1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

DRACULA’S LAST HURRAH

Interviews with the Cast & Company of Bela Lugosi’s Last, Lost “Dracula”

Part 1

By Frank J. Dello Stritto & Andi Brooks

Bela Lugosi autographed postcard 1

Autographed 1951 publicity photocard of a photo by Editta Sherman

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In 1931, Bela Lugosi became world-famous playing Count Dracula in the now classic film. He became forever linked to his great portrayal, and stereotyped as a movie monster and mad doctor. He would never escape the shadow of Dracula.

In 1951, with horror films out of fashion and 68 year-old Lugosi all but out of work, he and his wife Lillian went to England to star in a stage production of Dracula. Their hope was to bring Dracula to London’s West End, in a revival that would propel Lugosi back to stardom.

The comeback never happened, and eight months later the Lugosis returned to America, bitterly disappointed. More than disappointment plagued Bela. He had aged markedly through 1951, and had increasing difficulty hearing and remembering dialogue. Attacks from leg pains sapped his strength, and increased his reliance on painkillers. Thanks to his New York-based, British-born agent, Richard Gordon, Lugosi did make a movie while in England, Mother Riley Meets The Vampire. But otherwise, his months in Britain seem to have been wasted. And in time, forgotten.

The story that grew around Lugosi’s 1951 Dracula told only of failure. The production was allegedly under-funded, and run by amateurs who hoped Lugosi’s name alone would bring success. After some clumsy delays, Dracula opened, flopped and closed. Lugosi was never paid; and he and Lillian were stranded in England until the Mother Riley film gave him the cash to return home. End of story.

Not quite—for the myth did not match the few facts available. Clippings files in libraries and private collections showed that the 1951 Dracula had played in various cities in Britain over many weeks. Playbills turn up at memorabilia fairs, as do the postcard-size photo portraits, autographed in blood-red ink, that Bela handed out to his British fans. Memoirs and histories of post-war British theatre mention the 1951 tour. And how did the Lugosis, with no bankroll, support themselves for the many months between the supposed collapse of the theatre tour and the start of filming of Mother Riley Meets The Vampire?

The inconsistencies intrigued us. In 1992 Andi began gathering information on Lugosi’s three visits to Britain (1935 to film Mystery of the Mary Celeste, 1939 to film Dark Eyes of London, in addition to 1951). Frank joined him 1996, and we soon realized the truth about 1951. Dracula never reached the West End, or was never more than a provincial theatre tour, but it was not a failure. In 229 performances in 22 different cities, Dracula played to generally excellent reviews and enthusiastic audience receptions. The 1951 Dracula was Lugosi’s last hurrah in the role. He would never play the part again, would never be able to tour on stage again. Age and ill-health firmly held him in their grip, and but once or twice a night, for many weeks, he could cheat time and again become the figure of Hollywood legend. The effort took a terrible toll on him; and in his mind, a toll that went unrewarded. But in his life story, 1951 belongs with his great achievements.

To tell the full story of 1951, we had to find with those who shared the experience with the Lugosis, those who travelled across Britain with them. Playbills and newspapers gave us about a dozen names of persons involved in the tour. The older members of the cast and company—Arthur Hosking and Ralph Wilson who both played Van Helsing, David Dawson who played Seward, Alfred Beale the tour’s business manager—were believed deceased. But many of the company were in the 20s in 1951: Richard Butler and John Martin (the two Jonathan Harkers), Eric Lindsay (Renfield), Sheila Wynn (Lucy), Joan Winmill and Joan Harding (both played Wells, the maid), John Saunders (Butterworth), the backstage crew who were also ready understudies: Peter Whelpton, Janet Gray, Janet Reid and Ann Coupland. Even the director and producers were young men in 1951. Some of them could almost certainly be located.

So, our search began. In the 1990s, none of them were well-known in the theatre world. Most had common family names, and telephone directories contained listed dozens, if not hundreds, of names that could be the people we sought.

Andi contacted Actor’s Equity in London for the addresses of any members of the Dracula company still listed with them. In the mid-1990s, three of Lugosi’s 1951 co-stars Richard Butler, John Martin and Eric Lindsay were still active performers.

On July 4, 1996, Andi interviewed Richard Butler at the National Theatre in London. Richard’s acting career began at age 12, in his native Yorkshire in a stage version of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. Thereafter, Richard appeared in many plays, most notably in a West End revival and touring production of Charley’s Aunt. Early 1951 was a tough period for stage performers in Britain, and Richard supported himself as best he could between acting jobs:

Richard Butler In Four Weddings & A FuneralRichard Butler as the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of Jonathan Harker in Dracula?

Richard Butler: I was simply called by my agent to go for an audition. I went and I got it. At the time I was doing a stint at Walls’ Ice Cream factory in Acton, a temporary job, to earn some money. I remember going from my night shift to this audition and I got the job. But it wasn’t due to start for another couple of weeks so I stayed on, very nobly stayed on, at the ice cream factory, knee-deep in ice cream for another two weeks and (laughing) I’ve never been back to an ice cream factory.

AB: Was it an exciting prospect to be playing with Bela?

RB: Oh yes, because, let’s face it, I was in the ice cream factory. Although I had done an awful lot before I went there, it was one of those long periods of unemployment that all actors have. I’d done better work, much better work, than Dracula, but I took the job because it paid money. I’d much rather work than not work.

AB: Were you familiar with Bela’s films or the novel?

RB: Yes, the films, I certainly was. I’d seen Ninotchka then, you must have seen it? I think he’s marvellous in that, that’s the true Bela. I don’t think that I was terribly familiar with the novel, but, you know, one sort of knew it.

AB: How long did you have to rehearse before Bela arrived from America?

RB: He came there at once! We probably didn’t rehearse more than…certainly no more than three weeks. We might have rehearsed for as little as two weeks, but I really can’t remember.

AB: Do you recall where rehearsals took place?

RB: They took place in London, though I’m not certain of the exact location. It would certainly have been in the West End. I have an idea it was somewhere near the Embankment in Chelsea.

AB: It has been claimed that Bela was so unhappy with the production that the premiere was held up because he demanded changes.

RB: I don’t think that happened. He was never disloyal to the management. He never said “Oh, this shouldn’t happen to me at my time of life,” nothing like that. He just accepted things, and he really did his very best. I’ve worked with people who haven’t really done their best at every performance because it’s been a matinée or there have been few people in, things like that. But he had the very highest standards. Bela kept his dignity throughout and never criticised or complained. I do, however, remember that, talking to us youngsters during rehearsal break one day, he said—“I’m over here to do this show because I can’t get work in films these days. Some time ago, both Boris Karloff and I realized the skids were under us…so we take what work we can get.” We were visited at the dress rehearsal and first night by Megs Jenkins, a very well-known actress. She gave invaluable help to Sheila Wynn with her hair-do, make-up and costume. We had no wardrobe mistress as far as I can remember, and we had to fend for ourselves. Megs Jenkins, incidentally, was married to George Routledge of Routledge & White, the management company that organized the tour. Some time later, he left her in the lurch, taking all her money.

AB: About the 1951 tour, a recent magazine article about Bela claims that (Andi reads) “the supporting cast smacked of poverty row…the rest of the cast, too inexperienced to do otherwise, had not mastered their lines.” What’s your reaction to his accusations?

RB: Absolute rubbish! Absolute rubbish! You write another article. That is utter rubbish. Bela was the only “name” in a cast of mainly young unknowns, but the whole cast was quite experienced. Arthur Hosking had been an established actor, especially in musicals, for many years. David Dawson had done television and was quite a presentable leading man. Sheila Wynn had done quite a bit of work, as had Joan Harding. I first came across Sheila in 1947 when she and I worked together. John Saunders had certainly done a lot of work. Who else was there? Oh, Eric Lindsay. Well, he had done work of a sort.

Richard Butler in BudgieRichard Butler as Braithwaite in the hit TV series Budgie (1971)

AB: What was the pay like for appearing in Dracula?

RB: I think I received about £12 per week. In those days £10 per week was considered a good salary in weekly repertoire, and one was always paid a little more for touring. But there was no such payment as a touring allowance then and rehearsals were unpaid for several years to come. At the time, actors were expected to provide every item of contemporary clothing, except for special items such as morning suits and uniforms and as a result, our wardrobes were somewhat depleted. I daresay David had his consultant’s morning clothes supplied, similarly John Saunders’ attendant’s uniform and perhaps Eric was helped with his Renfield clothes.

AB: The article is very critical of the sets.

RB: That’s true, they were very cheaply made. The backdrops and scenery were painted on cloth, very shabby. The special effects, flying bats and magical appearances by Dracula, were very rudimentary to say the least, and very unreliable. The bats were a particular problem. They would be catapulted across the stage, and often they wouldn’t make it and would land in the middle of the stage, where they would have to stay. In the climax of the short prologue to the play—which was a solo spot for Sheila, standing spotlit in front of black tabs, a large model bat on wires descended from the flies in a large cloud of smoke (fired from a smoke gun behind the tabs) and lowered over her head as she screamed. Immediate black-out, followed by the black tabs opening to reveal the brightly lit consulting room. I, as Jonathan Harker, then entered to await the imminent arrival of David Dawson. Invariably, there was a considerable amount of smoke—a cloud, in fact—still hanging over the stalls, which we had learned to live with, but on one dreadful occasion the model bat was also present; its wires having jammed, suspended over David’s desk between his chair and the chair I was about to occupy. I steeled myself for the ordeal to come and resolved to suppress my inner hysteria. I remember wondering how and if David and I should refer to it in any way, but decided that we had best ignore it! David entered, saw the bat, of course, and we both knew instinctively that eye contact between us must be avoided for the scene to continue. When we took our seats the bat was dangling between us at eye level—it was quite a sizeable object! So, we proceeded to ignore it and each other, and spoke our lines directly to the audience. My firm resolve was shattered when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw David gently easing the bat to one side in order to see me, but with a great effort of will we both managed to keep talking. There wasn’t a titter nor any response from the audience to indicate they were aware that anything was amiss, and in some strange way this helped us. We battled on, but when, a short time later, the bat’s wires were sorted out and it suddenly shot up into the flies and out of sight, I’m afraid we were both quite helpless with laughter. Disgraceful behaviour on our part, but I think you’ll agree we were sorely tried.

AB: It’s strange that all the people whom I have spoken who saw the play were particularly impressed with the special effects.

RB: Really? That is strange.

AB: Did Bela ever offer advice as to how the rest of the cast should play their roles?

RB: Only once. After our first night in Brighton, Bela met me in the wings one night after I had played my first scene with Lucy, who in the play has been visited by Count Dracula and somehow indoctrinated into vampirism. This was all unbeknownst to me, her fiancé, who is visiting her, as she recovers from the vampire attack. During the scene I express my worries and fears for her safety, and she gradually gets the urge to sink her teeth into my neck. Horror stations! And a merciful black-out ended the scene. Bela said to me, “I think you could get more out of that scene. Would you mind if I rehearsed it with you both?” This was music to my ears as our director, who was memorable for his fancy socks, had left us immediately after our first performance with a single note, which is not unusual, even today, and there would have been inevitably much in the production which could have been improved. Well, Sheila and I were re-rehearsed by Bela and whatever he did in the way of re-directing us must have helped because after we had played the scene as directed by him, he had watched us from the wings, he put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks in the continental manner. “That was much better,” he said, and referring to the kisses, “and I am not a fairy!!” That’s the only time he did something off his own back, and I was only too grateful.

 

Brighton - Bela, Arthur Hosking, Richard Butler and David Dawson

Bela Lugosi, Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Richard Butler and David Dawson (Dr. Seward)

AB: What did you think of Bela as an actor?

RB: Oh, I thought he was first class. He had height and a stunning presence, no excess weight. He had saturnine looks, and his greatest asset of all, a superb voice. On stage this was produced so effortlessly. He could speak in a seeming menacing whisper at, say, The Hippodrome, Golders Green, and be heard at the back of the gallery. This is before the introduction of microphones on stage—a terrible practice! That’s what surprised everyone, that he was such a wonderful stage actor. You get many people, like Olivier or instance, who give out when they’re on, but don’t give out so much when they’re off, but he (Bela) wasn’t a nonentity off stage.

AB: How did you find him as a person?

RB: Both he and Lillian were charming and very accessible. He was instantly friendly, but he was treated with all due deference because he was a movie star, and he was the reason that we were doing that play. There was an atmosphere of great courtesy on both sides. We called him “Bela”, we asked if he minded, Lillian said, “Sure, sure go ahead.”

AB: What was life like on the road with the Lugosis?

RB: This was in the days when the pecking order in any theatrical company, be it in the West End, number one, two or three tour and some repertory theatres, was always strictly adhered to. In those days on tour when theatre dates were rarely longer than a week in any given place, companies travelled by train. The Lugosis certainly travelled with the company, though they might have a car from time to time. I sometimes travelled with John Saunders by car—as far as I can remember he was the only car owner in the company. Train calls on a Sunday morning meant assembling at the local station where the manager would assign company members to their respective carriages, which were reserved. We never travelled with the general public. There was a strict order of precedence observed, the leading members of the company travelling together, the supporting featured players—according to salary—then the rest of the actors—small parts and understudies—and the staff wardrobe mistress, carpenter, often a married pair—and the stage management in separate compartments—not with the actors. That was the start of the journey, and discrete mingling took place as the train progressed. All the Sunday papers were bought—sharing took place, of course—and, if the journey happened to be a long one, food and drink had to be bought by individuals on Saturday night as trains in those days, especially on Sunday, rarely had buffet or restaurant cars, and intermediate stops at stations en route couldn’t be relied upon to provide a buffet that would be open. Now in Bela’s case, although he and his wife had their own compartment, they had no wish to travel alone and spent many hours entertaining us. Except, that was, on certain occasions, when Lillian would say, “Now Bela has to have his injection.” That was our cue to leave. At that time Lillian had indicated that Bela had a health problem which necessitated medication, and it wasn’t until much later, after they had returned to America and poor Bela’s drug use became known, that we wondered if his “health problem” had been, in fact, his drug addiction.

AB: He committed himself to cure his addiction, apparently he had been suffering from leg pains for many years.

RB: I can remember that foot problem that he had. I can see him now, but I had to be reminded of it. Perhaps that is why he didn’t walk around? You rarely saw him except during the play. We never met him or Lillian around the town where we happened to be. He just didn’t go out. Wherever we happened to be, in England or Scotland, he knew nothing about the particular city or area, nor did he express any interest in local sights or places of interest. A car picked him up from his hotel and a car collected him from the stage door. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t walk around, he was just afraid of something happening. We didn’t even go out with Lillian, but maybe he was jealous? Maybe she wouldn’t have dreamt of saying, “Come on, boys, take me to the cathedral or take me to the pictures.”

AB: I don’t think he would have liked that.

RB: No, he wouldn’t. But he always welcomed us into his dressing room, there was never any suggestion that we weren’t welcome. From the beginning of the tour Bela’s No. 1 dressing room, wherever we played, was open house to us all, and coffee, beautiful American coffee, seemed to be always on tap, thanks to Lillian.

AB: Did the cast ever go back to his hotel after the show?

RB: No, there was no socializing after the show at all. It was before and during, but not after. Bela and Lillian always stayed in hotels during the tour, the rest of us stayed in “theatrical digs,” which in those days were still plentiful. These digs differed from ordinary lodging houses in that, in most cases, all meals were provided and geared to an actor’ working day—late breakfast and late cooked suppers after the show. Stage door keepers almost always had lists of available digs, and one could write to them in advance for recommendations. But almost all actors had their own digs address books and, as a rule, if one didn’t have an address for a future date, one consulted friends or other members of the company. The aim was to book in advance, seasonal actors often had the tour booked before the first train call—and never, if at all possible, to arrive at a new date with no address fixed. Of course, there were bad digs, too, and actors made careful notes of addresses to avoid and warned other actors about them if at all possible.

AB: Do you recall any particular incidents during the tour?

RB: Bela was always charming to us backstage, and his interest in our somewhat second-rate production never flagged. Needless to say, his own performance was always full throttle and the customers were enthralled. Save, that is, at one theatre—the Golders Green Hippodrome—where to our amazement, we got the bird. Any references to crucifixes, and there are many in the play, were greeted with cries of derision, and our crude special effects called forth hoots of laughter. Perhaps, if Count Dracula had spent longer on the stage the unruly audience would have been more amenable. It was the American version of the play, his part was extremely short. His short scenes amounted to no more than 20 minutes of the total two hours running time, but his appearances were so impressive that no one complained of being short-changed. In one theatre, the Lewisham Hippodrome where we were playing twice nightly, we were given a rough ride. But this was entirely a management error. On the first night of our one-week run our Van Helsing (Arthur Hosking), by far the largest part in the play, was indisposed. His part was taken by a dear old character actor, Alfred Beale. “Bealey”, as we called him, was actually our business manager. I thought he was a saint. He had been an actor, but I don’t think he had exercised his craft for many years. The management error was in expecting this man to go on in a leading part without the benefit of a single rehearsal. Mrs. Beale was very concerned about him, and came down to give him help and support. Bela was most concerned for him. I remember the scene on stage before the curtain went up on Van Helsing’s first appearance. There was Bealey with his script in his hands, the poor man had to read the part, and at his side was Bela with benzedrine in tablet form and a large jug of water. This had an immediate effect on Bealey and after the curtain rose he appeared not to have a care in the world as he read from his script. This was much to the audience’s displeasure and, I’m sorry to say, our hard-to-suppress amusement. I had to make an appearance in the scene, and my entrance coincided with Bealey dropping his script, which was not stapled but loose-leafed. Mrs. Beale was in the fireplace, attempting to bring poor old Bealey back onto the script, and as he skipped about the stage picking up the scattered pages, still not panicked by the laughter and shouts from the auditorium, we had to end the scene as best we could, though we were not nearly as mirthful as we had been at the start. Arthur Hosking rejoined us for the next performance. I’ll tell you one funny thing that happened. We thought that we were going to have a riot in Scotland because the playbill announced, “First Time in England.” Even then the Scottish Nationalists were around, and I thought we were going to have a bomb-attack or something. They never changed it. I laughed like a drake when I saw that, “First Time in England.”

Richard and Hugh Grant

Richard Butler and Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral

AB: Could the play ever have really succeeded in the West End?

RB: No, it would have flopped definitely. It was such a tatty production.

AB: Could more money have turned it into a success?

RB: Not with that management. They obviously didn’t have the right standards. Out of their hands, who knows what might have happened? But by then it was a bit of a freak show. No, it wouldn’t have lasted more than two minutes.

AB: That was Bela’s whole reason for coming to Britain—he thought that he would be playing in the West End.

RB: Yes, maybe. People have lied before. That was a lying management if ever there was one.

AB: Was there any advance warning that the tour was in trouble?

RB: We got a fortnight’s notice. They had to do that or they would have had to pay us two weeks wages, and they wouldn’t have done that. Yes, we had due warning.

AB: So you were all paid?

RB: We were paid, the actors. I don’t know about the others.

AB: It has always been claimed that Bela wasn’t paid, that he and Lillian were stranded in Britain, that’s why he appeared in the Mother Riley film.

RB: It could just be another story, an excuse for him appearing in such a poor film. I imagine it was. He never said anything, and Lillian never said to us, “Oh, they haven’t paid Bela.” I think they just slotted Bela into the film. They were just opportunistic. As you said, it was already set up, it just suited everybody, Bela and Lillian. John Saunders, sadly no longer with us, and I were friends on the tour. He played the least rewarding part in the piece, the asylum attendant. He and I were especially friendly with Lillian. We were all interested in food and cooking—what actor isn’t? As the tour was drawing to its end Lillian said, “You must visit us one evening and I’ll cook you an American corned-beef hash.” At this point Bela had already booked to play in the film, and he and Lillian had rented a house near the studio. She was as good as her word. One day, John drove us out to their house, he was the only car owner in the company, and sure enough, in their kitchen we sat down to a delicious meal while Bela and Lillian regaled us with red-hot gossip from the studios. He spoke with a heavy but perfectly understandable accent, with many Americanisms. I particularly remember tulips pronounced “toolips”.

After Dracula Richard Butler stayed active in theatre, television and film for more than 40 years. In 1952 he made his first television appearance. In 1959, as Lugosi’s phantom film Lock Up Your Daughters briefly materialized, Richard did a long stint in a play of the same name on the West End. He appeared in various television series and mini-series, such as Coronation Street and Middlemarch, and played the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in Four Weddings & A Funeral. In October 1982 Richard was guest of honor at the Dracula Society of London’s celebration of the centennial of Bela’s birth and spoke publicly for the first time about working in Dracula. Richard Butler passed away in early 2004.

Bat Head 3

For two weeks in the summer of 1951, John Martin played Jonathan Harker while Richard Butler did military reserve duty. John first appeared on the West End in 1940 in a supporting role in The Wandering Jew, and he staged managed a long run of Rebecca, starring the West End’s first Count Dracula, Raymond Huntley. But 1951 was a rough year for him, and he was glad to land the part of Jonathan Harker, if only for a few weeks. Andi interviewed John at his home in London on November 3, 1995:

John Martin at home in 1995

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of John Harker?

John Martin: I was haunting the agencies, looking for work, a very dispiriting experience, when I walked into Miriam Warner’s agency. The agency no longer exists, but in the past nearly every actor was on her books, including Laurence Olivier. She gave many young actors their start in theatre. When I walked into the outer office I was confronted by her secretary. She informed me that no work was available. The door to Miriam’s office was open, and I could see her speaking on the telephone. It turned out that a replacement for Richard Butler was needed rather quickly. Miriam said that she had nobody suitable, but then she looked up and, seeing me, beckoned me into her office. She placed her hand over the receiver. “Have you got a suit?” I nodded. “Can you start right away?” I nodded again. She removed her hand from the receiver. “I have a tall, handsome”—I was in those days—“talented actor, perfect for the role. I’ll send him ‘round.” That’s how I got the role, just luck. I was in the right place at the right time.

AB: Were you familiar with the play or the film version?

JM: No, I had never seen a Bela Lugosi film. I’ve never been a fan of horror or science fiction. To be completely honest, I was not particularly impressed when I discovered that I would be playing with him. Now, if it had been Ginger Rogers, that would have been something. It was only many years later, when I incidentally mentioned that I had acted with Lugosi that I realized that people were interested.

AB: The tour has had a very rough ride at the hands of critics and historians. Among the accusations levelled at it is that the cast was comprised of amateur actors.

JM: No, that’s not true. The whole cast were professional actors. They were all members of Equity. If they had not been, they would not have been allowed to appear in the play.

AB: It has been alleged that Bela, then 68, was going deaf. This resulted in his delivering his correct lines even though other members of the cast had missed their cues of fluffed their lines, much to the amusement of the audience.

JM: I wasn’t aware that he was suffering from hearing problems. If he was, it certainly didn’t affect the play or his performance. If there was audience laughter, it was nervous, not unintentional. I’m not really sure if the play really did frighten the audiences. It may have done when it was first performed, but by 1951 people were more sophisticated. They were used to modern horrors in the cinema and on television.

The Tell-Tale Heart 1960

John with Adrienne Corri in The Tell-Tale Heart (1960)

AB: Bela had been playing the role of Dracula since 1927. Was he still putting his soul into it or merely going through the motions?

JM: Oh, he certainly wasn’t going through the motions. The role requires a larger than life performance, which he gave without hamming. He was incredible to work with and react to. I can see him quite clearly. Wonderful.

AB: Do you have any particular memories of the play?

JM: It was just a few weeks in a career that spanned 50 years, so I don’t remember a great deal. However, I do recall a few stories that might interest you. During one performance Lugosi dried—a theatrical term for forgetting your lines. Unruffled, he strode to the footlights, turned his back to the audience and grasping the corners of his cape, held his arms out wide. He then whispered, “What the fuck do I say now?”

AB: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood came under a lot of criticism for portraying Bela’s using bad language?

JM: I can assure you that that story is 100% true. Have you seen Ed Wood?

AB: Yes, it’s a great film. At first, I thought that Martin Landau’s portrayal was a crude caricature, but by the end of the film I was almost convinced that he was Bela.

JM: I thought that it was a wonderful film. The way in which Martin Landau portrayed Lugosi was exactly how I remember him during the brief time that I knew him. I recall one other event during my time with the tour. At the climax of the play, an enormous stake is driven into Dracula. It wasn’t really Lugosi in the coffin, we used a dummy. Lugosi would be resting in his dressing room until he was needed to cry out in pain from the wings. On this particular night I asked if I could drive in the stake. It’s a very tense and dramatic scene. I raised the hammer and brought it down. There was no reaction from Lugosi. I struck the stake a second time. Again, a deathly silence. I looked across to the wings, Lugosi was nowhere to be seen. Uncertain what to do, I withdrew the stake and prepared to hit it again when I heard the sound of footsteps rushing down the long flight of stairs that led down from the dressing rooms. A breathless Lugosi appeared in the wings and apologetically mouthed, “Sorry”. I then drove home the stake.

AB: Wasn’t the play originally destined for a run in the West End?

JM: Yes, even in the latter stages of the tour there was still talk of taking it to the West End.

AB: What do you recall of Bela himself? Many of his co-stars have said they found him aloof.

JM: He was very friendly with everyone, there were no “Big Star” theatricals. He was imposing, larger than life, but wonderful to work with and warm and friendly. Although he was accompanied by a woman who I assume was his wife – she was very quiet, always in the background; she struck me as having no personality of her own—he seemed to be very lonely.

AB: How would you assess him as an actor?

JM: Undoubtedly, he was a very fine actor. If only he had been given the opportunity to show it. It’s a great shame.

Soon after leaving the Dracula company, John Martin went to Australia and did a season in Message for Margaret. Back in England, he appeared in musical revues, TV and film work and later did stints as a circus ringmaster and a tour guide. In the late 1950s, he appeared on the West End in The Grass Is Greener as understudy to Hugh Williams, who played Inspector Holt opposite Lugosi’s mad doctor in 1939’s film Dark Eyes of London. John retired in 1997, shortly after his interview with Andi.

Dr Terror's House of Horrors

John (left) with Christopher Lee in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Bat Head 3

Eric Lindsay, who played Renfield in the 1951 tour, was one of the easiest to locate and one of the most difficult to meet. Eric is a stage magician with a hectic schedule of engagements, but Andi was finally able to meet him on August 3, 1997 in his home in south London. Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Eric shed his Cockney accent through elocution lessons, and began acting at age 15. He slowly gravitated to offbeat roles, as in Tobacco Road and Treasure Island. He was rather handsome, but letting his naturally wavy hair go a little wild and his large eyes bulge made him the perfect maniac.

Eric 1947

Eric Lindsay’s entry in the 1947 edition of “The Spotlight”

Casting Directory in the Juvenile Men section (page 408)

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of Renfield?

Eric Lindsay: Sometime before Dracula, George Routledge approached me and asked to represent me. Later, he called me and I auditioned for it. Fortunately, I was fairly lucky because it was going through his management production company

AB: Do you recall where the audition was held?

EL: The auditions were held in the office of John Mather, which was in Knightsbridge.

AB: How long after the audition did you begin rehearsals?

EL: Two or three weeks.

AB: Where did they take place?

EL: We rehearsed in a place which is a block of flats on Pont Street, just off Kensington and Chelsea. It was a big block of flats with a restaurant to the side. We rehearsed in a large restaurant which they took over. I think we were there for about two or three weeks.

AB: Was that a normal rehearsal period?

EL: Yes.

AB: Do you recall your first meeting with Bela?

EL: I had only seen Bela Lugosi in films so I was, like, scared to meet him. I was really petrified. I had to have two stiff drinks before I went in to meet him. I was frightened because he frightened me, but he was absolutely charming, he was lovely. Before we started rehearsals someone threw a party at a flat off Tottenham Court Road, and there I met Bela. Rehearsals started on the Monday after his arrival and the party was on the Sunday night before. On the night before the party, on Saturday, I heard Bela interviewed on a programme called In Town Tonight on the radio. They interviewed him and he did this wonderful thing. They asked him if it took him long to get ready to prepare for the role of Dracula. He said that he would get to the theatre about at least an hour before and he would just concentrate on Dracula, never speaking to anyone. He would just stand in the wings and never talk. Opening night, I went on before him as Renfield, the mad man. I was standing there waiting for my cue, and all he did was talk. All he was doing was talking to me while I went: “Sush! Sush! I can’t hear my cue!” He was talking away, jabbering, and I thought: “What’s all this fallacy about you not talking to anyone?” It was part of his mystique.

AB: Was it an exciting prospect to be working with Bela?

EL: It was wonderful, I was thrilled out of my mind. But apart from that the role was so good. After Dracula, that’s the next best role. It’s a gift. It was a wonderful part. Before going on, I would twirl my arms to get in character, and let out a yell before every entrance. All my entrances were through the window.

AB: Were you already familiar with Bram Stoker’s novel or Bela’s film?

EL: I’d seen the film; I hadn’t read the book. All I did read was the play.

AB: Did you have any particular inspiration for your portrayal of Renfield?

EL: He was crazy—he was crazy—and I perfectly capable of being crazy. The only thing I didn’t like was that he ate flies and spiders. I wasn’t really keen about that. People would send them to me, and a dead mouse. It frightened the life out of me. After every show I treated myself to a long, relaxed hot bath. One night, my dressing gown slipped off its hook and made a “whoosh” sound—I thought it was a bat. It frightened me half to death.

AB: Had you previously worked with any other members of the cast?

EL: No, but Sheila I knew very well before hand. We were friends, but I haven’t seen her in donkey’s years. Joan Winmill was a great girl, a fun girl, but then she got religion and went with Billy Graham. Arthur Hosking and David Dawson were not sociable, and I never got to know them that well. I later worked with Ralph Wilson on Hay Fever.

AB: How much were you paid for the tour?

EL: I got the princely sum of about…I think it was £20 per week, which was great money in those days.

AB: It has been claimed that Bela was unhappy with the production and delayed the premiere while last-minute changes were made.

EL: We never did that, there was no delay. We opened at the Theatre Royal on the Monday. We did the dress rehearsal and opened on the Monday.

AB: I understand that Megs Jenkins attended the dress rehearsal?

EL: George Routledge was married to Megs Jenkins, so she was there at the dress rehearsal. The rehearsals were wonderful, but the dress rehearsal was a wee-bit fraught. Megs Jenkins was very helpful because there was a big trauma going on about the negligee that Sheila had to wear. She helped to alter it. It was lovely. But I mean, the dress rehearsal was a dress rehearsal, when we did the show, it was brilliant.

AB: Did she attend the premiere?

EL: Yes, she was there from dress rehearsal to all the way through the show—the first three days of performance.

AB: Did she offer any professional advice to the cast?

EL: She didn’t need to offer me any advice, I took off straight away. I would get a round every time I came on, and at the exit. If I didn’t get a round I would get very annoyed.

AB: What was the atmosphere like among the cast on that first night?

EL: Well, on a first night, it’s electric. Everybody’s a bit…like that (Eric holds up a shaking hand).

AB: The reviews were encouraging?

EL: Everywhere, they were very good everywhere.

AB: You were often singled out for praise.

EL: Because it was a wonderful part and I did it very well.

AB: A recent magazine article tells a different story. (Andi reads) “Sets, costumes and the supporting cast smacked of “poverty row”. The disappointment of finding himself surrounded by such amateurish elements crushed Bela’s hopes and reduced him to desperation…The rest of the cast, too inexperienced to do otherwise, had not mastered their lines.”

EL: Whoever wrote that doesn’t know what the production was like. It was excellent, it really was. The set was unbelievable—condensed, only one set for all: bedroom and sitting room in one set. It was wonderful, it was the most wonderful set and the cast was good. Bela was quite happy. He was just concerned about going into London, you know what I mean?

AB: The article also states “{The play} was a disaster…the long provincial tour never materialized.”

EL: We toured for 24 weeks, would you say that was a flop?

AB: It has been said the management company had difficulty raising finance for the tour.

EL: Well, we did meet strange people, like farmers, who were supposed to be backers of the show.

AB: Variety announced that 10 out of a maximum of 26 weeks had already been booked upon Bela’s arrival in England. Were dates being added as the tour progressed?

EL: Oh no.

AB: It certainly seemed to zigzag wildly across the country.

EL: Oh god, we went from, like, Middlesbrough to Belfast which took us all day and night on the Sunday. We arrived in Belfast on Monday morning. We went from Stranrær to Belfast, so we had to go all the way up to Scotland.

AB: Travelling must have been such an ordeal in those days, how did you find the energy to go on and perform?

EL: We were at that age when we could do anything. But they did do some strange things. We played all the best theatres, all the number one dates, but if they had a gap in between we would do it twice nightly in variety theatres, which I couldn’t understand. We would go down like a bomb—I mean, it didn’t bomb, it would go wonderful when we did it in variety. They screamed their heads off, it was wonderful.

Eric Lindsay and Arthur Hoskin

Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing

AB: What do you recall of your director?

EL: I remember Richard Eastham, he was brilliant. I thought he was wonderful.

AB: He didn’t stay with the tour?

EL: He went off on other things, but he would pop in now and then.

AB: Did Bela need much direction?

EL: No, he knew the part so well, but Bela liked to change things. He was forever changing things. He’d call a rehearsal and change things. We put in a prologue which was very effective. There was a voice over: “The hour is midnight,” you’d hear these chimes, “which is the time for the undead to come out.” Just me lying by this coffin, leaning on it, guarding it. At the stroke of midnight I would laugh hysterically and run off. Slowly the coffin lid would open. He had the most beautiful hands you’ve ever seen. His hands were exquisite. The coffin lid would lift up slowly and his hands would come out. You just saw this white hand and of course everyone would scream at the sight of the hand. He would push the lid up and then get out and open his cloak and look as if he was about to fly off. All the smoke would appear and then we would go into the play. So while we were on tour he decided that this was going in. I don’t think we had a lot of rehearsals, it was thrown together. On the first night we were there early. They called the five, and he got into the coffin. I leaned on the coffin and we did the thing. When we came off he said to me, gasping for air: “Eric, Eric,” he said, “for God’s sake, keep the lid of the coffin open, have your thumb in there. I thought I was going to suffocate.” That prologue with Bela emerging from his coffin was used through the rest of the whole show. He always got a scream or two and a round of applause. He had a great sense of humour.

AB: What were your impressions of Bela as an actor?

EL: He was excellent. He knew what he was doing. It’s the most wonderful role. It’s a very short role, a tiny role, but they talk about him all through the play. All they do is talk about Dracula. So, when he’s not on they’re all mentioning him. He did a wonderful thing. I would be in the wings because I was on and off all the time. They would announce Count Dracula and the maid would come on and open both doors. He would stand in the wings and count to ten: “1…2…3…4…” So, by the time he came on the whole house was applauding like crazy. Wonderful entrance. Wonderful timing. Terrific!

AB: Did he ever offer advice to the cast?

EL: Oh, he was offering me advice all the time. He would rehearse with me all the time. We were forever rehearsing. He loved it. Bela often approached cast members about their scenes, and he’d rehearse them. As late as Leicester, Bela asked me about changes he wanted to make.

AB: Do you have any anecdotes about working with him.

EL: Bela was a lot like Martin Landau in Ed Wood, but I don’t remember any foul language. He had an eye for the girls, always had an eye for the girls. We had a girl who was our effects manager, Joan Harding. She would deal with the smoke. In those days it was an electrical machine, an old-fashioned sort of thing that produced the smoke. It was like a gun. She came in one day, I think between shows, while I was talking to him. She said: “Oh, Bela, please, there are some people at the stage door who would like their programmes signed.” Of course, he signed them all and then took her hand and said: “What are you going for?” She knew he had that look in his eyes. She knew he was after her. She said: “I can’t stop, my gun is getting hot.” He said: “So is mine!” I’ll always remember that, “So is mine!”

AB: What was Lillian like?

EL: Lillian was lovely. She took great care of Bela, she did. He had this very bad sciatica, and he would be in pain. He would say to me that he took the drink to take the pain away. She gave him painkillers. She told me she was a trained nurse. Lillian talked a lot about Bela, Jr. She was dissatisfied with the tour—“conned into coming” is what she would say. She saw the posters. “Is that all?” After Dracula, I met Bela and Lillian once more before they went home. In Piccadilly, at Fortnum & Mason. I gave them a box of matchbooks with their names on them. I called Lillian when I was in Los Angeles years later, about 1975. Lillian claimed she had no memory at all of 1951. I got her phone number from Bela, Jr., when I called his law office. He was a very friendly, charming man.

AB: Was there any indication that Bela, Sr. had a drug problem?

EL: All I can tell you is that the man was with it the whole time. You can’t say he was out of his brain, no way was he out of his mind. I didn’t even know he was on drugs. If he was, I never knew it. He told me Lillian gave him injections for his sciatica, which is true. He would strangle me in the play and then throw me on the floor. Now, he told me he had sciatica so he had injections for it which Lillian gave him. One night he was strangling me and he had an attack. He really strangled me. I tried to pull his hand away and I was really screaming, which I used to do any way. When I came off I said, “Don’t do it again!” He said: “It’s my sciatica, it was playing me up.” But he was great, great. He was a lovely man. He told me once that “you have the eyes of a magician,” and that’s just what I later became.

AB: What did you do to fill in time between performances?

EL: What do you do when you’re on tour…you just stroll around the shops. I was very friendly with Sheila and Joan Winmill, we would stay together. Richard was friendly with John Saunders so I never socialized with them. There was not a great deal of socializing, though maybe some of the cast would meet for coffee. John Saunders was my understudy. I swore that even if I was dead I would go on. No way was he going to get a chance to do it. It got to such a stage that he was petrified to do it anyway. I was ill at one time. I had terrible flu. He would bring me medicine and say: “You’ll be alright. You can go on?”

Eric 1952

Eric Lindsay’s entry in the 1952 edition of “The Spotlight”

Casting Directory in the Second Leads and Juvenile Men section

 highlights his rave reviews for Dracula (page 422)

AB: What was life on the road with the tour like?

EL: It was the kind of company that if we did a matinée Lillian would invite all the cast in. She made tea and avocado sandwiches and, of course, it was delicious. It was the first time I ever had avocado. It shows you that it was a fairly friendly company for us all to go in and have tea with them. We were in the Copper Kettle in Norwich, I’ll always remember, it was the only time I shared digs with him. His room was next to mine, and I could never understand it, he was up all night.

AB: What was he doing?

EL: I don’t know. I could hear them talking, but I don’t know what he was doing. When Bela came down for breakfast, he moaned “I’m ill. My head! My head!” He had me searching around the whole of Norwich for Fernet-Branca, because he would drink at night. He did drink. He woke me up one day and said: “My head! I can’t move. Go out and buy me some Fernet-Branca,” which I’d never heard of. I only know it because of Bela. It’s good for a hangover. It’s a sort of alcohol, a drink. It’s supposed to be good for curing a hangover, but it tastes vile—he gave me some.

AB: Bela stayed in?

EL: Yes. He was getting over his hangover. Bela drank, so what? Lots of people drink. He’s entitled to drink after he finished a show. It was just one of those things. I can’t remember what he drank.

AB: What about during performances?

EL: No, he didn’t drink during the show. He was a professional. I mean, he’d played Hamlet in Hungary, he’d done the roles. He was a stage actor; he wasn’t a film star. He did Dracula on stage in America and got typecast. He was amazing. He had very pallid skin, but maybe that was through what he was on, I don’t know. He had the most sensational make-up. It consisted of a black liner and lipstick. All he did was put black around his eyes, do his eyebrows and just put those lips on, blood-red lips, and that was it. I’m not sure if he powdered his hands. I wore a thing from Max Factor on whatever would show, because I has these rags on from the lunatic asylum. It was kind of body make-up which had a tinge of green so I looked a bit sick. I remember the Theatre Royal Nottingham, because it was wonderful. The Theatre Royal backed onto the Empire variety theatre. There was an alley where the stage door was. I always remember that Renee Houston, who was a famous comedienne, was hanging out of the window, pissed out of her mind, talking to us and I was in this make-up.

AB: Did Bela and Lillian usually stay in digs with the rest of the cast?

EL: No, they usually stayed in a hotel. This time the hotels must have been full. We stayed in this wonderful guest house which was also a restaurant called the Cooper Kettle. You could get digs for £5 a week.

AB: Did you have to pay for that yourself?

EL: Oh, yes.

AB: And your food?

EL: Oh, yes.

AB: What do you remember about the special effects?

EL: The special effects were very good. The death scene was bad because they didn’t tilt the coffin enough. It should have been like that, and also they didn’t use it right.

AB: Did the cast make any public appearances to promote the tour?

EL: No, nothing was arranged. We never did anything, no publicity at all. George Harrison Marks did take some production photographs, but he has lost the negatives.

AB: Do you recall any particular events during the tour?

EL: My manager would come along and see Bela, it was hysterical. We played the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne. He waited inside by the stage door. He didn’t bother coming to my dressing room. Bela walked past, I was following him, and my manager went up against the wall, terrified. He must have seen it about 30 times. Once Bela and I were talking so intently, I missed my cue. David Dawson had to fetch me.

AB: The tour was supposed to culminate in a run in the West End?

EL: We all thought it was going into town. We were supposed to go to the Comedy Theatre, but at the last minute they booked Mischa Auer in. That was a disaster.

AB: Couldn’t it have been rescheduled?

EL: I don’t think so. He was signed up to do the film. He did the film straight after we finished. It was impossible.

AB: Were any dates left unfulfilled when the tour ended?

EL: We played all the dates that were booked. I do think we had a week off.

AB: Would you have been paid for any weeks out?

EL: No. I think there was some trauma about Bela being paid his full salary. I think they paid money up front. No one works for you without being paid.

Eric Lindsay is the last of the Dracula cast to work regularly on stage. A few years after Dracula he opened his own theatre club, Casino De Paris. Eric directed and choreographed all the shows, which often featured magicians. The showgirls thought Eric did illusions as well as the professionals he hired, and urged him, literally, to get into the act. Bela’s observation of long before, “you have the eyes of a magician” came back to him, and he took up magic. As Eric Zee, he scored a big success at the London Palladium, and took his act to America, playing Las Vegas and Reno. Eric spent the year 2000 millennium celebration playing a magician-emperor in a holiday production of Aladdin. Aladdin played at the Theatre Royal in Brighton—Eric’s first return to the site of Dracula’s premiere 49 years before. His final engagement before retiring was a command performance for the Sultan of Dubai in 2002. He is currently writing a vampire novel. He remains an unshaken believer in the 1951 Dracula, and maintains that had the production only gotten to the West End, Bela Lugosi would have had London at his feet. You can read a new interview covering the whole of Eric’s career at: From A to Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

Zee in Las Vegas

Eric Lindsay as Eric Zee

With Andi’s interviews of the three actors, and with the other information we had gathered, we knew that the published information on Lugosi’s 1951 tour was simply incorrect. But as yet we had only part of the full story, and we agreed that we had to find the actresses from the 1951 Dracula to record their recollections. None of the actors interviewed knew anything of their whereabouts. None of the women apparently still worked in theatre. A few references could be found to them in 1950s British theatre yearbooks and the like, but after about 1955, nothing.

We particularly wanted to find Sheila Wynn who played Lucy Seward. With the possible exception of Dorothy Peterson (in the 1927 Broadway production), Sheila had played opposite Lugosi’s Dracula more than any other actress. But Sheila’s trail was cold—we could find no trace of any acting credits after 1951. Our letters of inquiry printed in The Stage, the trade journal of British theatre, drew no response.

A 1951 drama review mentioned that Sheila came from the Hampstead borough of London. The Hampstead telephone directory listed 8 “Wynns,” and Frank wrote them all, asking if any knew of an actress named Sheila Wynn, born around 1930. Five of the eight answered. None had ever heard of her, but one suggested that we write the local newspaper, The Ham & High (short for Hampstead & Highgate). The write-up in the paper brought one response. Mary Hardie was Sheila’s cousin. She had met Sheila only a few times, and had last seen her in 1951, at a performance of Dracula at the Golders Green Hippodrome (only a few underground stops from Hampstead). Sheila’s real name, Mary told us, was Sheila Smith. Mary had had no contact with her since 1951.

Not the response we had hoped for, but Mary Hardie was our only hope. An earnest telephone call from Frank prompted Mary to rummage through her late mother’s papers. Frank’s pleas were more heartfelt than he appreciated—Mary later confessed that she surmised he must be looking for a lost mother. In an old trunk, Mary found a faded wedding invitation. On October 11, 1952, almost a year to the day after Dracula closed in Portsmouth, Sheila had married Anthony Eyre of Cambridge. Mary vaguely remembered her mother once mentioning that Sheila lived in some kind of manor house.

Guides of historical homes in Britain told us that the Eyres of Cambridge had lived in Sawston Hall for generations. Long before the late 1990s, the mansion and its grounds had been sold and converted to a college. No one at the college could offer any help as to what became of the former owners. Three “Eyres” were listed in the Cambridge directory. Letters went to all of them; none replied.

Months later, the telephone rang in Frank’s office in Aberdeen, Scotland. “This is Sheila Eyre. I understand you have been trying to reach me.”

To Be Continued

Bat Head 3

DRACULA’S LAST HURRAH

Interviews with the Cast & Company of Bela Lugosi’s Last, Lost “Dracula”

Part 2

By Frank J. Dello Stritto & Andi Brooks

Bela Autographed Postcard

Autographed 1951 publicity photocard of a photo by Editta Sherman

Part 1 of this article describes our project to document the full story of Bela Lugosi’s last stage tour of Dracula in Britain in 1951.  We quickly realized that the fable of Lugosi in 1951—that after clumsy delays, Dracula opened, flopped and closed, that Lugosi was never paid—was simply not true.  In fact, the tour lasted six months, and received generally fine reviews. We set out to locate and interview the surviving members of the cast and crew.  Three of them, Richard Butler and John Martin (who both played Jonathan Harker) and Eric Lindsay (Renfield) were in 1996 still working performers.  Andi located them through Actor’s Equity, and his interviews with them are transcribed in Part 1.

Our next goal was to find the women involved in the production, particularly Sheila Wynn, who played Lucy Seward through the entire 1951 Dracula tour.  She proved very difficult to locate.  We knew only that she was 21 years old in 1951 and came from the Hampstead borough of London.  We found no acting credits for her after 1951.  An extensive letter writing and telephone campaign finally succeeded on July 30, 1998, when Frank interviewed Sheila Wynn, now Sheila Eyre, in her home south of London.

Sheila’s earliest memories are dreams of becoming an actress.  Her father was a colonel in the British army, and as a child Sheila lived at his postings in India and Palestine.  Her first professional acting job, at age 13 as Sheila Smith, was in a London stage revival of Peter Pan, starring Glynnis Johns.   Sheila played an ostrich and a wolf, and one of the band of “Red Indians.”  Her lines were mostly war dance chants.  She made between £3 and £4 per week.  Roles in provincial productions, and work as a movie extra followed.   She honed her acting skills as a leading lady in repertory in Wales, until she signed an exclusive contract with the Lee Ephraim agency.  Betty Farmar, Ephraim’s partner, placed her in two tours in Queen Elizabeth Slept Here—the second in Germany, entertaining
postwar occupation forces.  She returned to Britain hoping for good roles in better quality productions.

Sheila Wynn

 

Sheila Wynn’s entry in the January, 1948 edition of “The Spotlight”

Casting Directory in the Ingenues section (page 1109)

Frank Dello Stritto: How did you get the role in Dracula?

Sheila Eyre: My agent told me of the auditions.  The announced plans were for a tour, followed by an engagement in a West End theatre.  When I arrived, about a dozen actresses were in the parlour, waiting to read for “Lucy.”  That kind of arrangement was typical for auditions.  Joan Winmill was one of the actresses.  She would get the other female part in the play (Wells, the housemaid).  I did my reading, and as I was leaving, John Mather, one of the backers, stopped me at the door, and offered me the part.

FDS: Do you remember your salary?

SE:   They offered £12 per week—that’s exactly what I had received on my last job.  I was hoping for more, since this was a lead role.  I phoned Betty Farmar, and was told the producers would definitely not pay more.  So, I accepted.

FDS: Were you paid every week?

SE:    Oh, yes.  Of course.  That’s easy to remember, because there’s a kind of ritual called “the ghost walks.”   On payday every week, we’d all go into the manager’s office, one-by-one.  This would be an office that the theatre let the tour managers use.  We’d sign for our pay and receive an envelope with cash.  We did this every week without fail.

FDS: Were you excited to be working with Bela Lugosi?

SE:    Yes and no.  I knew Bela was a movie star, but had never seen one of his movies.  I still haven’t—I have just never been into horror.  After I got the part, I found a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel in the library and read it.  I then became quite excited about playing Lucy.

FDS: Tell me about your first meeting with Bela.

SE:    That was at the first day of rehearsals.  Rehearsals began about 10 days after the audition, and Bela was there from the start.  I have only vague memories of any welcoming party for him.  I certainly did not meet him until the first rehearsal.  They were held in a hotel lounge or perhaps a block of flats in South Keningston, and ran for the usual two weeks or so.  He came in with Lillian.  He was tall, with sunglasses and a big cigar—just like Churchill’s, I thought.   Bela often wore dark glasses.  He did not look particularly well—pale and tired, and he looked that way through the whole tour. At lunch on that first day, Bela and Lillian went into the hotel restaurant.  I wanted to go also, but I thought that they wanted to be alone and that they might ask me to join them only out of courtesy.  So, I went with most of the others to a local coffee bar.

FDS: Did the Lugosis socialize much with the rest of the cast?

SE:    No, they kept to themselves.  They were never seen except at the actual rehearsals or later at the theatre.  A joke among the company was that whenever someone asked “Where’s Bela?”, the reply was “He’s gone to his earthbox.”  That’s a line from the play.

FDS: How did you prepare for the part?

SE:    John Mather—he was the producer, a tall man, with a round face—wanted me to wear pale makeup, hallow my cheeks and put bags under my eyes.  He also wanted me to let my nails grow long.  I could not agree to the bags.  Eric Lindsay (who played Renfield) agreed with me.  This went on and on until dress rehearsal.  Megs Jenkins, George Routledge’s wife (Routledge was Mather’s business partner), came to my dressing room.  We discussed it, and compromised on simply the hallow cheeks.  In my last scene, “Lucy” is to be very vampish.  John Mather asked me to paint my nails bright red between scenes backstage.  Well, I thought it a lot of bother for an effect that would not be noticed more than a few rows back—I had to put on the polish, take it off afterwards, and pay for all this polish myself.  But I did do it, every performance, and learned to it very quickly—my nails had to be dry by the time I went onstage.  To this day, I still do my nails very quickly.

FDS: You had to pay for the nail polish?  How about your costumes?

SE:    I was given a choice—they would either be provided, or I’d be given an allowance.  I took the allowance, bought some material and made my own negligee.

FDS: Do you have any memories of the dress rehearsal?

SE:    That would be in Brighton. It was the Saturday and Sunday before the opening.  It took much of the day.  It was often stopped for comments.  That’s when I first saw Bela in full costume.  I thought he looked great.  Superb, perfect for the part.  He wore a white-greyish make-up that gave him this cadaverous look.  During the rehearsal, one of the producers rather tactlessly announced his disapproval of my negligee.  “That looks like it was cut with garden shears” was shouted out from their seats.  The theatre was almost empty, so it echoed around a bit.  I went to my dressing room and cried.  I got a box of sequins, and Lillian and I re-designed the thing, sewing them on and some gauze.  I thought it looked no better, but the producers seemed to be happy.

FDS: What was your overall impression of the production?

SE:    It was a bit tatty I suppose—done on the cheap to save money.  We thought the play itself outdated and hammy.  We agreed that on the West End, it would have been laughed out of town—no one’s fault, just that it was not a good play. But, I remember only good houses and good reviews.  I have no recollection of rowdy or rude audiences.  There might have been some laughter here and there, but I am not sure on that.  I read what you sent me about the cast being amateurs.  That’s simply not the case.

FDS: What was it like on tour?

SE:   Oh, on a typical day I would sleep late after the performances.  Late morning I would stroll to the theatre to collect any mail, then back to the digs for lunch, and rest in the afternoon.

FDS:   Digs?

SE:    Actors’ digs.  They’re rooming houses that catered to actors.  They would usually be run by former actors, who knew all about actors’ daily routines and schedules.  A man and a wife usually.  Digs could usually could be had for £5 a week.  That included meals.  Digs were listed in guides, but the cast depended as much on word-of-mouth among actors as to which was the best. Stagedoor keepers at the theatres usually had lists of digs in their town, and sometimes, we’d write ahead to them for advice.  When we played near London, I lived with parents.  They lived in Crown Cottage in Hampstead, north London.  On the road, I always roomed with Joan Winmill.  We became great friends, and we always found something to laugh about.  I really missed her when she left the tour.

FDS: Did the Lugosis stay in digs?

SE:    I’m not sure where they stayed, but I don’t think they stayed with any of us.  I think they stayed in hotels.

Bela and leading lady Sheila Wynn at the Lewisham Hippodrome

Bela Lugosi and Sheila

FDS: About your daily routine?

SE:    On Monday morning in a new town, some of the cast would go to the theatre to see it and collect any mail, then to a coffee room somewhere to chat and relax.  We did very little pub-hopping or anything like that.  On Tuesday mornings, the reviews from Monday’s opening would be in the papers.  We usually followed these—usually someone would check the papers and spread the news among the others.  I wrote my boyfriend every day.  And he wrote me from London, where he was working as an actor.  He saw Dracula several times.  He might have been at the Brighton opening, but I’m not sure.

FDS: How did you prepare for a performance.

SE:    I would be at the theatre about an hour before the curtain.  I was usually the first to arrive.  I would go through the entire script to get focussed for the performance.  All of us were responsible for our own costumes, and for putting on and taking off my own makeup.  I usually left the theatre about an hour or so after the performance.

FDS: Any special memories or anecdotes?

SE:    I remember a lot about our week in Golders Green.  It’s only a few underground stops north of Hampstead.  Well, a few days before the opening there, as I was leaving for the theatre in Lewisham, where we played the week before Golders Green, I saw in the local newspaper this silly article about me—how I was absolutely mesmerized by Bela and under his power.  It was nonsense.  Nothing of the kind ever happened.  I was very mad because it made me look like a
silly girl.

{Note:  Sheila is referring to the article below, which ran in The Hampstead News & Gazette on May 10, 1951:

It Could Happen—And It Did

When attractive 21 year-old actress Sheila Wynn, of Haverstock Hill, Hampstead, was booked to play in “Dracula” with Hollywood horror star Bela Lugosi it was just another job to her.

To her family, who worried about the effect such a role might have on her mind, she said, “Don’t worry, I don’t really believe in vampires, ghosts or hypnotism or anything of that sort.  It’s a lot of nonsense.”

Then a strange thing happened.

At rehearsals she was playing the part of the girl whom Dracula attacks. Bela Lugosi, playing the title role, came towards her.  Her head began to swim and she swayed uncertainly. Richard Eastham, the producer, prompted her with her lines.

They just would not come.  Unknown to himself, Bela Lugosi had actually hypnotised her in the way that his vampire stage part demanded.

‘I wanted to break the spell…’

“I don’t know what happened,” she told a reporter, “It was just as if the stage disappeared and a real vampire was coming to me.  I wanted to break the spell but I couldn’t.  they told me afterwards that, after staggering about the stage aimlessly and thoroughly frightening everybody, I went ahead and gave a perfect performance.

“I’ve had nightmares about vampires since. I’ve quite changed my views about such things since this play started. I’ve taken out books from libraries and read up the subject.  There definitely is something queer that happens at night in some parts of the world.”

“Dracula” opens at the Golders Green Hippodrome next Monday.  “I expect that a lot of people will say that it is childish nonsense,” said Miss Wynn.  “they can if they want to.  All I know is that I used to feel that way but since what happened at the rehearsal, and since studying the subject, I am not so sure.”}

FDS: How about the week itself?

SE:    Golders Green was a bit of a homecoming.  I had played there four years before.  I was only a child then, but Bill, the stage door man, remembered me right away, and gave me this big welcome.  He remembered everyone who ever played at his theatre, and treated us all like stars.  The theatre was close to my parent’s
cottage, and that’s where they saw the play.  They thought I was wonderful in it.  They thought I was wonderful in everything.  I introduced them to Bela and Lillian.  After they left, my mother said, “something odd about that couple—she’s more like his daughter than his wife.”  My old dancing teaching, Anita Foster came backstage.  “Oh, you were so good I couldn’t believe it was you.”  She meant that as a left-handed compliment.

FDS: Any backstage stories?

SE:    I tended to be a loner. I wasn’t even aware that Lillian was holding little gatherings in Bela’s dressing room, the No. 1 dressing room.  I didn’t know that until you showed me the notes from Andi’s interview with Richard.  I think Lillian kept the women at a bit of a distance.  Maybe sometimes she was a bit bossy.  In some theatres I had my own dressing room.  Sometimes, I shared a dressing room with Joan.  When I was not on stage, I always waited in my dressing room.  I could hear the performance, and knew when to go on.  Bela sometimes waited in the wings, sometimes in his dressing room.  Lillian sometimes watched the performance from the audience, and sometimes from the wings.

FDS: Was the tour run from London?  Who was in charge on the road?

SE:    On the road, our “boss” was the business manager, Alfred Beale.  He was tall, bald, a bit doddering.  He held “treasury” every Friday morning—the “ghost walks” ritual I told you about.  Payday was Friday to coincide with paying for the digs on Saturday.  Also, train tickets for the next week’s engagement would be given out at “treasury”.  Every Sunday morning was “train call”—the company met at the train station and boarded the car with the sign “Booked Tickets for Dracula Tour.”  I don’t remember if Bela and Lillian travelled with us.  The company had men’s and women’s “skips”.  These were large wicker baskets.  On Saturday night after the last performance, we loaded our costumes in the skips.  The costumes would be laundered and folded, and the skips delivered to the theatre of the next run.  Costumes would usually be hanging in the assigned dressing rooms when we arrived for the performance on Monday.

FDS: Any anecdotes about Bela.

SE:    Oh, there’s one that I’ll always remember, because it meant a lot to me at the time.  I was always a perfectionist in my acting.  I was very much into the Stanislavski acting methods.  A few weeks into the tour, probably at Shephard’s Bush, I became dissatisfied with my performance.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt that I wasn’t doing my best.  I mentioned this to Bela.  He said, “if you come down to the theatre, we’ll work on it.”  So, we both came to the theatre early the next day, and met in Bela’s dressing room. We went over the entire script.  Bela made a lot of suggestions.  I adopted quite a few of them, and I was very happy with the result.  One suggestion that Bela made concerned my last scene.  Lucy is becoming a vampire, and is supposed to be turning very sexy.  I did this vampish thing—running my hands up and down my body.  Bela never liked the gesture.  He didn’t say anything because he thought Richard Eastham had suggested it.  Maybe, Eastham thought Bela had suggested it.  “It’s bad form,” said Bela, “vulgar.”  I dropped it, and used something more subtle.  It worked much better.  It was very generous on his part.  He was after all the star.  After that, I had a “crush” on Bela—not a romantic crush, but I would have done anything for him.  All he ever asked was that I fill in for him when he was invited somewhere.   He was invited to events in the towns we played. He was asked a lot to “street parties.”  Streets would be closed off for some celebration or festivities.  They were quite popular, and Bela was often invited to “open” the party by some ribbon-cutting ceremony.  He always declined these, and sent me in his place.  I’d dress a bit smartly, and take the car that had been sent for him.  Sometimes, if Joan went with me, I’d stay for the party, but sometimes not.  There were a lot of these invitations, and Bela just passed them on to me.

FDS: Any memories of your scenes with Bela.

SE:    In one scene Dracula “bites” Lucy: Bela did this in a very gentlemanly way.  He placed a light kiss on my neck, with his mouth closed—not like some leading men who tried to make a meal of it.

FDS: Did you ever smell anything on his breath—whisky, sulfur water?

SE:    Oh, heavens no, but he was always smoking his cigar.  Even when he waited in the wings, which was illegal.  A fire marshal was always in the house, and on one occasion, he told Bela to extinguish the cigar.  Bela refused, and both stood their ground.  It only ended when Bela went onstage.  We heard them onstage, but I don’t think the audience did.

FDS: Any special memories from the other cities you played.

SE:   Well, I’ll never forget Nottingham.  Our dressing rooms looked out on the dressing rooms of the variety hall around the block.  I could see George Robey suiting up for his show (Robey, then 82, was a legendary music hall performer).  On weeknights, we had only one show, and the variety hall had two.  So, one night I hurried from the theatre to catch the second show.  A young woman was trying to get everyone’s autograph, and I’ll always made time for such people.  But that night, I brushed past her.  She seemed rather angry and upset.  I still feel a little guilty about it.

Richard Butler, Sheila Wynn, David Dawson, Bela Lugosi, Joan Harding

Richard Butler, Joan, David Dawson, Bela Lugosi and Joan Harding

FDS: Any other incidents that stick in your mind?

SE:    During the week at the Shephard’s Bush Empire, I went into the West End to do some shopping.  The curtain was at 7:00 pm, and I would normally be at the theatre by 6:00. Well, everything went wrong.  My bus to the theatre was caught in traffic.  Then its engine caught fire.  The nearest underground station wasn’t at all close, but I had no choice but to run to it.  I arrived at Shephard’s Bush at 6:59—I remember the time because there was a big clock right at the station.  I ran across the green to the theatre. I lost a shoe that I never recovered.  I got to my dressing room, and Joan Winmill was already wearing Lucy’s costume for the first scene, with my makeup, including false eyelashes.  So, we hurriedly changed clothes, and I was in the wings in time for my cue, but out of breath.

FDS: The company doesn’t seem to have socialized very much.  Was there tension among you?

SE:    Oh no.  It was just the mix of people, but we got on very well.  We did a few things together.  In Belfast, Richard, Joan and John (Saunders) and I did take a 40 mile bus trip south to the Mourne Mountains.  We went because we all knew the tune “Mountains of Mourne that lead to the sea…”  We also all went to the Festival of Britain, south of London.  But there’s wasn’t a lot of that.  On the road, Joan and I always looked forward to getting back to London, because we missed our boyfriends.  I remember, on the boat back from Belfast, we met two MPs (Members of Parliament), who invited us to “tea on the terrace” at the House of Commons.  Both of us were intrigued—this was a bit of a social coup, but we had been away from London for several weeks, and only wanted to see their boyfriends again.  So, we passed on it.

FDS: How about other members of the company?

SE:    David Dawson (Seward) and his wife were very pleasant.  He was a tall man, and had a warm personality.   He read a lot on the tour, and always complimented me when he was me reading a book.  He saw me reading D. H. Lawrence, and said “you’re the only one in this company that does serious reading.”  David lived near the Hampstead Underground station of the Northern Line, my parents were one stop away.  I think David once brought his sons to the theatre, but only once that I remember.  Ralph Wilson (the second Van Helsing) was also very nice.  Arthur Hosking (the first Van Helsing) was a rather remote person.  Richard Butler (Harker) was a quiet, serious man.  He had a distinctive bow at the curtain calls—he would stand very straight and still, and then abruptly bow his head and shoulders, more from the middle of his spine than from his waist.  John Saunders (Butterworth) developed a real crush on Joan Winmill.  She found it a bit embarrassing.  He pretty much tagged along after her during their free time.  Joan and I had boyfriends back home.  So we weren’t interested in any new romances. But John was a very pleasant person, and he and Richard and Joan and I would sometimes do things together.  Janet Reid (the first assistant stage manager) was a sweet girl, a short, blonde Canadian girl.

FDS: What about Eric Lindsay, Renfield.

SE:    Oh, yes.  Well, I had known Eric Lindsay slightly before the tour.  He had this wild hair and enormous, rolling eyes.  He was always the amusing one, though he took his part very seriously.  He did not tolerate jokes about it.  After a performance, I asked a friend of mine what she thought.  She said “it’s a bit much.”  Eric overheard this, and whispered, “and what about her”.  He was saving his money, and didn’t go out much.  He told me sometime during the run that he had accumulated £100.  That was a lot of money in those days.  Years later we met, and Eric boasted, “I’ve go my own club, now.”  Eric took his work seriously, and could be irritable and nervous backstage, waiting for his first entrance.  When you told me about Bela’s talking to him on opening night, he may just have been trying to calm him down.

FDS: Why did Joan Winmill leave the cast?

SE:    Things were always a little tense between her and her boyfriend, but I think she left due to some illness.  I visited Joan at her flat in London when she was ill, and she asked me to call John Mather to tell him that she’d be leaving the tour due to an “incipient nervous breakdown.”  “An insistent nervous breakdown?” I said.  So, we rehearsed and I made the call.

FDS: What about her replacement, Joan Harding?

SE:    I knew Joan from earlier work together.  She was a vicar’s daughter.  We had appeared together in Queen Elizabeth Slept Here.  We got on alright, but often didn’t see eye to eye.  It had nothing to do with her, but after Joan Winmill left, I retreated a bit, became more of a loner.  Just before one of our trips out of town, my boyfriend and I had a bit of a fight, and had made up.  He was writing me every day.  Joan went to the theatre early and hid that day’s letter.  She gave it to me soon enough, but I did not appreciate the joke.  But I am basically a loner.  After Joan Winmill left, I really didn’t want to share dressing rooms with anyone.  So I asked our stage manager, Peter Whelpton, if I could have my own room thereafter.  Peter had a sarcastic streak, and handled this rather abruptly “you’ll see your dressing room assignment when it’s posted at the theatre.”  A sheet listing each actor’s dressing room was tacked up each Monday when we arrived.  The next week, I did get my own room, but for the first time I was not listed as “Sheila Wynn” but “Sheila Wynn—Leading Lady.” I did not appreciate that. I remember one amusing thing about John Saunders.  We were returning to London, and he realized that the train would not be stopping where he wanted to get off.  John gathered up his bags and braced himself to jump off the moving train.  We all cheered him on.  “Come on—you can do it.”  A terrible thing to do, now that I think of it.  He did jump, and got home safely.

FDS: Any other memories of Lillian?

SE:    Well, Lillian never called Bela “Bel” as quoted in newspapers.  Around us, she never called him anything but “Papa”.  They were never apart.  She was like a nanny and a nurse to him.  She impressed me as being rather plain, but very protective of Bela.  One night, Richard and I had a case of “the giggles” on stage.  I don’t think this was noticeable from the audience, but it was to those standing in the wings.  Off stage, Lillian rushed to us.  “I won’t have you kids laughing at my ‘Papa’. ”  But the giggles had nothing to with Bela.  Bela complained about not sleeping.  “I don’t sleep well,” he told me one day, “I can’t sleep.”  I was tempted to recommend that he try a little exercise—an occasional walk—instead on always staying in his hotel room, but that was not my place.  He was always a gentlemen with me, never made a pass or did anything improper.

FDS: What do you remember of the closing of the tour?

SE:    It was a typical closing notice.  It posted two weeks in advance.  I wasn’t sorry to see the tour end.  I hated touring and preferred to play around London.

FDS: Was there a farewell party?

SE:    It was held right after the last performance, in the theatre’s Green Room.  It was a simple drinks and sandwiches affair.  The cast had changed into their street clothes. I had put my costume into the skip, and of course never saw it again.

Sheila Wynn, Bela, Joan Harding and Arthur Hosking

Sheila (left), Bela Lugosi, Joan Harding and Arthur Hosking

FDS: Did you stay in touch with the company members after the closing?

SE:    No, not really.  I married a year later—my fiancé was in the army, stationed in Germany.  The last time I saw Joan Winmill was when she came to see me off at the airport.  Back then we called it Heathrow Air Terminal.  While I was living in Germany, Ralph Wilson passed through in a troupe that was playing military bases.  There was a lot of that in those days.  That’s how I had met my husband.  I saw Richard Butler a few years later in Cambridge.  That’s where we lived when we came back from Germany.  He updated me on what he knew about our old friends.  He told me that Joan Winmill had given up acting to work for the Billy Graham Crusade.

After the Dracula tour ended in October 1951, Sheila waited for a part on the West End, but after a few months joined another touring production, 1066 & All That, playing to occupation troops in Germany.  Early in the tour, King George VI died (February 6, 1952), and the producers feared that a satire of British royalty would be offensive.  During the brief run she had met her future husband.  Back in London, she played the female ghost in a West End version of The Innocents, starring Flora Robson.  Her part was short, with no lines, all in haze and shadow.  She and the male ghost were not listed in the cast or in the production notes.  The two were not included in the curtain calls, as audience laughter was feared.  The play was a hit, but overall, Sheila was a bit depressed about the progress of her career.  She abandoned acting to marry, and lived in Germany until the mid-1950s.  Once back in England, she briefly returned to acting, appearing in various television and radio shows.  After her marriage ended, she worked a variety of jobs, raised her three children, and now lives in quiet retirement south of London.

As Frank was leaving after one of the sessions, he told her that she had appeared opposite Bela Lugosi’s Dracula more than any other actress, and that if she attended a movie conference the interest in her as a lost Lugosi leading lady would be immense. A politely disinterested “Really?”  was her only reply.

     
Bat Head 3

Joan Winmill worked in the Dracula company less than three months.  After the tour returned from its swing in June 1951 to the north, where it played in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Joan left the cast.  Despite her short tenure, her infectious cheer and good humor stayed in the memories of those we interviewed, and we next concentrated on locating her.  Through the early 1950s Joan Winmill worked regularly in British film, theatre and television.  Her acting credits end around 1955.  The only other clue to finding her was the persistent story that she had “joined the Billy Graham crusade.”  The American evangelist staged a well publicized rally outside London in March 1954, which won over many converts.  Was Joan Winmill indeed one of these?  One of her last film credits was Souls in Conflict, a somewhat controversial film made by Graham’s organization. 

Joan Winmill

Joan Winmill’s entry in the January, 1949 edition of “The Spotlight”

Casting Directory in the Second Leads and Juvenille Women section

(page 1081)

About the time we began to search for Joan in earnest, Billy Graham published his autobiography, a mammoth tome, which to our surprise included this passage:

“In 1954 the name of Joan Winmill was well known on the London stage, and she had a brilliant future ahead of her.  But down inside, she was miserable and on the brink of suicide.  One night at Harringay she gave her life to Christ, and she was transformed.  A year later she married Bill Brown, whom she had met through the Crusade; since then she has been a steadfast witness to Christ’s power to change lives.  Her autobiographical story, No Longer Alone, was made into a feature-length film that God has used to bring many to a commitment to Christ.”

Graham’s recollection is a bit overstated.  Joan Winmill was indeed well known on the London stage, but her acting future was most uncertain.  The fact that she accepted a minor  role in the Dracula tour suggested that 1951 was one of the low ebbs in career.  Bill Brown ran World Wide Publications, the publishing arm of the Graham organization.  We quickly learnt that in addition to No Longer Alone, Wide World had also released several books on devotional topics by “Joan Winmill Brown.”  As we closed in on Joan Winmill, the name “Robert Kennedy” kept appearing in the information we gathered.  Could this be THE Robert Kennedy?  Again by coincidence appeared a new book, C. David Heymann’s comprehensive RFK – A Candid Biography.  And again it contained a surprising reference:

“Shortly after the burial (of RFK’s sister, Kathleen, who died in a plane crash in May 1948), Bobby arrived in London where he met William Douglas-Home, a British playwright who’d been a friend of Kennedy’s.  Hoping to lift the spirits of the bereaved young American, the dramatist gave Bobby tickets to see his long-running play The Chiltern Hundreds.  Backstage at the Vaudeville Theatre after the show RFK was introduced to Joan Winmill, the female lead.  Their ensuing romance is detailed by Jerry Oppenheimer in The Other Mrs. Kennedy, an intriguing biography of Ethel Kennedy.”

Via the internet, we soon had copies of both Joan Winmill’s long out-of-print autobiography, and the movie based on it.  No Longer Alone, published in 1975, is an anecdotal account of Joan’s unhappiness and inner demons, until finding purpose through Christ.  It contains few of the precise biographical details that
researchers hope for, but it did give us all the information we needed to reach Joan through World Wide.  It also contains this reminiscence of the Dracula tour (reprinted with Joan Winmill Brown’s permission):

No Longer Alone

Joan Winmill Brown on the cover of her 1975 autobiography

No Longer Alone

I don’t remember how I ever got to audition for Dracula, but I do know that once I signed the contract, my fears told me I had done the wrong thing.

As a child I had once seen a film coming-attraction for Dracula.  (I was attending a bland comedy with my grandmother.)  I went under the seat until assured that it was over. When we left the performance, we found a booth set up in the lobby with a sign which said, “Dare to Open These Curtains!”  Someone did—just as I walked by—and there, life-size, was a model of Dracula staring at me.  All the way home I knew he was following me.  Nanny had to stay in my room that night until I finally fell asleep, having been convinced he was not under my bed.  Now I was signed to go on tour with none other than Bela Lugosi, who
created the role in the movie!

I was very hesitant to attend the first rehearsal and meet Mr. Lugosi.  He arrived late, making a grand entrance, and was introduced to each of the cast.  When it came my turn, I stood there in sheer amazement.  He looked just like the wax figure that had scared me so as a child.  But he was gracious and very professional as we proceeded with the first reading.

When it came time for the scene in which he was supposed to hypnotize me, I thought, “Here we go!”  I must not look as if I’m scared of him.  After all, this is
ridiculous—it is only a play and he really is just an actor.”  But when he started to look into my eyes, I senses a strange burning sensation, and tears began to well up.  He stopped suddenly and said, “Child, never look in my eyes.  Always look here,” and he tapped his forehead.  I just did that every time we played the scene after that, and thing went along smoothly.

He took playing the part of Count Dracula very seriously, and we were never allowed to change a word, a look, or a move.  It was as sacred as Shakespeare to him.  Once I heard him say that, perhaps, the worst thing for his career had been the success of Dracula, for people would never take him seriously an actor any more.  Apparently he had known great adulation in his homeland of Hungary.

In the final scene, set in a crypt, he was supposed to be in a coffin; the doctor and his friend, Van Helsing, drive a stake in Dracula’s heart—the only way he can be killed. But Bela would never get in the coffin and would always give the death scream from the wings.  He had a great superstition about this.

The only time we saw him during the day would be when we would meet at the train to move from one city to another.  Then he would stride down the platform with is wife and son and disappear into a private compartment, to ride with the shades drawn for the entire journey.

The trouble with the cast was that, after we got over the awe of being with the Dracula, our emotions swung the other way.  The overly dramatic dialogue became too much for us, and we all started to get the giggles.  I cannot begin to describe the agonies we went through every night trying to control our feelings and playing our lines “straight.”  Once the stage director called us all on stage after a particularly giggly show and said he would fire all of us if we did not stop this appalling laughter.  Even as he said this, someone giggled and started all of us off again.  We were appearing way up north of London,
and the poor director had no choice but to put up with us.  It even got to him finally, as night after night he had to oversee the fake bats and smoke that always preceded Dracula’s appearance.

One night the smoke got to me, too.  I came to the scene where Dracula was supposed to hypnotize me (just after I gasped in horror at seeing him).  The smoke, pumped under his cape each time he made an entrance—with arms wide apart, got down my throat and knocked me out cold.  The audience was unaware of what had happened, and somehow Bela ad-libbed his way through the scene—with me prostrate on the ground.  As soon as the curtain came down, I was whisked off to the waiting arms of a St. John’s Ambulance man.  These mean are volunteers who wait around for strange occurrences such as mine, so they can administer first aid.  Bela proceeded to direct all the traffic that had gathered.  He even prevented brandy being administered to me from a well-meaning member of the cast.  “Nooothing by way of mouth,” he kept repeating, “Noooooothing!”

I recovered enough to go on again the next day, but I was very careful not to exclaim too heartily upon seeing Dracula coming through my window.

We returned to London and played all the surrounding theaters, and then our tour was over.

Joan Winmill’s reminiscence, written more than 20 years after the tour, contains both accuracies and inaccuracies.  Giggling among the cast—“corpsing” in British theatre slang—was an occasional problem in the Dracula tour, as it was in many provincial tours.  But it was not persistent and common.  None of the dozens of reviews or personal recollections from audience members that we had already amassed mention it.  In the closing scene, a mannequin did indeed lie in the coffin, as Bela supplied Dracula’s death cries from the wings.  However, Bela had no fear of lying in the coffin himself—he did exactly every night on the tour in the play’s prologue before the opening curtain.  Bela, Jr. did not accompany his parents on the 1951 tour.  Joan is probably confusing him with Paddy and Sean Dawson, the sons of David Dawson, who played Dr. Seward. We frankly did not believe Joan’s fear of looking into Bela’s eyes, and her story about being overcome by stage fog in her big scene with Bela.  However, we later obtained independent confirmation of both tales.  John Mather, the producer, told us a year later—without our prompting—that Joan Winmill was genuinely terrified of Bela.  A year after that Janet Reid, the assistant stage manager, offhandedly mentioned that she had peeled the costume off the unconscious actress to take her place for the rest of the performance.

With the assistance of Wide World Publications, we at last made direct contact with Joan Winmill Brown.  On December 23, 1998, Frank interviewed Joan in a restaurant near her home in the Los Angeles suburbs. Joan began acting shortly after World War II.  In 1947 a stroke of incredible luck gave her a lead role in a West End hit, The Chiltern Hundreds.  The unknown actress made only £14 per week, but for more than a year she had one of the choicest stage roles in London.  Joan had difficulty following up its success, and was already undermined by her personal insecurities and bouts with stage fright.  She coped through Phenobarbitals before performances and sleeping pills afterwards.  They got her onstage and through a performance, but also caused her to slur dialogue or drop lines.  In April 1951 she auditioned to play “Lucy” but only managed to land the much smaller role of Wells the Maid.

Frank Dello Stritto: Can you tell me how you got the role in Dracula?

Joan Winmill Brown: Not really.  I don’t have a clear memory of the auditions at all.  I have to confess that it was a very difficult time for me, and there’s a lot I just don’t recall.  Also, I must tell you now that there’s a lot I remember that I won’t tell you.

FDS: Why?

JWB: That man who wrote the Kennedy book.  I never said most of the things he attributed to me.  There’s a lot more in there than I ever said.

FDS: Well, we’d like to tell the whole story of 1951, so please tell me whatever you can.  And please don’t tell me anything you don’t want printed.

JWB: This whole thing is almost surreal.  Dracula was so long ago, and it didn’t seem that important at the time.  And now here you are writing a book about it.

FDS: Well, there’s a lot of interest in Bela Lugosi, and 1951 is the blank page in his life story.  The auditions were in the offices of Routledge & White.  Do you remember anything about them?

JWB: I was one of their clients.  George Routledge and Gordon White were both very charming.  George was businesslike and fatherly; Gordon much more flirtatious.  He gave the impression of playing around a lot, like a Bill Clinton.

FDS: Where were you living then?

JWB: I had an apartment in London.  I had it through the whole tour.

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill in The Harrassed Hero (1954)

(Courtesy of http://brianmatthews60.blogspot.jp/)

FDS: What were the rehearsals like?

JWB: They were in an apartments in a Kensington, I think.  The décor was very Edwardian, with heavy wood panelling on the walls.  I remember a harp with all its stings snapped stood in the corner.  They looked to me as if they had been plucked away in anger.  It added the right atmosphere for the play.  At the first
rehearsal, Bela entered in a very grand manner to greet the cast.

FDS: What was he like?

JWB: Always very kind and gentlemanly.  A very nice man.  But I think he very much controlled Lillian.  I heard her crying a few times—during a performance, in his dressing room.  I remember once I went past the dressing rooms and heard her sobs through the door. I wanted to knock, but I didn’t.

FDS: There’s a scene in Dracula where Wells—your character—is taunted by Butterworth (John Saunders’ part) with mice.  Were they live mice or props?

JWB: Oh, I’d remember if they were live, and they weren’t.  I don’t know if I could have taken that every night.

FDS: A recent interview with a Lugosi co-star from the 1940s says that Bela usually insisted on live mice.

JWB: Believe me, they weren’t.  I don’t remember the topic ever being discussed.

FDS: John Saunders seems to have been a bit of character.  What are your memories of him?

JWB: Oh, John was very sweet and funny.  He always tried to make me laugh on stage.  He’d whispered to me under his breath, and make faces that no one else could see.

FDS: Your book mentions that the stage manager gave you a dressing down, in Middlesbrough, for the horseplay.

JWB: Yes, it might have been in Middlesbrough.  But I knew then that I would be leaving the tour soon. 

FDS: Why did you leave the tour?

JWB: I can’t recall why I left the play—maybe for a better job.  Second female lead in Dracula wasn’t much.  I think I earned only £8 or £10 per week.  And going on tour in the provinces was very hard for me.

FDS: Your book mentions the incident in Middlesbrough when you passed out.  Honestly, did it happen like that?

JWB: Oh, yes.  That definitely happened the way I described it.  It was my big scene with Bela.  He entered through the window.  “Night on Bald Mountain” played.  Under his cape was smoke pumped into it just before his entrance.  Well, in Middlesbrough, I inhaled too much of the smoke, and passed out.  Of course, I don’t remember anything after that.  I missed one or two performances.

FDS: There’s another fantastic incident on the tour, when Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing) could not go on, and Alfred Beale went on for him, reading the part from the script.

JWB: Oh, yes.  I remember that night. That definitely happened.  He used pages for every scene except the last, the scene in the crypt.

FDS: You talk in your book about your family. Did they see you in Dracula?

JWB: My father and aunt saw me, I think, at Wood Green.  Her grandmother never did.  My boyfriend, John, may have, but I don’t remember.

FDS: You told me on the phone a bit more about Lillian, that you met her long after the tour.

JWB: When I married and moved to California, we lived in an apartment in Hollywood Hills.  That was sometime in the 1950s, the late 1950s.  Somehow I re-established contact with Lillian. Maybe, we bumped into each other while shopping.  We exchanged Christmas cards, and had an occasional telephone conversation, but then we drifted apart.

FDS: What did you talk about?

JWB: Oh, we talked about our children.

FDS: What did your children make of your acting career?

JWB: Oh, you’ll like this.  I had pretty much given up acting before my sons were old enough to remember.  I’d tell them about my days in theatre and the movies.  Well, a little later, my son told his schoolmates and teachers, “my mother used to work for Dracula”.

Joan Winmill Brown and her husband Bill Brown

After working for Dracula in 1951, Joan continued her acting career, never really finding contentment or fulfillment.  Attending the Graham rally in 1954 changed her life.  Her life change attracted some strange publicity in England.  An American zealot, decried the tabloids, had brainwashed an innocent British girl.  Joan never looked back, never regretted the choices she made, but also never lost the charm and humor that the Dracula company still recall.  As we ended our interview, Bill Brown arrived to drive her home.  I told him that I would be taking my family to Disneyland in two days (Christmas 1998).  Bill explained in detail how to outwit the long waiting lines for rides and attractions.  Joan listened patiently as Bill gave me the low-down on beating the Disney system.  As they left, Joan whispered, “Billy Graham doesn’t know about this.” 

    
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Joan Harding(Courtesy of Frank Dello Stritto)

Dracula has only two female parts, Lucy Seward and Wells the Maid.  Sheila Wynn played Lucy for the entire tour.  Joan Winmill left the tour after 11 weeks, and was replaced by Joan Harding. Joan Harding had joined the Dracula in its third week, as special effect manager.  She and the assistant stage manager worked the fog machine and the mechanical bat that flew  across the stage.  Both effects were prone to malfunctions.

Though several of our interviewees had worked with this second Joan before Dracula, none had any clue of what became of her.  Months of search on our part turned up no evidence.  None of our inquiries published in British newspapers had any success.  Our last hope was to write the hundred or so “Joan Hardings” in British telephone directories.  Our chances were slim.  We had no idea whether our Joan Harding was alive or dead, or even if “Joan Harding” was her real name.  Neither of the other actresses we had interviewed used the same names as during the tour.

Incredibly, we succeeded on letter number 7.  This Joan Harding lived only a short distance from Andi Brooks.  The signature on her letter matched an autograph on a program from the tour that Andi had obtained. 

Joan was born Joan Hart, in Bury, Lancashire.  Her father was a vicar who spent years in missionary service, and Joan spent much of her adolescence in British boarding schools. During the war, she was evacuated to Liverpool, where she began elocution and dance lessons on weekends.  At age 14, she moved on to drama school, and started her acting career in the Buxton Repertory Company.  Tours of military postings, radio work and stints with different repertory troupes followed.  She did a season of religious drama, playing churches, schools and prisons across the British Isles, and again toured British military
postings in Germany in Queen Elizabeth Slept Here, where she worked with Sheila Wynn.

Andi interviewed Joan on April 24, 1999, at her home in Radstock.

Joan and Bela Lugosi

Andi Brooks: How long had you been acting when you joined the Dracula tour?

Joan Harding: About 6 years.

AB: Did you attend the original auditions in April?

JH: I may have done because I went to various auditions at that time, but I really couldn’t confirm it.

AB: How did you eventually land the job as Effects Manager?

JH: I don’t recall.  I suppose Betty Farmar just phoned me up and asked if I was interested.  Then I went along to see them—I think it was at the Streatham Hill Theatre—to see about joining them.  I think I was interviewed mainly by Alfred Beale.  I joined the company at Dudley the next week.  I remember going to Dudley Zoo with, I think, John Saunders.  I didn’t travel up there with the company on the Sunday, but went up there later in the week.  My fare was paid, but I don’t think I was paid for that week.  The next week, Eastbourne, I hadn’t booked anywhere in advance.  I know we were there early in the season because Janet Reid, the Canadian girl, had not yet left the company.

AB: Where did you wind up staying?

JH: Janet (the tour’s first assistant stage manager) and I became great friends while she was on the tour.  We arrived in Eastbourne with no digs booked.  We were going to stay with friends of hers, but it fell through.  We stayed in a guest house which didn’t usually take theatricals.  We just landed in Eastbourne and had to go looking for somewhere to stay.  We found a guest house, not the normal digs for theatricals.  I remember Janet went off one day and when she came back she had acquired a kitten which we had to smuggle in and out of the guest house for the couple of days that were left.  We took it along to the theatre and kept it in a box.  I can remember incidents we shared, such as some grotty digs in a very seedy part of town, with American service-men turning up on the doorstep with girls they had obviously just picked up at a pub or dance-hall and asking the landlady if she had a “suite” to rent. This would double us up with laughter, but we felt lucky that the door had an inside lock.

AB: Did actors and the other company members share the same digs?

JH: Certainly the stage managers used the same digs as the cast.  We were given a list of accommodations a few weeks before.  We, either independently or together, wrote off.  Sometimes you wouldn’t know that you were going to be sharing with other members of the cast, sometimes you would.

AB: Did you have your own dressing room?

JH: Yes, I did because it wasn’t a very big cast.

AB: Did you have experience in effects?

JH: Yes.  I had staged managed and assistant stage-managed before.

AB: What do you recall of the effects?

JH: I remember the smoke gun.  You fill it with an oily substance, glycerine or something, which we used to get from Ealing Film Studios.  It had a sparlet bulb like you use in a soda water siphon.  You have to heat it up so that when you fire it, it lets out steam rather than oil.  The smoke underneath the cape was achieved by Bela opening his cloak wide, the smoke gun being fired at his feet seconds before he made his entrance.  Bela then wrapped the cloak around himself trapping it.

AB: Did you have problems with the bats?

JH: I can’t remember much about them.  I don’t think I had much to do with them, being engaged elsewhere, doing the thunder and lightning that accompanied them. I think that we did have occasional snags with them, but I think that most of the problems had been ironed out before I joined.

AB: What was morale like among the company when you joined?

JH: I think that one or two did leave because they were unhappy about something or other.

AB: Do you recall preparing to go in place of Sheila when she almost missed the opening curtain at the Shepherd’s Bush
Empire?

JH: No, at that point I would have been in the understudy of Joan Winmill, who in turn was the understudy of Sheila.   It was Joan Winmill who was dressed in her negligee and I was in the maid’s dress.  When I took over from Joan I then became the understudy of Sheila.  I remember taking over from Sheila in Queen Elizabeth Slept Here.

AB: If you had to take over, as in Middlesbrough, who would have handled the effects?

JH: Well, I was still able to do some of them when I wasn’t on. The stage manager or ASM would have done them while I was on.  I remember arriving in Middlesbrough.  It was about mid-day, but it was black as night.  It was dreadful.  Perhaps it was an omen that all was not going to go well.

AB: Joan Winmill was having personal problems when she left.  Was it obvious?

JH: I think so, yes.  I think she had boyfriend trouble.  I never really got to know her, she tended to be with Sheila.  I just know that she was going through some sort of traumatic experience.

AB: Other than Janet Reid, did you form any particular friendships with fellow cast members?

JH: I was fairly friendly with Richard and John.  When I took over as the maid, I became friendly with Janet Gray, the girl who took over from me.  Occasionally I would go somewhere with Sheila.

AB: Here’s a list of the cast and company members.  Do you have any recollections of them?

JH: Let’s see.  Arthur Hosking—I think he was a little dissatisfied with the whole thing for some reason, but I’m not sure why.  Ralph Wilson was very pleasant.  But I don’t really remember a lot about him, since I tended to stay with the younger people like Richard and John.  Richard Butler was very nice, very pleasant.  I may be wrong, but I think I’d met him before. Since then I have spotted him on television from time to time.  Sheila and I weren’t great friends, but we were quite friendly.  I do remember Sheila getting upset one night when Richard and John came into the dressing room and we were laughing and fooling about, and she said we were turning into a “bean garden.”  John Saunders was always friendly and pleasant, good company.  Peter Whelpton—I think his wife was expecting a baby.  I remember going shopping for nightdresses suitable for nursing mums with him, but I don’t remember where.

AB: What do you recall of your role?

JH: When the play started I was on the set and then someone, I think Richard, came on and we just had a few lines together.  I had one large-ish scene with John and the scene where Bela tries to hypnotize me.

Joan and John Saunders

AB: Were regular rehearsals held during the tour?

JH: No, not many, if at all. I do remember one.  I think that it was Eric who couldn’t quite get one scene right, and Bela showed him how to do it.  I was very surprised.  One tended to think of Bela as Dracula and nothing else.  I don’t know what else he did.  He was synonymous with Dracula.  I can remember sitting in the stalls and watching him and thinking, “Yes, he can act—he’s not just Dracula.”

AB: Did you have a “typical” day during the tour?

JH: Not really.  It depended on what sort of place we were in.  If we were at the seaside, we would spend quite a bit of time on the beach, depending on the weather.  It depended where we were.

AB: What did you think of the tour compared to other work that you had done?

JH: I don’t think it was a very good production—I don’t think it was a well-balanced play.  I can’t think of it being measurably less or more memorable than other work that I’d done.  It was just another job I think really.  As I said, the last thing I did before that was Queen Elizabeth Slept Here in Germany, which was quite fun, you know—a new country, a different place.  It was exhilarating at some times as well.

AB: Did you have any problems with your pay?

JH: We were paid.

AB: Did your rate of pay change when took over from Joan?

JH: I can’t remember.  I think I was …£6 comes to mind, but I wouldn’t like to say definitely.

AB: Were all of the tour dates confirmed in advance?

JH: I think towards the end they were rather filled in as we went along.  I think the tour would have gone on if they could have found more dates.  I think they did try to get more but failed.  We did the dates we were given, but they were hoping to go on.  We did have one week off, the penultimate week.  I think it was always a bit tenuous.  They said that there had been a fire at the theatre we were supposed to play in, but it may have just been an excuse as it was always a bit tenuous.

AB: You were based in London at this time?

JH: Yes, I had to be for my work.

AB: So you could commute from your home for the London dates?

JH: Oh no.  I was only in digs in London, my home wasn’t there.  I had to give up my digs when I went on tour with Dracula, so I had to find digs when we came back to London.

AB: Do you recall any kind of farewell party when the tour closed?

JH: I remember drinking gin out of paper cups in Bela’s dressing room.  I can’t remember anything else.

AB: Did you ever socialize with the Lugosis?

JH: Not really.  They usually stayed in hotels and we were in digs.  It must have been pretty hard work for him doing two shows a night, so I don’t think he did much.  He was like Dracula, he didn’t come out in the daylight very much.  Bela had a cabin trunk, which opened like a book, with drawers on one side and hanging space on the other.  I think his cloak actually travelled in the coffin.

AB: Did he manage to revive his energy for the performances?

JH: Yes, he did.  He was very commanding on stage.

AB: Was his performance ever affected by his growing deafness or his drug use?

JH: No, I don’t think so.  I think he was on autopilot, he’d been doing it for so long.

AB: What particular memories do you have of him?

JH: The main times that we mixed with Bela were on the trains in the dining cars.  His table manners left something to be desired.  He smoked cigars incessantly which was very off-putting.  But both Lillian and Bela were very friendly.  You could go into Bela’s dressing room and sit and have a chat.  It wasn’t as if they were stand-offish, but I think he usually only came out at night to go to the theatre to do the two shows and then went back to his hotel.  They stayed at the Copper Kettle Café in Norwich, because Bela hadn’t been paid yet.  They said it was very good.  It cost them £4-4-0 each for the week.  As I say, they were always very friendly, although we didn’t really socialize.  I think that he looked tired a lot, which he probably was, and a bit out of it sometimes.  Lillian was always with him, she was always in his dressing room and would quite often come to the prompt side when he was on.  But when he made his entrance from the other side of the stage or from the back of the stage and I had to be with him, waiting in the dark alone, his hands would wander a bit.  Nothing very heavy, just…Going back to the smoke gun—Eric told you about my going to his dressing room when Lillian wasn’t there.   He is right about my going to get programmes signed and Bela not letting me go.  People would usually wait outside the stage door for the cast to come out, or hand them to the stage doorkeeper.  On this occasion they passed the task on to me.  Bela started to come on to me a bit stronger and I said, “I’ve got to go, Bela, my gun’s getting hot.”  “So’s mine!” he said.  I had to promise him that I would go back after returning the autographs to the waiting people.  Eric wasn’t there by that time, as I can assure you it was more than “that look in his eyes.”  He was told about it later.  When I got out of Bela’s dressing room I was doubled-up with laughter and Janet wanted to know why, so I told her what had been said.  She said, “Oh, I must tell Eric.”  I said I didn’t want it broadcast and she said, “Oh, do let me tell Eric—it’s the sort of thing that would amuse him.” So, I said OK.

AB: He did make passes at other ladies in the company.  Was he just joking?

JH: Well, he wasn’t on his own with anybody enough for it to go anywhere.  But if he had been…I’m not naïve enough to believe I was the only girl he ever made a pass at!

AB: Do you have any other memories of Lillian?

JH: I don’t know about Lillian keeping the women at a distance.  She was always very mindful of Bela, but I found her very friendly and kind.  In fact after the tour she invited me to the dinner, at the house they were renting, with John and Richard.  Unfortunately it took her a few days to reach me, finally phoning me at the Equity Club, but by that time I had already arranged to go to a show with someone from a previous company, probably the only evening I couldn’t have managed.  I was very disappointed, I would love to have seen them one last time.

Joan Harding stayed with the Dracula tour until it closed on October 13, 1951.  In 1952, she gave birth to her daughter, and left acting. “In those days, you couldn’t really combine having a family with carrying on in the theatre,” she recalled.  “I think that it is easier today, but I’d seen so many wives here, husbands on the other side of the country and children farmed out with grandparents, and they never seem to meet up.”

With our interview of Joan Harding, we had recorded the memories of the six surviving cast members of the 1951 Dracula tour.  We continued to search for the offstage members of the company.  The tour went through three stage managers and three assistant stage managers in its six months on the road.  Peter Whelpton and Gordon Marshall (the first and last stage managers) had both passed away.  Our sustained inquiries into the others had not succeeded.

The ones we really needed to find were the producers and the director—the men in charge of the production.  Richard Eastham, the director, was remembered with respect by everyone we had interviewed.  We quickly learnt that two different Richard Easthams were working in theatre in 1951, a British director and an American singer and actor, whose career had peaked with South Pacific.  His daughter contacted us, but from the director, nothing.  The Stage, the trade journal of British theatre, had already published several of our letters seeking lost members of the tour.  The weekly paper agreed to one more, and we decided for a little shock value.  Richard Butler had remembered (incorrectly, we later learned) that Eastham often wore colorful socks.  We included that in our inquiry.  The Stage ran an article entitled “Sock Man Search.”

A week later came a letter from east of London.  “Richard Eastham is alive and well, and never wore flashy socks in his life…”

To Be Continued

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DRACULA’S LAST HURRAH

Interviews with the Cast & Company of Bela Lugosi’s Last, Lost “Dracula”

Part 3

By Frank J. Dello Stritto & Andi Brooks

Bela Lugosi as Dracula, photographed by Edith Sherman

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we report our interviews with the surviving cast members of  Bela Lugosi’s last stage tour of Dracula in Britain in 1951. Contrary to most published accounts, the tour was not a failure that closed after a few performances. Lugosi’s farewell to his great role played more than 200 performances as it criss-crossed the British isles for six months.  The tour and Lugosi in particular received generally fine reviews.

Our interviews with the cast members—Richard Butler and John Martin (who both played Jonathan Harker), Eric Lindsay (Renfield), Sheila Wynn (Lucy Seward), Joan Winmill and Joan Harding (both played Wells the Maid)—provided rich detail on the tour itself and on working with the Lugosis.  To complete the story we wanted to find the decision makers behind the scenes.

Through a letter published in The Stage, the trade journal of British theatre, we managed to locate Richard Eastham, Dracula’s director, living in retirement east of London.  Retirement has not slowed him down at all, and “Dickie,” as everyone calls him, showed the quickness of mind and movement that the cast members recalled.

Dickie Eastham was born in Stockport.  He hailed from a theatrical family; his grandparents were third generation vaudevillians.  As a young boy he was often taken to plays, one of them a 1928 production of Dracula performed by Hamilton Deane’s company. By then Dickie had decided on a career in theatre.  A small, dynamic man of many talents, Dickie took up directing, and showed a talent for whipping an amorphous company into shape and getting a show into production. That talent was prized by the many actors he worked with, including by 1951 John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.  Dickie’s wartime stint in the army ended with an assignment in Germany to restore damaged opera houses, and gave him first hand experience in a rich theatre culture cut off from Britain since the 1930s.  On returning to London, Dickie worked as a writer at Rank Studios, and then returned to theatre and his special love, English pantomime.

Frank interviewed Eastham, at his home east of London on July 25, 1999:

Frank Dello Stritto: How did you get involved in Dracula?

Richard Eastham: I had known John Mather, the producer, for some years.  John had been a stage director in the West End.  In the 1940s, I travelled a lot, and whenever I was in London, I shared John’s flat on Percy Street off Tottenham Court Road.  So, when I got back to London in March 1951, John called me right away, and asked if I would direct Dracula

FDS: Got back from where?

RE:   Oh, I had been abroad almost a year.  About seven months touring North America as stage director of the Sadler Wells Theatre Ballet.  Then I spent the winter in Halifax and Newfoundland, directing plays and pantomime.     

FDS: Do you remember what you were paid for Dracula?

RE:   A flat £100.  Directors usually received a percentage of the receipts, but I was doing it more out of friendship.  John called and said “You’ll do this for me,
won’t you?” So for £100, I would bring Dracula through rehearsals and its opening.

FDS: Did you have anything to do with the tour after it opened?

RE:   No, not really.  I met with the cast the day after the opening, and went through my notes. That was pretty much my farewell. That’s when Bela gave me this picture (a postcard sized portrait, autographed in red ink, “To Dick with appreciation – Bela.”).  He was a lovely man.  Everyone got on well with him.

FDS: What did you think of Deane & Balderston’s play?

RE:   When I read it, I was surprised how old-fashioned it was.  But the big problem is that is was rather short—about an hour and ten to twenty minutes. Audiences expected a full evening—curtain up at 7:30 and certainly not getting out before 9:00.  I padded it with longer speeches.  I tried to steer it away from Victorian melodrama.  With two very long breaks, the entire performance was about 2:05 minutes.

FDS: Hamilton Deane was still living in London then.  Was he ever asked to play Van Helsing?

RE:   No, it never came up.  He never contacted us, and we didn’t contact him.

FDS: Did you have anything to do with the sets?

RE:   Oh, yes.  Dracula was produced on the cheap.  Bertram Tyrer and I scouted around theatre shops for old scenery.  Bertram was a genius.  He dabbled in many things, set design was only one of them.  He could paint with either hand.  He repainted the sets we bought—they looked very good, but definitely on the cheap.

FDS: There were only two weeks of rehearsals.  Was that enough?

RE:   Two weeks was too short.  But it was an absolute luxury compared to the 6 days or so I usually had to work with in stock companies. I had to churn out a
play a week.  So, two weeks was not too bad.

FDS: Where were the rehearsals?

RE:   They were above a pub on Pont Street.  John and I arranged for Bela and Lillian to have a flat nearby on Chesham Place. Both were near Routledge & White’s office on Knightsbridge.  That’s where John worked out of.

FDS: Tell me about your first meeting with Bela.

RE:   Oh, that’s a bit of a story.  There was nothing planned for him on his first night in town.  I forget why. So, the next night, I took Bela and Lillian to dinner.  I wanted to talk to them alone about what I was doing with the play.  Sometimes older actors get very suspicious when someone tinkers with a play they know really well.  We went to my favorite restaurant in London, the Leçu de France.  I noticed for the first time that Bela was a big man, with a big chest, but still he looked rather frail.  He was also hard of hearing—not chronically, but noticeable. I was wondering how to break the ice, but Bela did it for me.  “Dickie,” he said in that deep accent, “I don’t like the toilet paper in your country—it doesn’t soak up the manure very well.”  We all laughed, and I sensed then that there would be no problems between Bela and me. While we ate, I assured Bela that though I was adding to the play, none of his scenes had been altered.  His entrances and exits would be exactly as they always were.  Bela just ate his dinner.  “No problem, my dear boy” was all he said.  Lillian was not so sure.  She was very protective.  I thought I handled the changes well, lengthening the play but not disturbing Bela’s part.  I wrote a prologue.  Before the first curtain, Sheila stood between two sheets of gauze—a clear sheet and a sheet with a large bat imprinted on it.  Bela would stand behind the sheets in mist.

FDS: What was your opinion of Lillian?

RELillian was very nice, very quiet. She was very protective, but very much in the background, not overt.  Lillian was not happy with some things.  She had opinions, but always handled them tactfully.  Appearance-wise, Emma Thompson reminds me a bit of Lillian. Lillian and John Mather never got along. Well, while we were eating that night, the sommelier passed.  He was Hungarian—we all thought he was French, but it turned out he was Hungarian. He all but fell to his knees. “Mr. Lugosi!”  He had seen Bela on stage in Hungary long, long ago as Hamlet. I dined with Bela and Lillian a lot during the month we worked together.

FDS: What else did you do to prepare the production?

RE:    As soon as I took the job, I recruited two men specifically: David Dawson as Seward and Alfred Beale as business manager.   They would be the solid backbone of the company.  Alfred Beale was a lovely man.  Alfred was exactly what you wanted in a business manager—solid and by-the-book.  When we first met, he was general manager of the Harry Hanson Corp Players in Peterborough, where I did a turn as resident director.  Alfred always helped me in dealing with Harry.  David Dawson was an Australian, a tall man about 6’2” and in his mid-forties.  I had worked with him in War & Peace at the Unity Theatre.  Between acting jobs, he worked as a “supply teacher” (editor’s note: roughly equal to substitute teacher or adjunct facility in America).  I got him a good salary, £40 per week I think.  But I wanted a good solid actor in that part. Seward is more important to holding things together in the play than most people realize.  Otherwise, I was involved in casting and had opinions, but left the final decisions to John.  I was not particularly keen on Sheila Wynn as Lucy—her long auburn hair was good for the part, but I would have preferred a leaner girl.  But John and George Routledge were very keen on having her.  Except for Eric Lindsay and David Dawson, I felt the cast did not “believe” in the material.  Of course Joan Winmill was deathly afraid of Bela—both onstage and off.  David played it perfectly straight, and Eric was full-blown into his part.  He pantomimed catching flies in mid-air, and the gimmick worked great.

FDS: What do you remember about the dress rehearsal?

RE:    Dress rehearsal was definitely Sunday, as the theatre had a show in on Saturday. Bela used some Americanisms when he spoke.  I did not always get them at first try.  Bela’s spoke of playing Dracula in “full evening dress.”  I did not know at first that he meant white tie and tails.  But that’s what I had expected anyhow.  Megs Jenkins (editor’s note: a well know stage actress, and wife of John Mather’s business partner,  George Routledge) sat next to me through the rehearsal .  I had known her since my days at Rank Studios.  She leaned over and said, “This is pretty poor.”  She was right.  The performance held together but just barely.  It was flat, dull, lumpy.  I was depressed about it.  Opening night was somewhat better.

FDS: Was Bela in the coffin for the final scene?

RE:   He was definitely not in the coffin.  It was a dummy.  We might not have gotten him erect for the curtain calls.  But Bela himself suggested that he do the closing monologue, that Van Helsing is supposed to give.  He said that he always did it when he played in the States. That worked very well.

After his month with Dracula Dickie Eastham continued his theatre career until the 1960s, when he joined John Mather, who then headed the London office of the William Morris talent agency.  John handled film work and Dickie concentrated on theatre.  He tells wonderful stories of shepherding American stars with their Hollywood-size egos through British and European theatre.

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Dickie provided us with John Mather’s phone number.  John was everyone’s boss on the Dracula tour, and we needed to talk with him to have the complete story of 1951. 

John Chartres Mather had been in theatre since age 12.  Taking his lead from Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, the young man staged local revues in his native Edinburgh.  After a year as stagehand in Dundee repertory, he took on London.  Through the war years, he launched musical revues to entertain British troops.  John also did tenures as stage director on the road and on the West End.  By the late 1940s, still in his mid-20s, John was producing his own musical revues. John’s tastes in productions tended towards extravaganzas, and he always over-reached a bit, “flying before I could walk” as he described it.  Musicals were expensive undertakings; they lost big when they failed and earned big when they succeeded.  Fine Feathers temporarily made him rich.  His labor of love, Out of This World, folded in previews, a devastating setback financially and personally.  Musicals were John’s first love, but the expense and recent track records of the big productions he favored made them difficult to finance. John needed to get into something new.  With his partners George Routledge and Gordon White, he formed Chartres Productions in early 1951.

John Chartres MatherJohn Chartres Mather

Frank interviewed John Mather at his home in south England on August 8, 1999:

Frank Dello Stritto: How did you decide to produce Dracula?

John C. Mather:  I was having drinks with a few friends in London. Charles Feldman, head of Famous Artists, was there. There were three big talent agencies at the time—William Morris, MCA and Famous Artists.  Charlie had heard that Bela Lugosi’s agent in the US was trying to interest someone in Dracula.  By coincidence, Gordon White had mentioned it to me also a few weeks or months before. So, that was when I first thought about it seriously.

FDS: How did that work—putting together a production?

JCM: First, I had to make sure I could book it.  I took the idea to the theatre agents.  The West End theatres wouldn’t even talk to me until it had toured. There were three big theatre circuits for the tours—the Stoll Circuit, Moss-Empire, Howard & Wyndham.  They each had about 10 or so “Number 1” theatres around the country.  Then there were “Number 2” and “Number 3” theatres in the smaller towns.  You could make money even at the number 3s, since there wasn’t much else to do in those places.  Deals with theatres ranged from 50/50 to 60/40 splits, depending on a lot of things: production, stars, publicity budget.  Booking agents wanted to see my budget for publicity posters in detail: 300 double posters, 150 four-crowns, 6,000 throwaways, placards, etc. The plan was always to get into the West End.  Early in the tour, I had a verbal agreement with the Garrick theatre: the production then playing there was expected to drop below its box office threshold soon. After 3 weeks below the limit, the theatre could give it a two week notice.  Then “Dracula” could come in.  Tour for 6 to 8 weeks and then into the Garrick Theatre—that was the plan.  I had dates lined up for the tour, and would have cancelled them if the call came from the West End.  It never did.  I never intended to tour for 24 weeks.

FDS: Why were you interested in Dracula?

JCM: In 1951, Americans-in-the-flesh were in vogue.  Danny Kaye had been coming over regularly, and there was a demand for more. I think that’s when Judy Garland started coming over as well.  Just prior to Dracula, George Routledge did “fronting up” for a Jane Russell revue.  And I knew I could pull Dracula together pretty quickly.

FDS: Fronting up?

JCM: Fronting up—supplying the supporting acts that come on before the star attraction.

FDS: What was your budget like?

JCM: I invested about £2,000. Bill Williams about £1,000, and £2,000 each from other backers.  I don’t remember who they were. I think one of the backers was named “Burton,” in real estate or something like that.  He was dating a “Renee” who was in some of my musical reviews.  I just doesn’t remember their full names.  So, about £7,000.  For that I could get the show started and keep it on the road for as long as I had to.

FDS: What about Routledge & White?

JCM: They were my partners in Chartres Productions, but they never had much to do with Dracula.  George Routledge liked the idea, as I recall, but he wasn’t interested in investing in it or working on it.  Gordon White thought it was a terrible idea—didn’t think it would succeed at all. He thought we were crazy, but he handled the negotiations to contract Bela.

FDS: All the programs for Dracula mention Routledge & White very prominently.

JCM: Well, they were my partners, and we used the same office, so I put their names on the programs.  But they really didn’t have much to do with it. Gordon White quit the business and worked with Jimmy Hanson when he set up the Hanson Trust.  Gordon died a few years ago in California, a very wealthy man.  George Routledge had some legal and money problems and left the business a few years after DraculaHe lives in Denmark now.

FDS: Was Lee Ephraim a backer?

JCM: No, he wasn’t.  I knew Lee well, and his partner Betty Farmar.  I had worked for Lee on Waltz Time and Lee had been a backer on Out Of This World.

FDS: How about Nigel Ballantine?

JCM: Oh, no!  Nigel was in jail by then!

FDS: In jail?

JCM: He ran off with the leading lady and all the money from one of his productions, and got caught.

FDS: What was your impression of Bela?

JCM: I met Bela and Lillian when they landed in Southampton.  Bela looked as if he were going to die.  He always looked that way. Bela was very charming, very humble, not conceited in the least.  For the first 2 or 3 days of rehearsals, he only walked through his part.  I was wondering about cancelling the whole thing. On the third day, Dickie Eastham asked the cast to do their read-throughs in character.  Bela stood straight and awed everyone.  Bela had always looked like a tired old man—very gray, very old and bent, years older than his actual age.  He spoke very slowly, softly and mumbled a bit.  This all changed when he was onstage—the transformation was complete: he looked 40 again, erect and towering.  When he was Dracula, he had this twinkle in his eye. He was so charming, and then so evil. It was magnificent.

FDS: Tell me about your first meeting with Bela.

JCM: I think Dickie and me both went to Southampton to meet Bela and Lillian.  I put them into a hired limousine and hurried ahead to London. I had the flat stocked with goodies, and a bottle of champagne waiting.  I had made a reservation at Carlton Towers, a table by the window for 6:00. Lillian said “No, Bela’s tired and he’s going straight to bed.”  We dined there later, several times, and it became a favorite of theirs.

FDS: I have been warned that you and Lillian didn’t always see eye to eye.

JCM: Oh, she was awful! Awful!  She loathed me.  It was mutual loathing from the first day.

FDS: Well, I must say that everyone else on the tour speaks well of her.

JCM: Really?  Well, she was an extraordinary woman, but a pain-in-the-ass. She took notes through the rehearsals, and interfered.  I had it out with her once.  After that, she sat in the back of the stalls; but still kept those notes. Lillian looked tough and was a strong woman, physically.  At dress rehearsal, a hamper was in the way.  Lillian lifted it and set it on the table.  I went and looked inside—it was filled with books and files.  I was curious and nudged it to check its weight, and wondered if I could have lifted it.  Lillian seemed desperately unhappy.  I think she had a terrible inferiority complex.  She had a strident voice, heavy Chicago accent.  Nothing ever pleased her—in restaurants and the theatre, anywhere. She browbeat Bela, who just seemed to tune her out and accept it.  She was bitter about how Bela was treated—Hollywood had once been at his feet, studios phoning constantly, but now they shunned him.

FDS: Again, the company members we’ve talked to have quite different memories of her.  If anything, they think Bela controlled her life.

JCM: I think Lillian bullied Bela, a bit—treated him like a child.  At dinner she did  everything but cut his meat.  She sent food back in restaurants.  I think Bela was used to this, since he just munched away.  She was always at the side of the stage—every night.  Something was always wrong that she’d complain about.

{Authors’ Note: In our follow-up interviews, we pressed Dickie Eastham on John Mather’s memories of Lillian.  Dickie stands by his much more favorable memories of Lillian, but strongly confirms that John and Lillian simply never got along. “It was chemical,” Dickie told us, “it started as soon as they met.”  Lillian undoubtedly could be fiercely protective of Bela.  John, as the producer of a tour that was not quite what she and Bela expected, saw a side of that affection that few others did.}

Poster mock-up 2

A mock-up of a poster for the tour from John’s collection

FDS: I have to ask you something directly.  There has always been a persistent claim that Bela was never paid for the Dracula tour.

JCM: Oh, he was definitely paid. Everyone, every actor in every show I ever produced was paid.  I treated Bela and Lillian well.  I didn’t want them saying anything negative like that about me.  I couldn’t survive long in this business with people saying I didn’t pay them.

FDS: Any special memories of Bela?

JCM: Bela was always marvelous, once you got to know him. At our first meeting in Southampton, I thought he looked so feeble and I really feared for the production, but he never let us down. I dined out with them often, especially during rehearsals in April.  I always watched Bela’s intake of alcohol.  I did that with all the stars of my shows.  He never drank that much in front of me.  Lillian saw that he didn’t.  Before dinner, I would go to their flat on Chesham Road to pick them up.  Once, while Lillian got ready, Bela sat me down on the sofa, and brought out a huge scrapbook of old clippings.  They were from his days in Hungary.  They were all in Hungarian of course, and I couldn’t read anything but Bela’s name in the headline.  They were obvious rave reviews.  Bela went through them one by one.  It was very important to him, I think, for me to know about his days before Dracula.

FDS: Do you have any memories of the rehearsals.

JCM: The rehearsals started in bare rooms above the pub on Pont Street.  For the second week, we moved to the Duke of York Theatre.  It had a one-set play on at the time.  So, we could rehearse during the day, and put the set back in place before the performance.  It was a courtesy that theatres extended to productions in rehearsal. I was at some rehearsals, but only to observe.  Dickie and I would meet afterwards to discuss how it was going.  If there was any problem, I would talk to Bela about it over dinner.  But things went smoothly enough.

FDS: How about the dress rehearsal?

JCM: That’s a different story.  Things didn’t go well.  The effects did not work.  The smoke took seven seconds to get through the pipes.  Too much smoke and the house was filled.  Too little and it had no effect.  Bela had to disappear in the smoke—no smoke and he was left standing there. It took forever to work out. 
Lighting effects were a bit difficult—but nothing compared to the musicals I had produced.  Those were really complex.  So, I thought Dracula would go pretty smoothly.  But it didn’t.  Strand Electric—that’s where I got the equipment from—was supposed to send a man down to Brighton for the week, but never did.  I was very annoyed.  We kept the cast until two in the morning, working through the lighting effects.  We let the cast go to get some rest.  The rest of the company stayed until eight in the morning.  Dickie and I went to breakfast and commiserated.  But we got them straight, and the opening went well.  The reviews were fine.

FDS: You had your own lighting equipment?  Wouldn’t the theatre have that?

JCM: Yes, we had our own.  We had to. On tour, you never know what the theatres have.  So, we had to able to do it ourselves.

FDS: How did the tour do?

JCM: Dracula had too high a weekly expense to make money on the road.  I had to get it into the West End, and didn’t.  So, I lost money.  Not a lot. Some weeks, it made money, some weeks it didn’t.  Dracula was not cheap to produce.  There was Bela’s salary.  There were nurses at every performance; so St. John’s Ambulance had to be paid a contribution.  There were 3 or 4 musicians every week to play at the intermissions.  We had long intermissions, and had to fill them with something.

FDS: How was the company to deal with?

JCM: It was a nice company—not much trouble, not many complaints.  Whenever the tour was near London, I would catch the show to check on things.  I’d circulate around the dressing rooms talking to everyone I could.  It was a good cast.  Most of the problems mentioned to me, I referred to Alfred Beale, so as not to usurp his authority.

FDS: So, Beale was in charge on the road?

JCM: Yes, he would call me every night to report on the box office and the performance.  He was a good man and a good business director. He had a good heart.  He’d be tough with the company when he had to be, but then he’d apologize and undo whatever good he had done.  But he was a good manager and I was glad to have him.

FDS: The programs list a Douglas Bodkin as publicity manager.  We’ve been looking for him.  Do you have any memories of him?

JCM: Not really. He was the advance publicity man. He did all his work Mondays and Tuesdays—lining up the publicity, arranging for a few things.  But I didn’t know him well then, and I’ve heard nothing about him since.

FDS: The programs also list a W. H. Williams as your co-producer.  What about him?

JCM: Bill Williams was the head of Merton Park Studios.  He was more of a backer than a producer, but I felt I owed him something, so I billed him as co-producer.  Bill invested in Dracula and has also put money into Out of This World.  He supplied the smoke machine and the bat that you’ve heard so much about.  Honestly, I hadn’t heard any of the stories about them breaking down until I spoke to you.  By the way, I do remember that my sister, Rosemary, attended a theatre garden party with Bela.  For some reason, Lillian couldn’t go, so my sister went with him.

FDS: Theatre garden party?

JCM: There were theatre garden parties and movie garden parties.  They would be held on  large outdoor lawns.  Shepperton Studios lot was a typical place. People would go and meet actors and actresses. Stars would sit at tables and sign autographs.  Sometimes they would be driven to different sites through the day.  For producers, they were a bit of a nuisance, but a good place to show off actors.  Rank studios always paraded out its starlets.  I remember I saw Honor Blackman and Joan Collins at these parties.  You can speak to my sister about her day with Bela.

Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party Programme cover

Programme for the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey, which Bela attended on June 16

FDS: How close did you come to getting Dracula into the West End?

JCM: Very close.  The Garrick wanted us after its current play closed, but that play—I forget what it was—hung on and on. I also had discussions with the Duke of York and The Ambassador, and they were very interested. If we could have kept the tour going, I would have gotten it into one of them.

FDS: Why did the tour end?

JCM: Touring is hard work, and I never planned that we would tour for six months.  Late in the tour, I received a call from Alfred Beale, “I’m a bit worried about Bela,” he said, “He came on in Act III, and started with Act I dialogue.”  I went and met with Bela, and realized how tired he was.  You see, he always looked so tired offstage but was always so good on stage.  I had just learned to ignore it, but he was really exhausted. We were discussing some details in his dressing room when Lillian came in.  “It’s late,” she said.  She took out some sort of kit, and gave Bela an injection.  “You know, he’s diabetic.”  I knew that wasn’t true.  I had heard about some kind of injections, but didn’t think much about it, since Bela was always so good onstage.

FDS: Is that when you decided to end the tour?

JCM: No, but I didn’t quite know what to do.  I still kept looking for bookings for the tour, and had lined up a few dates near Newcastle & Liverpool, but Lillian said, “Oh, don’t put us up there again.” She wanted to keep the travelling to a minimum.  Two or three weeks later I visited Bela backstage in Derby.  Lillian wasn’t there.  I told Bela that we had to play those dates or not play at all.  He looked at me a long time.  “John, I can’t go on,” he said, “It’s taking too much out of me.  Please finish it quickly.”  I put up the closing notices that week.

FDS: But you played Portsmouth two weeks later.

JCM: Yes, I had already signed for that week, and I had to give the company two weeks notice.  Those were the rules.  Portsmouth was a bad week at the box office.

FDS: When was the last time you saw Bela?

JCM: I visited them after the tour ended, before he started filming the movie he made.  He still looked very tired.  I had no second thoughts.  He sat in a chair and we just talked.  He said he was glad the tour was over, but that he had enjoyed it.  He told me some anecdotes from the tour, and we said goodbye. As I was leaving Lillian gave me a hug and thanked me.  I was surprised that she did that.  It was a side of her that I had never seen.

John Mather lost some money on the Dracula tour, but a year later he tried the same formula with a tour of the mystery, Shadow of a Man, starring Sonny Tufts.  The tour did fine until Tufts, battling a drinking problem, came onstage between acts, told the audience who-done-it, and then launched into his own stage act using a piano that was part of the set.  The audience loved the surprise, the theatre management did not. Any performance on a British stage had to be approved by the censors beforehand, and such improvisation exposed to the theatre to legal action, especially if Tufts’ act contained any adult humor.  Word spread quickly throughout the theatre chains, and the tour soon ended.

In London John worked for the Danziger brothers, producing 26 episodes of Mayfair Mysteries for Paramount. In the early days of television, many American shows were made in Britain due to the lower costs.  John had 40 days to produce the entire series. Character actor Paul Douglas flew in for a single day from Los Angeles, filmed all 26 introductions and epilogues, and flew back without staying the night.  Incredibly, filming completed almost two weeks early.  The Danizigers thus had 10 days of paid studio space to use; launching John on his most enduring and infamous achievement.  Devil Girl From Mars was written in a few days, as John telephoned around London for available actors and had the sets prepared.  AtomAge, British suppliers of latex, the latest wonder material, cut him a good deal on the Devil Girl’s costume.  Pat Laffan, in the title role, liked the feel of it and loved how it looked.  John took screenwriting credit for Devil Girl From Mars, but in the chaos of low budget, tight schedule filmmaking, everyone did everything.  A wonderfully awful movie of the type that only the 1950s could sire resulted. Like many early science fiction epics, Devil Girl From Mars’ clumsiness and naiveté gives it a charm that delights its fans and mortifies its detractors.

In 1954, John established a talent agency in Rome, where American movie companies were doing lots of filming due to the low production costs. He ran John C. Mather International, Ltd. for many years, before selling out to the William Morris Agency.  He then ran the London office of the Morris agency.  In 1973, he returned to theatre production.  His extravagant stage version of  The Avengers featured terrific special effects, with a helicopter crashing onstage in the finale. Audiences loved it, but it closed in London after seven weeks—too expensive to turn a profit.  Following his retirement from show business, John took up writing, and has published several novels to date.  His as-yet unpublished autobiography, Hollywood on the Tiber, focuses on his days as a talent agent in Italy.

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With the interviews of the Dracula company members, and with the ongoing help from Richard Gordon in New York, we had the framework of the complete story of 1951.  We continued researching the tour and searching for people that had worked with Lugosi in Britain.  Andi’s letter writing campaign to British newspapers uncovered many people that had seen Lugosi perform.  A few of these had met Bela and offered us lengthy reminiscences that had never been revealed before.  Frank interviewed John Mather’s sister about the day she spent with Bela at a theatre garden party, and met with Hamilton Deane’s niece and nephew about their memories of the man who wrote the first dramatization of Bram Stoker’s novel.  Andi found and interviewed Eric Cross, cinematographer on 1935’s Mystery Of The Mary Celeste, and Brian Langley,  cinematographer on 1939’s Dark Eyes Of London.  A traveling production of The Importance of Being Earnest brought Dora Bryan, Bela’s co-star in 1951’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, near Frank’s flat in Aberdeen.  Andi tracked down Harry Ludlam, whose reminiscence of meeting Bela in 1951 was for many years the only available first person account of him during the Dracula tour.  Frank had brief correspondence with George Routledge in Denmark. Routledge, now in his 80s, professed no memory at all of Lugosi, but always answered specific questions.

The writing was declared finished on July 1, 2000.  As we prepared to go to press, we learned that a member of the backstage crew of the Dracula company was living in Toronto.  During the Toronto premiere of the Dracula ballet in 1999, she had briefly talked with Elizabeth Miller of the Dracula Society.   Elizabeth did not have her address, and was not even sure of the name, but we knew this woman must be the tour’s original assistant stage manager (ie, ASM), Janet Reid, the only Canadian on the tour.  Andi quickly located her through newspaper inquiries, and Frank, who by then was living in Houston, contacted her.

Janet hails from Winnipeg, and after World War II came to London with her English mother to audition for the Royal Academy in London. She was looking for a career in acting, but also wanted to escape Canada’s harsh winters, which wrecked havoc on her health.  She was admitted to the Academy in 1947, and studied there for 2 years. Janet stood about 4’11”, was blonde and very jolly, but a weak voice undermined her hopes to play in musical theatre.  Work was scarce when she graduated, but she eventually found a job in weekly repertory in Horsham.

Frank interviewed Janet by telephone in July 2000:

Frank Dello Stritto: What were you doing just before joining the Dracula company?

Janet Reid: In early 1951 I was 21, and applied for a stage management job at a small club theatre in central London, the New Boltons.  I met the Director, Peter Cotes, and was hired as a salary of about £6 a week, which was pretty hard to live on in London.  I  worked as ASM.

FDS: Club theatre?

JR: Yes, like a nightclub, but with a play for entertainment.  What Americans call “dinner theatre.”  It was in Chelsea where my mother lived.  About 2 months later a friend heard of the Bela Lugosi show—and that they were paying £10 a week, for an ASM—an enormous amount!  I would be understudying the part of the maid.  I gave in my notice, and joined the Dracula company; and that’s how I met Bela.

FDS: Well, what was Bela like?

JR: He was a lot of fun, a sweetheart, a gentleman and a gentle man.  He was the star, but a really sweet guy, a pleasure to be with, friendly to the cast and crew—no “big star” airs. Lillian told me, “Don’t be afraid of Bela, he’s just a big pussy cat,” and I agree.

FDS: What did you think of Lillian?

JRLillian was obviously devoted to him. During the performances, she sat in a dim corner backstage, where she could see him.  On his exit, she would hand him the lit cigar she had keep going for him—I think she puffed on it from time to time to keep it going!  I often wondered if she liked the cigar, but I never had the nerve to ask her.  We had a hard time with Bela and his cigars—smoking backstage was strictly forbidden but he still ignored the “No Smoking” signs.  In desperation we printed some in Hungarian.

FDS: Did that work?

JR: No, he pretended he couldn’t understand the language.   “I can’t read them,” he said.

FDS: Did you talk much to Bela backstage?

JRSometimes.  Bela told me that he wanted one final tour as Dracula.  He said he was glad to have the chance to do it once more.  Bela really believed in his character.  It seemed to give him much pleasure.  He believed in it so strongly, and took pains to see that everything went the way it should. Bela was very concerned with his trunk and cape.  The cape was satin lined, but of a heavy material.  He looked after it very carefully.  He might have been concerned that it would go astray.  Every night he would lock it in his trunk.  One night he left the key to his trunk in his hotel. We called the hotel clerk.  He got it, and sent it by taxi to the theatre. We got Bela’s cape on him just in time for the curtain.

FDS: Any stories or anecdotes of Bela?

JR: Well, he pinched my bottom once?

FDS: Did he? 

JR: Once he was onstage alone between performances, in full costume.  He just stood there, lost in thought.  Finally, he saw me looking at him.  He opened his cape, and said “come here, under my cloak.”  I did.  He wrapped it around me and then pinched my bottom.

FDS: What did you do?

JR: Oh, I let out a mock scream, laughed and ran away.

FDS: Did you see any evidence that Bela was having back and leg pains.

JR: Not really, but backstage, Bela didn’t walk much, didn’t move much.  When he was in the wings, he just stood there.

FDS: As ASM, did you work with the bat?

JR: Oh yes, it had to be rigged up with wires to fly back and forth across the stage.  We rehearsed them endlessly as it was very temperamental and from time to time crash- landed unexpectedly, but all in all it was very effective.

FDS: I sent you a list of the company members.  Do you recall anything about them?  Did you make friends with any of them? 

JR: Yes, I know I was friendly with them, but I really don’t remember the names.  The company did not pal around a lot.  I do remember Joan Winmill.  I remember when she passed out in Middlesbrough.

FDS: Really, she told me that story, but I had my doubts about it.

JR: Oh, no—it’s true.  I literally stripped off her costume backstage.  There was no privacy.  And I finished the performance for her.  In my career I was an understudy four times, and each time I got to go on when the actress could not perform.  That one performance was my swan song with Dracula.  I dropped out  right after that. The company went on to Belfast, and I went back to London.

FDS: Why did you leave?

JR: I was subject to throat infections—strep throat and things like that—and had to have my tonsils out.  I had booked ahead for the operation, and had to return to London.  When I left, Bela arranged a modest party.  He had some food and drinks brought in.

After Dracula and her tonsilectomy, Janet worked in London stage productions, while doing some television.  She had a recurring role in an early television version of Anne of Green Gables.  In 1957, she acted in both the West End and television productions of The Glass Cage. A few years later she returned to her native Canada, coincidentally just as the Canadian Broadcast Corporation was undergoing an expansion.  She enjoyed a fine career on the CBC, and was married for some years to the famous author Timothy Findley.

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Our book, with Janet’s reminiscences included in the text, went to press in August 2000, but the search for eyewitness accounts of the 1951 tour continued. As we were preparing a revised second edition, we were contacted by writer Marcus Brien. He had been introduced to a member of the Dracula company who had eluded our efforts to locate her. Ann Coupland was the effects manager during the early stages of the tour. Although she seemed to have vanished into thin air after leaving the company, she was in fact in plain view. Ann had a successful career as an agent and married David Croft, one of Britain’s most famous TV sit-com writers. In December 2013, Marcus interviewed Ann Croft at her home in Suffolk.The study where the interview took place was the very room where her late husband David created his numerous award winning sit-coms. Marcus was reasonably relaxed until he realised he was sitting three feet away from a BAFTA! He generously asked Ann some questions on our behalf and shared his complete interview with us for our second edition, which was published in July, 2015. He found Ann to be warm, interesting and frank with her recollections of the 1951 tour. What stood out for him was the admiration she had for Bela Lugosi as a professional and above all as a human being. After the interview he presented Ann with a copy of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain, which now sits proudly in her study alongside her signed version of Dracula, signed by the cast and crew of the 1951 tour, including Bela and Lillian. Marcus

Ann CroftAnn Croft
(Courtesy of http://www.davidcroft.co.uk/)

MB: Mrs Croft, thank you again for seeing me. Sorry, I don’t want to sound like David Frost as I’d rather just have a conversation. It’s so much easier…

AC:  (Laughs) Not at all I am delighted to see you.

MB:  Thank you. Do you mind if I start by asking how you got into theatre. What did you do when you had left school?

AC: I went to RADA…I went to P-RADA…which was the Proprietary Academy and then I went to RADA. And then when I left RADA I was lucky enough to be signed up by a very good agent at the time called Betty Farmer. And erm Dracula was probably my first professional job. They thought I ought to go out on tour a bit because I was a bit big-headed. I’d done quite well at RADA. When they said Bela Lugosi was coming over to do the tour, Betty sent for me as she was a great friend of John Mather’s, who was the erm….one of the Managers. And said you’ve got to learn about the business from the real end. The metaphorical equivalent of sweeping the stage! Had I done a few weeks with the Old Vic before that? Carrying a spear and understudying Peggy Ashcroft I think. We got £3 a week I think….£4.10d….and he said this tour was going out and they were going to pay £7.50…£7 10d….I went along to audition because I was going to understudy Lucy as well. And..I got the part. Turned up for rehearsals as I say and we had a big meeting, with a cup of coffee, and all the cast. As I was saying previously, Bela took one look at me and came straight across, hugged me and said “My ideal Lucy.” Which immediately put me in the…. not not very good books with the Leading Lady really and truthfully. (Laughs)

MB: (Laughs) No wonder Sheila finished the tour and never went sick I wouldn’t imagine after that…

AC: (Laughing.) She used to get very angry. It was nothing to do with Bela really, but when we used to leave by the Stage Door, people used to come and queue up for autographs. For whatever reason, they would always be queuing for Bela and all the rest of it, but as soon as I left, they always asked for my autograph as well (Laughs) that didn’t help. Bela thought that was very, very funny. (Laughing) The fact that I was the lowest person in the cast that there possibly could be, well maybe other than the Stage-Hand…and er…..maybe I carried myself like a star! (Laughing)

MB: I think you’re…well you’ve still got an air about if you don’t mind me saying….you have.

AC: But anyway he was very nice and I don’t think really obviously that they had any children of their own and I would have been about nineteen I suppose….and he was very very kind….I had no knowledge of Stage Management whatsoever. Joan…Joan…I can’t remember who it was who was the….Peter Whelpton was the General sort of Manager and he became a Travel Agent…Travel Writer afterwards. We got on very well. I think it was an experience which I am very glad I had. However I wasn’t entirely sure I was learning a great deal about what I thought about as Show Business. Which was very much, the National didn’t exist in those days, so it was The Old Vic or whatever or Comedie Francaise which I’ve done as well.

MB: What would you say, that at that time I mean we were literally what six years after the war, was theatre, was entertainment, was it a much needed release or was it a self-indulgence at that time in terms of people being able to afford to go to theatre?

AC: I don’t know….it did quite well. Golders Green was actually a very good week. Finsbury Park was a good week. Lewisham as I explained earlier was certainly not a good week.

(Ann refers to a conversation we had before the recording in which she explained that Bela was approached by John Mathers and told of the three people in the audience at an afternoon matinee in Lewisham. Mathers said he would cancel the performance. Bela asked only if they had paid, which they had. ‘In that case we play’ he insisted.)

Three artist, I mean three members of the audience and a cast of oh I don’t know what it was…ten or eleven. The other members of the cast were not in agreement with Bela, about playing, they thought that was absolutely ridiculous. ‘Give them their money back’ is what was generally said by the others. But he was the Star and what he said – went. I was actually in great sympathy with him, because I thought of these poor three people sitting in the front row. I did ask permission not to have to go and scream but I didn’t get it. (Laughs) I still had to go and do it.

MB:  You still had to do the scream and faint and…(Laughs.)

AC: And all that business yes. (Laughing)

MB:  Can I just recap as well….so you joined the tour and you would have had the rehearsals Mid-April probably time?

AC:  Yes.

MB: And then when did you actually leave the tour?

AC: I don’t know…..I was out for about ten or twelve weeks I think.

MB: And would you mind recounting the story again of how you left the tour?

AC: (Laughing) Oh well if it’s of any interest (Laughing)

MB: Of course it is.

AC: I kept my contract for years which, cause it was very amusing or at least I thought it was and it said if I was going to work for my £7 a week or whatever it was…to do the effects managing which involved the use of the….can’t remember what they called it……The Gun! I said that I didn’t know much about effects managing but I thought I was a quick learner. And thought I would do well there. I’m trying to think if that was…..did we open at Theatre Royal Brighton?

*

Ann Coupland ContractAnn Croft’s contract

(Courtesy of Ann Croft)

*

MB: Yes. Yes you did. The tour started in Brighton on April 30th.

AC: Because I had to….in those days Equity wasn’t all that strong and it did take a lot of rehearsal so we did run over our rehearsal time a lot. Then on one occasion they weren’t very happy with some parts of the scenery and John Mather came and said ‘Well you can’t go back. You are going to have to paint a bat on a drop sheet.’ I said what? So he says ‘The big drop sheet that comes down. It’s got to have this big bat on it.’ So I said, well I didn’t really know what a bat looked like, a mouse with wings! So they gave me some sketches and then they all left me alone in a haunted theatre, to paint a bat on a……they were called gauzes, that’s right. The only trouble was nobody had explained to me that erm if you put water on the gauze…it shrinks! So I had painted this large bat, which wasn’t too bad. Went and made myself a cup of tea in the Dressing Room, came back and the bat was like all this…all twisted up. Because of course I hadn’t weighted. What you had to do was weight the gauze before you painted the bat which I hadn’t done and of course it had dried off half…it was no good me putting weights on back onto the thing. John Mather was not very pleased, he said it had cost him a lot of money. The other thing I had to do (laughing) was to throw bats on stage on sticks on wire.

MB: I’ve heard of that (laughing) there’s a few stories of that in the book (Vampire over London).

AC: It had a bat on a wire on a stick and you had to stand on the side and when the bat used to come round, its head used to go like this and it would come in and go shhhhheewww and off. Only one night I wasn’t very quick and I got it wrong and the big four poster bed that Lucy was in, this bloody bat flew round and round the four poster bed and died and stopped! (Laughing) when the wire ran out it couldn’t go any further.

MB: Well it was a dead bat at that stage you know.

AC: Again, Bela thought that was very funny and Lillian was in hysterics.

MB: Was she?

AC: Peter Whelpton was not amused at all. Because the audience could tell there was something, not quite right about this. So they just had to play the rest of the scene with this bat, hanging like this on the four poster bed. (Laughing) It had obviously died. That was quite a funny memory actually.

MB: I mean, what an education for you.

AC: We learnt an awful lot. This gun thing you had to fill with glycerine. You plugged it in, left it on the side of the stage and heated it to a certain level when a little red light would just come on. Then you unplugged it, pressed this button and these puffs of smoke came out. And gosh it’s a funny thing to remember….I was very nervous on the opening night, I had a lot of difficulty with this gun, I had too little smoke or I had too much smoke. They were getting a bit impatient with me but unfortunately on the actual opening night and Bela was making his first appearance. The arms are out like this and I was behind, up his cloak at the back, and I’m puffing this smoke you see that went all around. So he went on but you could hardly see him. Because there was an awful lot of smoke. I was very worried about this so I put the gun down but I didn’t switch it off. So the smoke kept on coming (laughing). The first five rows of the audience (laughing) couldn’t see anything at all. They had to open windows. John Mathers was not very pleased about that either, that was the actual opening night. I think that’s why they grew so found of me, because there were so many little silly things that happened. It did cause a lot of amusement.

MB: I think he probably admired in you, what he did; just got on with things and acted.

AC: That was the start of the show. As a cast we got on quite well. The one who played Van Helsing – wasn’t very good. He wasn’t a very good actor, I mean and Bela thought he wasn’t a very good actor either.

MB: I think it was David Dawson (incorrect) at the start and then Ralph Wilson took over.

AC: And I was a bit disappointed to be perfectly honest. It’s one of the lead roles and it’s terribly important. And if it was if he was reading from his script, in my opinion. As if he was reading from his script all the time and not giving Bela the build-up that he required.

MB: Where you aware at that time that his vision and hearing wasn’t the greatest?

AC: I knew his hearing wasn’t very good because my father happened to be deaf from the First World War. So of course I had a big voice and Bela never had any trouble hearing me. Not that happened on the stage as I didn’t appear on the stage with him as such….other than under his cloak! (Laughing) But I did know his hearing was bad, I did not know…you say his sight was bad as well?

MB: His sight, yeah I mean he never let anybody see him in his glasses, and he always apparently had a script. Always read the Dracula script apparently, even before a show, I don’t know if you recall that? But literally during rehearsals he would be dependent on people’s movements for his cues, at times. So he would know when they had finished saying something, rather than the actual words.

AC: I don’t remember that on that tour at all. I know he always used to say, as I had to cue him a few times on various things, he used that he was a little hard of hearing and he was very grateful that I had a voice that carried. So that’s rather…not pronunciation…what do they call it…projection that’s it.

MB: Did he ever discuss acting with you personally?

AC: Yes, yes on a couple of occasions. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said well I suppose what I really wanted to do was go back to the Old Vic, but not as a spear carrier or understudy. And play in the West End Theatres. I understudied Vivien Leigh in (inaudible) something like that. Well I was a what they used to call a Walking Understudy for Tenants who were the big Producers at the time. It was a regular job, I’d just had a child. And I think I never played….I played for Barbara Braiden in…what on earth was it called…all about Commercial Television, was a big success on tour. It was by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields….Anniversary Waltz. It was a massive success on tour. When we came into the West End we under-ran 25 minutes, on the opening night. No laughs! The critics and the West End audiences those days, they often came to the theatre in Dinner Jackets and those things. They just didn’t think it was funny. It was wrongly timed. It was all about jingles and commercial television and we didn’t have jingles and commercial television in this country. So the rather smarter people, the other people saw it for what it was, which was a rip-roaring farce. But the smart people who came to the opening night, they didn’t, they all said what the hell was it all about? You know there was lots of laughs at Persil washes not only clean but white and that sort of thing. But before anybody had heard it here.

MB: So it was a bit before its time?

AC: Yes it was before its time. He came to my Dressing Room, Jerry, after the opening night. And it was Joan Winmill who was playing…..she also played the sort of little friend in Anniversary Waltz as well. That was a Tenants Production.

MB: Joan Winmill was the Maid in your tour of Dracula.

AC: Yes she was. Anyway talking about Bela: that’s what I told him I had wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a Walking Understudy but I wanted to work for Tenants.

MB: Did he encourage you? Did he offer you any tips or advice?

AC: Oh very much so. But he said you must always remember that acting is a job. Like any other job and you bring your best attention to it. It was a phrase actually that David used many years later – Work comes first. If work doesn’t come first, nothing else comes afterwards. And I think that’s absolutely true. Because you can’t pay your digs, because if you’re not doing any acting you’re not going to….

MB: There’s a lot to be said for that…nothings for free?

AC: I think that also…..because he could hear me….I hadn’t really realised that particularly at the time. He and Lillian used to spend a lot of time with me. Which again I don’t think the rest of the cast…thought it was a bit strange.

MB: Did you know at that time that they had a son that they had to leave back in America? Bela Jr, and he was in a Boarding School. But literally one of the reasons they came over (to the UK) was to make sure….

AC: Was to make sure he could pay his fees….

MB: Yeah…you know work…work comes first. And obviously that caused a lot of heartache I would imagine for both of them.

AC: That’s why they probably liked a 19 year old – still a very young person to them. So they used to take me out for Coffee and things like that.

MB: Yeah…would you mind me asking how did you see their relationship? Did she mother him….

AC: I have to say that you surprised me, when you said they divorced about two years later?

MB: Yes it was in 53 I believe.

AC: The impression that I got, was that they were absolutely devoted. She was very…Mother Hen towards him. She was always in the Dressing Room. Peter Whelpton used to say ‘Lillian’s absolutely marvellous, she helps with the dressing and everything else. But he said she’s hardly going to let you do it is she!’ but I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, whether she thought he might pat me on the head or something like that. He was never left alone with me, except on one occasion when we hadn’t got a spare cloak handy as I burnt this damned great hole in the first cloak. Lillian went off to find a replacement cloak. He was so nice about it, but he bought his own cloaks you see.

MB: How many did he have then?

AC: Three. He had three and I burnt two of them. I’m not sure if I didn’t burn three and they had to get another one from America? Cause he always, that cloak was very special.

MB: It’s well documented and whether or not the documents are true…that he did have an eye for the ladies…

AC: (Laughs)

MB: At the end of the day he was a film star, he was very handsome, you know and you were a very attractive young lady at that time……cough cough! (laughs)

AC: Well Lillian didn’t leave us alone very much I have to admit.

MB: There are also lots of stories of him being very controlling over her, as in he used to tell her what to wear as well. But I think it was very much to do with his Hungarian background.

AC: I have to say I never noticed that particularly. Not that we spent any great length of time when we went for a coffee, would be forty minutes at the most you know. You didn’t have coffee bars like today, it was some American Ice-Cream Parlour type things particularly in Brighton. I didn’t notice him being authoritative with her at all.

MB: In public, I think a lot of people say that she was Mother Hen, she would even cut his food up for him and you know…I think it got to the point where they had that type of relationship where…well I think…the opinion that I’ve formed is that I think she saw a lot of people take advantage of him throughout the years. He wasn’t a good businessman when it came to money, he would just do work for the sake of it, just to keep working. I think she saw that and she tried to keep him away from people like that? And I believe from the book that you’ll read there Ann (Vampire over London) is that John Mathers had great issues with her. The rest of the cast loved her, but her and John Mathers didn’t get on at all.

AC: That’s interesting.

MB: So I think she felt he was being taken advantage of. He was an old man, he wasn’t well…he..

AC: I must say she fought very hard, not to get me dismissed. And I think the main reason why and he won’t like this story coming out either. The main reason why John Mathers did sack me, although they were perfectly within their rights for drinking during the show; unforgivable. Was the fact that he chased me around the prop room a couple of times and hadn’t got anywhere. Well I think that came into it as well. (Laughs)

MB: You were Non-Compliant let’s say. (laughs) This is turning into a book about something else here Mrs Croft. What a fascinating period for you. Can you remember of hearing when Mr Lugosi passed away?

AC: No I only read it in the papers. I think it may have been Peter Whelpton, rang me, and said had I heard and at that time I hadn’t but it was then in that day’s paper. So he said to me at that time; well he (Bela) was still working. I don’t know what he was doing, he was half way through a movie or something?

MB: He was working with a gentleman at the time called Ed Wood.

AC: Oooo…he had the reputation for making the worst movies that were ever ever made. Some are shown at the Film Institute now, as examples of what not to do.

MB:        I think they’re really good myself (laughs).

AC:         I don’t think I have ever seen any of them. And of course he kept Bela in for the first half didn’t he? And then had a stand in for the other bits, you never saw Bela’s face again at the end of the movie it was always the shadow and the arm.

MB:        That’s right and the cloak up at the eyes and the height difference was amazing too. In 55 I believe he checked himself, I believe he was one of the first ever Celebrities if you like, to ever check himself into Rehab. Because he was addicted to painkillers and again I believe that is was because of sciatica. He got addicted to morphine and he admitted bringing a pound of morphine or methadone back from here (UK) back into the US. But he got off it. I think he took it so he could work. Not as a recreational drug so it would make him feel good, I think to take away the pain. Do you recall any sort of images of him being on-stage as an upright Dracula figure and then off-stage as a……

AC: Yes…I remember one day mostly. I’m trying to think of the Dressing Room. He had an Arm-Chair, quite a high one but you didn’t see him struggle to get out of it or like that and it wasn’t a chair like this. I’m trying to remember….there was slight tendency to suffer from headaches. Or Lillian….oh how interesting it never occurred to me in anyway whatsoever….Lillian had the phrase ‘Oh Dear I think Bela may have one of his headaches.’ Well maybe that was so if I saw him taking pills I would think it was for a headache. Or if he was not looking so good and I thought and now you’ve mentioned it God it takes me right back. I just dismissed it as migraine. I thought a lot of actor’s suffered from migraine. So I never noticed the difficulty with the moving, because on stage it didn’t show at all. And off stage by the time he had struggled out of the cloak, you wouldn’t have noticed either. And as we never went out for dinner after the show, I mean on our own, we had a couple of occasions when the cast went. Well again I wouldn’t have noticed. But if we had gone on our own I would have noticed if he’d limped or something, but we never did, so….

MB: I think they used to call them the Lightening Pains, where it would come and go and like I said there was one scene where he grabbed Eric Lindsay around the throat and couldn’t let go. And I think he put everything into….

AC: That sounds more like rheumatoid arthritis because sciatica is in the main sciatic nerve. It shouldn’t affect the hands.

MB: I think he was in that much pain as he hadn’t had any medication for it that everything just froze up, everything froze up in his body in the middle of a performance.

AC: That probably frightened him, he wouldn’t have liked that. Because the audience was everything you know.

MB: Do you ever remember him talking to any of his younger fans? There’s a great story in the book about a gentleman called Derek Pickering who came to see him and he said he treated children like adults. Bela himself has worked from the age of 12 and I think his young fans were, he would treat them like adults. He would listen to them, he would show interest in them.

AC: Never noticed that particularly. But we didn’t have a lot of young people in the main. I don’t know whether it was John Mather or not, but nobody was allowed back stage. You were talking earlier about people bringing in programmes to be signed or the Effects Manager or the stage Manager bringing them in to be signed. I don’t remember that at all. I only remember the stage door where people, well I suppose it all depended on your Stage –Door Keeper. But I never actually saw him talking to young fans, but I can well imagine as he was extremely kind, well at least I thought he was. So I can well imagine that was the truth but I never personally saw it, because I know Lillian would try and get him back to the Hotel as quickly as she could. Which is one more reason why you didn’t have dinner after the show as much as anything, but he was obviously in pain.

MB: I believe so.

AC: I didn’t, I thought, it was just Lillian not letting him get too tired and the cold in Middlesbrough or somewhere like that. He wouldn’t want to be standing outside signing autographs, or having a conversation. I’m not saying he didn’t, he always signed autographs for anybody. If he was in the street or anything else, nothing was too much trouble in that respect at all. It never occurred to me but I did wonder sometimes, why we didn’t go and have meals after the show, because most people need that hour-and-a-half to wind down. Because Lillian mothered me, I suppose, it’s funny, it never crossed my mind, they used to take me for tea but they’d never take me to dinner. But I think she would be fussing around him and saying ‘enough now, enough now’ get back to the hotel because you must rest. I can remember that quite distinctly but remember I was nineteen and he was sixty-nine. So sixty-nine at the time was very old indeed, in fact actually it was quite old for the period of time. People now live into their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. So sixty-nine doesn’t sound very old, people now start new careers at that age now. But to me at that time, in the 1950’s or just in the 1950’s, it was considered quite old.

MB: And that’s what fascinates me, is that, how he kept going and I think 280 shows in a five month period, and he never missed one. And you know I really do think the pain, it was pain management I think and I think she was doing that for him.

AC: I didn’t know, obviously, but now that you’re coming to talk about it, these were things that happened or didn’t happen, I never gave it any thought at all but I put it down to the fact that he was not a young man. And he needed plenty of rest if he was going to do a show that took out as much out of him as it did.

MB: I believe for other personal appearances, fetes, summer fetes, he used to ask other cast members to go on his behalf. He did a few but like you say the rest in between was obviously vital to him. Can I just recap on a couple of things you mentioned earlier on? You are the only person in the world who has burnt two Bela Lugosi capes….possibly three (Laughs) you used to have your hand between his legs (laughs) under his cape. When he performed can I ask did he frighten you, I know it’s a huge jump, did he have that look, the eyes that a lot of people talk about? Did h, could you see a change in him?

AC: Oh you would see the change. But Alec Guinness was the same, he used to come down and if I was standing back stage, he would look, he always had a mirror. Near the top corner and he used to come down and stand and look in the mirror. He always came down three minutes before he went on. And he would go and stand for a full minute, in front of the mirror, staring at himself. And I asked him once ‘why?’ So he said you’re having conversations in the dressing room and depending on the type of role, you need to become that person. That’s what being a true cypher actor is all about. And the way I could do this was taking just a moment or two, to get out of myself and into the character that I’m playing. Now to think of it, Bela in a way did that, not staring at himself in a mirror but he always, because I was always with him for about five minutes before he went on, whilst we were testing these damn things. (Smoke gun.) And yes he did change, he started to stand up properly, the eyes did narrow. But as far as I was concerned it was just him getting ready to the job. So I was never ever frightened.

MB: And you studying acting would know it was just a character change anyway. I think for the likes of me as a fan, I think I would have been there wide-eyed in the audience if you know what I mean.

AC: Oh yes well I’m quite sure it was from the other side, unfortunately I never really saw it from the other side, except for a few seconds when I mostly being carried out! (Laughs.)

MB: That’s the amazing part of being involved as you were. You’ve got your perspective on it, when the rest of the world, we see it what everybody else sees. Where you had a one unique perspective on that and I’d rather your perspective on that. What happened to you afterwards then, after the tour?

David and Ann Croft and childrenAnn with her husband David and two of their children

(Courtesy of http://www.davidcroft.co.uk/)

AC: I got married, I did, as I said I did the walking understudies. I had two children by the time I was twenty-two. Then my husband went up to open Tyne-Tees Television, so I went with him. I used to do a programme with Kenneth Horne called Trader Horne. I did that for a couple of years, then I had three more children in quick succession and I started coaching for Associated British (inaudible) – starlets and things like that because I was qualified to do that. So I never really acted again, then in 1964, my husband’s agent which was man called Richard Stern, had been Chief of Combined Services actually, coming back to what we were talking about before and he heard me talking about a singer that we had Chris Langham up in Tyne-Tess. He said to me have you ever thought about being an agent? And I said no, I hadn’t. So he said think about because, I’d quite like you to come and work with me and I think you would be rather good at it. So I said thank you very much, anyway I then had a contract with ATV in Birmingham. I was a Television Presenter and I did this programme up in Newcastle, I was on fifteen shows a week. I did the One o’clock show, all the historical shows, Guess Who, used to share a dressing room with Jimmy Saville.

MB: One question sorry I forgot to ask earlier, but for yourself it was 1951, a young lady, on tour, working. How was that seen by your family or other people was it…?

AC: Nobody worried about it at all.

MB: I can’t thank you enough for talking to me, before I go can I just mention one other gentleman who Gary Don Rhodes who has written this book here. No Traveller Returns. He is a Professor of Film Studies in Belfast. He is an American guy and he has written everything there is to know about Bela Lugosi. He is currently writing a book about his theatre tours and when I mentioned that I may have the opportunity to go and speak to you, he would be delighted, if he could ask you to write, if you would be willing, a Foreword for his future book. Because you are one of the few who are left that actually toured with him.

AC: How many are left of the original cast?

MB: I believe Eric Lindsay is still alive, Richard Butler who was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, he was the vicar in that. John Mather passed away but he went into a Talent Agency.

AC: He was mostly in Management I think, he went back to being an actor…did he?

MB: No I don’t think he acted, he became part of a Talent Agency.

AC: Yes became an agent; those that do; do and those that don’t become agents!

MB: One of the things he was involved with was casting Clint Eastwood who was out of work at time in the spaghetti westerns I think.

AC: Really. Well I can’t say I’m thrilled as I never liked him and he never liked me, so I’m not worried (Laughs.)

MB: What was he like? Obviously he tried to chase you a few times.

AC: Aggressive. Ambitious, didn’t like anybody whether it was Bela or not; saying no. He was trying to put the show on for not enough money. That I did know enough about show-business to realise.

MB: Trying to do it on the cheap?

AC: Very much so and I used to get talking to the stage door keepers, he was not a popular man with the Managers of the theatres either. Very brusque.

MB: So from that would you say that him and Lillian probably wouldn’t have seen eye to eye?

AC: No they wouldn’t have done in fact they didn’t, I do know that. I think he meant very well but thought he would make a lot more money than he actually did. Everything was done on the cheap. There was no way and really and truly in this day and age it wouldn’t be allowed, that they should have let me as a girl virtually straight out of RADA, work that gun. That gun was dangerous. But there should have somebody who just dealt with the gun. The person who dealt with the gun shouldn’t have been running around, pulling strings for pictures and throwing bats. It wasn’t, I didn’t mind but he expected everybody…a pint of blood you know literally.

MB: One final question if I may and it’s probably a terrible question. It’s about Mr Lugosi. If you could describe him in a couple of words, what springs to mind?

AC: Absolutely delightful. Yes I think so…well I know so actually. I was very sorry that his career had its strange ups-and-downs. I used to sort of watch out for the odd movies and things.

MB: Just incidentally had you seen the screen version of the Dracula the 1931 film before you worked with him?

AC: Yes. To John Mather’s credit, I think it was he who suggested that we did. That was his idea and it was the correct thing to do. It also built up the Star Image so that we all thought we were touring with a big, well we were, touring with a Big Star. It was the advice.

MB: This has been fascinating and it has been a pleasure for me to meet you, full stop. I can’t thank you enough.

AC:  Not at all an absolute pleasure.

Bat Head 3

Related Pages

“Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” New Expanded Second Edition

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

The Day I Met Bela Lugosi by Derek R. Pickering.

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Dracula Invaded England

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

Bela Lugosi’s British Films 3: Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield, Interviewed by Andi Brooks

Bela Lugosi On The Stage

6 responses to “1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company

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