1928: Fame In America At Last

Publicity photo for Dracula's Broadway run

A publicity still for Dracula’s Broadway run


Bela Lugosi starred in Dracula on Broadway from October 5, 1927 to May 19, 1928. Contrary to common belief, the vampire play was not a huge hit on Broadway. A true hit of 1927 was expected to bring in $20,000 per week. Dracula never got close to that. It hung on for almost a full season due to producer Horace Liveright’s relentless cost cutting, and his need to claim a long Broadway run when he brought the production on tour. An indication of Dracula’s limited Broadway success is that Lugosi was never interviewed by an English language newspaper.

True fame came to Lugosi when Dracula moved to the West Coast for runs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland. Newspapers gave Dracula and its star the royal treatment.

After Lugosi completed the West Coast run, he settled in Hollywood looking for a career in the movies. He had yet to play Dracula 400 times, but in his interviews he was already complaining of typecasting.

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Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1928

Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1928 Illustration


For a blood-sucking he-vampire of the mythology books who lies in his coffin by day and sustains his nefarious vitality by imbibing the blood of fair maidens by night. Bela Lugosi is a most charming mild-mannered gentleman.

Yet he betrayed no sign of horror at his role in the much-heralded Dracula, which he pas played for a year in New York and now brings to the Biltmore Theater on the 25th. On the contrary, as he unfolded the story to me over a smooth cigar, there was triumphant twinkle in his eye.

“I believe you adore the role!” I gasped, with a proper shudder.

“Oh, surely, madam, greatly so. It is a marvelous play. We keep nurses and physicians in the theatre every night…”

“For the so-to-say blood transfusions? Heavens, is it realists as all that,” I faulted.

“No, no. For the people in the audience who faint,” he reassessed me pleasantly. One could see that he counted that day lost on which no hysterical fainting humans were carried from the audience during the performance of what he certainly regards as his masterpiece.

You see, this 6 foot 1 inch Lugosi, with the soft Hungarian eyes, the dulcet voice, the courtly manners, created the role in New York—with hideous success.

“Only one thing I fear,” he confided with a sly smile, “that after I play this Dracula some more, I become too like him in myself.” A very proper anxiety, of course. “But, you understand, I am not really bad character in the role. It is a curse upon me. I am to be pitied, no condemned. I am vampire because I must…”

Exactly. I may be a medical story, you see, but it’s psychoanalytically very up-to-date. And masculine.

This Lugosi has been in this country for seven years now—after being the make star at the Royal National Theater in Budapest. For the first two years here he produced Hungarian plays. His first role in English, five years ago, was The Red Poppy in New York—for which he had to learn his role phonetically, knowing no English. He won instant acclaim and has been New Yorking ever since.

Before coming out here with the New York cast of Dracula, he met Gloria Swanson and Von Stroheim. They dressed him in stalwart bizarre uniforms and tested him for Gloria’s next picture—but he proved so tall that Gloria was submerged beside him. Nevertheless, he had played in 40 pictures in both Budapest and Berlin, prior to coming to the United States, and he may join that distinguished coterie of Hollywood Hungarians yet—which includes Vilma Blanky, Lya de Putti, Victor Varconi, Alexander and Marie Korda, Ernst Vajda, and Michael Curtiz. He arrived last Sunday (June 8) and has spent most of his time with them ever since. He is staying at the Ambassador and is reveling in the swimming pool, the tennis courts and the golf links.

“Are you a bachelor?” I asked.

“Oh, surely, madam, and ‘open for business,’ you think, yes?” He replied, with a gentle hilarity that reeked of potential victory.

If you can imagine a courtier—like Victor McLaglen, who kisses ladies’ hands with natural savoir-faire, and offers polished charm, you have a glimpse of Bela Lugosi. He simply drips personality and private amusement. I can imagine the hysteria setting in afresh when his bloodthirsty curse is raised with a stab through the hearts, there in his coffin…by which he dissolves into ashes as the curtain descends on Dracula.

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San Francisco Chronicle, August 18, 1928

San Franciso Chronicle, August 18, 1928

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San Francisco Call, August 25, 1928


The “Undead” Count Dracula out of his grave at night is supernatural enough—sufficiently so to make a gruesome play. But to find him dispossessed of his sepulcher in broad daylight and in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel was an incident of added uncanniness.

For scientists and amateur detectives combine their wits in the horror melodramaDracula, to accomplish this very thing, along with the blood thirsty vampire’s undoing. And they fail.

Bela Lugosi, noted Hungarian actor, who at night is Count Dracula, a creature of horror, by day is a smiling, courtly continental dispensing—hospitality—he has found a California brand similar to that crushed from the grape of his native vineyards—and asking questions about the best bridle paths and golf courses.

As Count Dracula adopted England as his home, so Bela Lugosi has adopted California. He told this proudly, in accented English. To accomplish this, he has obtained release from a contract signed with Horace Liveright, eastern producer of Dracula, and has arranged with O. D. Woodward, a western entrepreneur, to continue in Dracula and other plays on the coast.

“I like your California, and who knows—I may go into pictures here,” he said, “I made many of them in pioneer days of the cinema in Berlin and Budapest. I am an exile from Hungary, you may know, as I was a follower of Karolyi in the revolution.

“Your American people—I like their sportsmanship. Your theater—I like not so well. You hunt for actor types, instead of training your actors so they may play many roles. In the Academy of Theatrical Arts in Budapest that I attended we had such training. Then I played from 1911 to 1918 in the Royal National Theater in Budapest.”

“Before leaving the continent six years ago, I appeared in romantic parts, but in this country, you know, the foreigner is nearly always the heavy.”

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San Francisco Examiner, August 26, 1928


Two heads bent studiously over many desks in the drama room. It was clearly to be seen that they were occupied with heavy business, such as the preparation for the Sunday drama section. Or a new social and economic scheme of government whereby, since work and vacation seen arbitrarily divided fifty to two, the two weeks be devoted to work and the fifty to holiday. Or maybe they were concerned with the efforts of a wee crawly thing to scale the perilous slopes of an envelope.

Al this was going on assiduously when the door to the drama room seemed to open as by the unseen hand of a Conan Doyle spirit, and a gust of cold wind whirred through the room.

The two heads didn’t even turn in mild surprise. They were used to all sorts of visitors. And if it was a ghost, he was certain to want a couple of movie passes. Everybody always did. They would ignore him.

But presently that apparatus within the two heads which is euphemistically referred to as brain matter, registered another impression. Long talon like fingers spasmodically clawed around the door. Like a crab’s legs.

Two heads bobbed up from many desks.

“Wow!” yelled one. “That’s what I get for drinking that real imported Scotch from North Beach!

“O-o-o-o-h!” howled the other. “Forgive us our sins this time, and we’ll never trespass again! And in the meanwhile, good Lord, please hurry over a cordon of police.”

Taking No Changes

But pshaw! Hardly had these self-castigations and adjurations been uttered, when who should enter but the rest of the body? And who should that body be but Bela Lugosi, the distinguished Hungarian actor who is the grisly Dracula in the play now running at the Columbia?

I had specifically decline to interview Mr. Lugosi in his hotel or his dressing room, because I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t propose to let any ghastly figure rise as out of a bad dream to shake me in my unbelief.

And here he was practicing his shuddering wiles right there in broad daylight—and making two stubborn atheists yell for police protection! A dirty trick! But not entirely without its compensations. For a man who slinks like a green wraith through all the creepy tricks of Dracula realizes what his art can do. And for those upon whom he practices his mysteries in private, he might be found to carry proper restoratives.

Strong Competition

So we got down to business, and Mr. Lugosi told me all about how there really are people in Transylvania who, as set forth in Bram Stoker’s novel from which this pot-pourri of terror is made, actually believe in vampires and who until a few years ago not infrequently were known to plunge iron stakes through the hearts of the dead to lay them forever, and forestall any posthumous wanderings about.

Further, he had a few things to say about American acting as compared with European. And since Bela Lugosi was formerly not only leading man at the famous National Theater in Budapest, but for a time the governmental supervisor of all theatrical activity in Hungary, he is rather well qualified to comment.

The trouble Lugosi finds in American acting as an institution is in the fact that there are so many actors, and competition is so big and free that the actors as individuals never attain the broad experience of those in Europe.

What seems such a splendid thing in all our other pursuits—to wit, specialization and the making of better mousetraps and all that—he finds the most vitiating influence in the American theatre.

“On the continent,” he explains, “an actor gets no encouragement to proceed with his career unless he is really talented. There he is not chosen as a particular type and doomed to continue as that type for all his professional career. He gains attention because he can CREATE types instead of merely BEING types. Therefore, he is versatile, and almost equally artistic in a variety of dramatic expressions.”

“American acting would be better if it submitted to some such requirements. I don’t speak, of course, of the John Barrymores and the Holbrook Blinns and others of the really foremost actors. They are not merely national. Like all great artists, they belong to the world.”

“I speak of the common plane, the great average. That is the level that needs elevation by stricter requirements. It may not be so easy here, where the government does not support the theater as a form of art. But do not abandon hope. It may come.”

Won Name Abroad

Lugosi is perhaps the only actor of Hungarian origin who has been a leader of his native stage and who has come to this country to win another success. The incomparable Mitza and Vilma Blanky, and Victor Varconi are all Hungarian, but their big success has been won, not on native soil, but in this country.

With Lugosi, however, as with some of the German stars—Jannings, Veidt, Negri—distinction first came in Central Europe, only to be ratified later by the verdict of the American public.

Lugosi was one of Count Karolyi’s lieutenants in the Hungarian revolution of 1918, and during Karolyi’s brief control Lugosi was the government’s minister of the theater or some such thing. He had earned this place not only by adherence to Karolyi’s cause but by his record of achievement, which had carried him to the throne of stardom in the National Theater of Budapest.

When the Hungarian royalists recaptured control, however, Karolyi and all those close to him came to realize the broadening effect of travel, and Lugosi didn’t wait to gather up make-up boxes of brief cases.

Fled to Austria

He found his way into Austria and later into the newly democratic Germany, where those who had wanted to set up a Hungarian government patterned on America’s or Switzerland’s were not unwelcome. Seven years ago he came to this country and since that time he has not only won considerable success on the stage, but has enlisted the support of all 100%’ers by becoming naturalized.

He has had important parts in The Red Poppy, The Werewolf, Open House, Arabesque and The Devil in the Cheese. He has done a little picture work, but for the most part has avoided it for the broader opportunities of improving his diction in the new language.

This is his first trip to the Pacific Coast. He intends to remain some time on this trip, however, as he has agreed to continue with O. D. Woodward, coast producer, in another play after Dracula has terminated its western run two or three months hence.

(Note: Holbrook Blinn, a well-known stage actor of the day, died, age 56, in a horseback riding accident on June 24, 1928, two months before the interview.)

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San Francisco Call, August 31, 1928



Bela Lugosi was asked what his greatest difficulty was in mastering the English language sufficiently to enable audiences to understand him.

“Mastering? You flatter me!” Lugosi said. “I wish that I could feel that I have mastered your language, but I am still struggling with it. However, my highest jury is the audience—and if they are satisfied I suppose I should not complain.