The Day I Met Bela Lugosi by Derek R. Pickering.
Derek’s signed photograph
It was sometime in the afternoon of Friday the 14th of September , 1951, possibly 2 or 3 o’clock, when I first saw the poster for Dracula on an advertising board. The venue was the Hippodrome Theatre in Derby. The Hippodrome was formerly a cinema which was converted to a stage theatre and later, regrettably, a bingo hall. Having seen the play advertised, I was rather thrilled about it because I had seen a couple of Bela Lugosi’s earlier films.
Although I was underage to see a film with an ‘H’ certification, my aunty’s ex-boyfriend happened to be the manager of a cinema in Derby, now long-demolished. All I had to do if I wanted to see a film was to have a word with him and he would let me in. I saw three of Bela Lugosi’s films, and I was rather taken with the technique of the actor and the characters he played. Even at that young age I had a keenness for the arts.
It would have been during the first performance of the night, commencing at 6.10pm, on Wednesday the 19th of September that I decided to go to the theatre and, hopefully, obtain the autograph of Bela Lugosi. It took a little bit of courage, being of such a young age I did not know what to expect. I was very apprehensive. I knew that I would either be rejected at the stage door or the book would be taken from my hand, taken to him to be signed and then returned. Alternatively, I might catch a glimpse of him, as I had done with other celebrities from time to time, and hopefully attract his attention and ask for his autograph.
As it happened, my arrival coincided with the end of one act of the three act play. I suspect it would have been soon after act two. I knocked at the stage door rather loudly. Realising that more than the stage door attendant might have heard my loud knocking, I then started to knock more gently. Eventually, the door was opened by a rather tall lady. I was rather diminutive at the time – I was only about four feet tall. She was quite tall and slim, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s. Her hair was of the fashion we now call afro,. Very, very curly! I was rather taken aback by her. She seemed a very daunting figure. I don’t know who she was. She said, “Yes?”
“I’m very sorry to trouble you,” I said in my usual very polite way, “but is it possible you would kindly ask Mr. Lugosi if he would give me his autograph?” I held out my autograph book.
There was a moment’s silence when I thought, “I’m going to be told to clear off.” A big smile spread across her face and she said, “Yes! Would you like to step inside?”
I went up three steps and stood with my back to the wall by the door as she closed it.
“If you would like to wait here, you must be very quiet. I will have a word with Mr. Lugosi and ask if he will sign your autograph book,” she said before going off.
Needless to say, I became extremely nervous. Not because here was one of the greatest of all creatures ever written about, a vampire called Dracula, but because I was rather in awe of this personality I had only seen on film. As I waited, I could hear noise in the background – “oohs” and “ahs” and the occasional applause. Then, to one side of me where I could see the curtains in the wings of the stage, a tall young man stepped into the shadows and started swinging his arms around his shoulders. His face was a livid colour, yet had a pale pallor. His lips were thin and very red, he had curly hair. I wondered what he was doing, then all of a sudden he put his hands around his mouth and let out a horrifying, loud howl. I thought, “I’m getting out of here. This is more than the nerves can bear.” After this, he looked at me and smiled. Possibly, he thought I was frightened. I suppose I was in a way. I was, after all, only about 141/2. He went off. I don’t know which direction he too, he just seemed to melt into the dark corners of this section of the theatre and disappeared. Obviously, I should imagine, to his dressing-room.
I waited and waited. I could hear the noises on and off stage. I thought, “What a strange thing!” Then it dawned on me that that was the character I had seen in the film of Renfield, and the actor, I refer to the programme, was Eric Lindsay
Suddenly, from around the edge of the curtain in the wings of the stage, a very tall, dark person walked towards me. The hair was tightly swept back, almost as if it was greased, the face looked pale and haggard, the lips were red, the eyes looked tired. The figure was wearing an evening suit with a bow tie, and was covered up to and over the shoulders by a long black cape. I saw the long black cloak was lined with what looked appeared to be red satin.
Hat was very striking was this figure walked so tall – no sign of any roundness of the shoulders could be seen. The figure walked past me. By this time I was a little nervous because Bela Lugosi looked very stern. “I’m not going to get his autograph,” I thought. I did not know whether to turn around, open the door and run. It is not very often that one comes across such a well-known and well-followed film star.
A ticket stub from Dracula’s run in Derby
I waited for a few more minutes. The lady approached from the direction of the wings of the stage and informed me that she would now go and have a word with Mr. Lugosi and return with his answer. She went up some steps and through a door to my left. As she went through, I could see the light within was rather bright. As she came back out of the room, which was Mr. Lugosi’s dressing-room, I caught a glimpse of him, sitting. “Mr. Lugosi would like to see you now,” she told me. So, gathering up all my bravado and my courage, I walked with her up the steps to the door.
The room was well-lit and although it was rather narrow as you walked in, it was rather longish. I cannot remember what size it might have been, but it was not over big. The great man sat on his chair, facing his dressing-table. On the table were a lot of grease-paint sticks, a pot of what appeared to be cold cream and a pot of white powder. There was not room between the dressing-table and the door, it was rather near the door, so I walked to the other side and turned to face him. He looked up at me and gave me the widest, nicest smile I have ever seen. Believe it or not, I didn’t see any teeth, let alone fangs. He gave me a smile of his lips without opening his mouth. When he did that I relaxed.
I said, and I remember very clearly, “Oh, Mr. Lugosi, thank you for seeing me. I was rather nervous waiting for you. I didn’t know whether you would agree to see me or not. I have seen some of your films and I thought maybe you would be kind enough to give me your autograph.”
“Hello, very nice to see you. What is your name?” He spoke smoothly, quietly and calmly at my sudden outburst of excitement. His accent, which was not unlike the accent of his character, was quieter and not so pronounced.
When I told him my name, he said, “Pull up that chair, Derek, and sit and we will have a talk. I have a little time to spare before I go back to the show.”
So I pulled up a smallish upright wooden chair and sat about two feet away from him.
“How old are you?” he asked me. I told him that I was 14, coming on 15.
“Do you go to work or are you still at school?”
I am still at school,” I replied. “I leave next year after I am 15.”
He then asked me about the school I attended and the subjects I was studying. I told him that I had an interest in photography.
“What do you intend to do for a living when you leave school?” I told him that I was interested in learning to play the piano. I wanted to take it further, but Mum and Dad could not afford to continue to pay for lessons. My mother, whom played very well, taught me as best she could. She knew someone who worked in a music shop in Derby which sold pianos. They told me that I could get a job there with them learning how to clean and repair pianos.
“That sounds like a very interesting job,” he commented. “I wish you every success for that. Are you interested in movies?”
Centre pages of the Derby programme
I told Mr. Lugosi that I had seen three of his films and I had been very impressed by his character, it was so domineering. I then asked him if it took him long to put on his make-up.
“No, not really,” he replied. “After a few years in the business one doesn’t need a make-up artist. One can do it one’s self. It’s just grease-paint.”
He seemed to be more interested in myself. It took some time to get around to talking to him about his films. He told me that he did not have much time because he had to go on stage again soon. I very quickly got round to the subject of films in which he had appeared. I told him that I was very interested in special effects and he explained to me how the transformation from bat to man was achieved – a combination of models, animation and live action. I also mentioned that I was interested in Boris Karloff and that they had both played the Frankenstein monster. Basically, our conversation was about film making.
He was certainly very intent upon his conversation with me. I respected that and I know that he would have liked to have talked to me a lot more, but he did tend to ask about myself. We chatted casually for a brief period of time, but I can’t remember what was said. He did ask me if I had seen the show. I told him that I hadn’t as I only got two shillings a week pocket money. He did not comment, he just turned and pressed a bell button on one side of his dressing-table. The lady who had let me in came into the room. He quietly spoke to her and then she left. He turned to me and we chatted informally for a little while until she returned. She handed him something which he looked at. He turned to me. Held it out and said, “Here is a ticket to enable you to get in to see the show.”
I was dumb-struck. I couldn’t believe it. He then asked me if I would like him to sign my autograph book. I handed it over and he signed it.
“While I’m doing this, I might as well give you my picture.” He reached for a photograph, signed it and handed it to me.
“I’m shortly due on stage, so I will have to say good night to you now and prepare for my next entrance,” he told me. We shook hands and I went through the door, my heart pounding. The lady was by the stage door. She opened it and said, “Good night!” I went off into the night.
The ticket had “COMPLIMENT” rubber-stamped across it in red. I went to see the show and when I took my place in the auditorium I found I was in the middle of a number of people who were the notables of the town of Derby, including the Mayor. Well, I sat there and looked at the programme. Suddenly there was some music, I have an idea that it was recorded music, and the curtain opened. I sat entranced throughout that show.
When the show was over I left my seat and walked out with the rest of the audience and went into the night. “I must remember my manners and thank Mr. Lugosi,” I thought as I came down the steps. I shot around the corner, went to the stage door and knocked on it. A gentleman opened the door to me. I explained that Mr. Lugosi had given me a ticket to go to see the show and would appreciate, realising Mr. Lugosi is busy, if you would pass a message on for me that ”Derek enjoyed the show very much and thank him for his kindness. Tell him that I will never forget him.” I thanked him and came away.
Bela Lugosi was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He took time to see me and talk to me. He was the only one of all the people whose autographs I had sought who really took trouble to speak to me. I kept my promise, I never forgot him. He was a gentleman, a very quietly spoken gentleman – that is the only way I can describe him. I was so sorry when I heard of his tragic death. I hope that in spirit he has found relief and happiness.
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