly at the Stanley Theater in Camden on March 15, 1951.

The Gothic spectacle promised chills with 13 vignettes featuring a “carload of scenery.” Advertisements screamed “See vampire maidens and voodoo magic! See the bat man and the monster in death struggle! See a beautiful girl burned alive! See ghosts, goblins and imps of darkness fly through the air!”

Lugosi initially got a hero’s welcome in Trenton. The mayor handed him the key to the city. The actor was a special guest at a Christmas celebration hosted by the Trenton Evening Times, which printed a photo of him in a Santa suit surrounded by paperboys.

For all its promise of eeriness, the “Horror & Magic” presentation was built around a sketch co-starring Lugosi and an actor in a gorilla costume.

“The audience was wise-assed teenagers who wanted to see whether they’d get scared or not,” says Lennig. “A lot of the people who showed up didn’t even know who he was. The teenagers weren’t scared, so they started hooting. Bela wasn’t a quick responder who could play with it. He’d pause until the audience settled down. When the catcalls stopped, he went on with it until there were more catcalls and he’d stop again. It was humiliating.”

 STAR-LEDGER FILE PHOTO
Bela Lugosi Jr., son of the actor that created ‘Dracula’ on the silver screen, displays a picture of his famous dad in his Glendale, Calif., office Thursday, Sept. 25, 1997.

New medium

A preview story for the “Horror & Magic Show” included a Lugosi quote. He declared that the introduction of television was creating new challenges for performers who specialized in ghoulish characters.

“When you walk right into a person’s living room through the medium of his television screen, you have to use the subtle approach,” Lugosi said. “The old-fashioned horror actor would evoke nothing but gales of laughter.”

The tour lurched from Trenton to Paterson to Newark before its final night in Camden, where the crowd was particularly hostile. Lugosi never performed on the East Coast again. He left for England, trying to make a comeback at age 68, dusting off his coffin and cape to revive his signature role on the British stage. The goal was for “Dracula” to play the West End in London, but the road show sputtered in provincial venues.

“For a man his age, touring was tough,” says Stritto. “And this was postwar England. The train system was just starting to get back in shape. The trip really drained him. He wasn’t able to work onstage like that again. He went straight back to the West Coast, and that’s where he spent his remaining five years.”

Back in Hollywood, Lugosi got work from an ambitious fan, Ed Wood, who recruited the aging star to play a doctor in the sex-change tale, “Glen or Glenda.” They teamed up again for a no-budget thriller, “Bride of the Monster.” Footage of Lugosi turned up in the sci-fi flop, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” released three years after he died of a heart attack in 1956.

The making of the misguided films was chronicled in the 1994 biopic “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp as the title character and an Oscar-winning Martin Landau as Lugosi.

Bela Jr. feels his father was inaccurately portrayed in the movie.

“He wasn’t alone,” says Bela. “There were a lot of things in the ‘Ed Wood’ that are not true, and that’s just one of them.”

Lennig says the film inaccurately depicts Lugosi’s sentences with expletives. In real life, the actor did not swear, according to multiple historians.

Still, the picture moved Lennig to tears.

“I wasn’t crying, I was sobbing,” says Lennig. “Bela was very serious about acting, but he had that accent and he was so identifiable as Dracula. To be narrowed down to just being a spooky man is limiting. Somebody said to him, ‘In all of your movies, you’re always dying.’ He said, ‘Well, dying is a living.’ ”

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