Dracula’s Coffin: The Story Of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

In 2001 collector David Wentink acquired a steamer trunk once owned by film legend Bela Lugosi, and has since worked to document its authenticity and history. David contacted me after reading a fleeting mention of the trunk in Andi Brooks’ and my book, Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain. I was glad to be able to help him track down a bit more information. With David’s permission, below is a summary of his considerable labors to date.

The History of the Trunk

The trunk was made by the Oshkosh Trunk Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Trunk restoration expert Marvin Miller is fairly certain it was manufactured during the late 1920s or early 1930s, the heyday of steamer trunks (also called “cabin trunks” and “wardrobe trunks”). The trunks were meant to stand upright, with wooden hangers on one side, and drawers on the other. Some of the larger trunks (not Lugosi’s, however) sported a fold-down desk, and offered their owners a portable office. A common practice was, at the time of purchase, to have the owner’s name painted on the trunk. BELA LUGOSI appears on the end of the trunk in large, yellow letters.

Bela in the Broadway production of Dracula

When Lugosi acquired the trunk is unknown; but from the late 1920s onward, the actor would have had something very special to put in it: his Dracula costume and cape. He first played Dracula on stage in 1927, in tryouts in Connecticut in September, and then opening on Broadway on October 5. Dracula ran 261 performances, closing in May 1928, when Lugosi and a good many of the New York cast headed to the West Coast for the play’s Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland premieres. Lugosi saw the trip not as a theatre tour but as a career move from New York to California, and he may have purchased the trunk at this time. The cape and formal evening suit would have been neatly folded and hung on one side of the trunk.The large drawers on the other side were big enough to hold Lugosi’s bulky scrapbooks, which he usually kept with him.

After the California tour of 1928, Lugosi settled in Hollywood and found stardom with the 1931 film version of Dracula. During his years of peak popularity he was often on the road and the trunk would have always been with him. He played Dracula on stage in West Coast cities again in 1929 and 1932. In 1933-1934, he toured the East Coast in an abbreviated version of the play. He made trips to Britain in 1935 to film Mystery of the Mary Celeste, and again in 1939 to film Dark Eyes of London. He made many stage and personal appearances in San Francisco; and whenever his travels brought him east, he stopped in Chicago, hometown of his wife Lillian. The World War II years brought lengthy stage tours in Dracula (the East Coast) and Arsenic & Old Lace (the Gulf and East Coasts). The post-war years saw his career in decline, and he made frequent, scattered appearances in stock summer theatre and in midnight spook shows. He played Dracula for the last time in 1951, in a six-month stage tour in Britain.

Bela in Arsenic and Old Lace

Lillian and Bela returned to Los Angeles in late 1951, and divorced in 1953 after 22 years of marriage. In 1954, Lugosi did a week of stage work in St. Louis, and 4 weeks at the Silver Slipper Casino in Las Vegas; but otherwise never left southern California again.

Lugosi married for the fifth and last time in 1955. Hope Lininger Lugosi inherited the steamer trunk when Lugosi died in 1956. Hope moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s where she remained until her move to Hawaii in 1976. In 1964 she donated the trunk to public radio station KQED in San Francisco for a fund raising auction. Hope often gave Lugosi mementos to friends and Lugosi fans that gained her favor. Most likely she met someone who worked for the station, who learned of Hope’s association with Bela, and asked if she could donate something of his.

The successful bidder kept the trunk until November 1999 when he consigned it to Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in Los Angeles. The description of the trunk in the auction catalogue is:

1136A Bela Lugosi Steamer Trunk

A large steamer trunk that horror master Bela Lugosi used while travelling. Originally sold at a 1964 auction that benefited San Francisco public radio station KQED, this piece is painted brown, has various railway and passenger ship stickers affixed to the outside and has the ownership name of Bela Lugosi painted in large yellow block letter along the bottom left-side surface. When opened, the interior space has three shelves on one side and a clothes rack on the other, and though the condition is poor (outside brass hinges and locks broken, paint is chipped and surface dents are evident), this is still a great vintage trunk reminding us of sophisticated travel from a by-gone era.

26 inches by 42 inches by 22 inches.

The trunk sold for more than ten times its estimate to Randy Burkett’s Hollywood Museum, which was being formed in Branson, Missouri. Branson, tourist mecca of the Ozark Mountains, has many such attractions, and the new museum spent lavishly to build a collection, that included at least three vintage automobiles used in various movies. In late 1999, the economy was flying high; but within a few months, the stock crashed, and tourism and financing were down. The fledgling museum, located in a strip mall, declared bankruptcy. David Wentink, a bidder at the 1999 auction, was contacted by the liquidators, and bought the trunk directly from them.

The Angels Are in the Details

The trunk’s new owner set out to document its history. David contacted me when he noticed a brief mention of the trunk in Vampire Over London. In a description of the day-to-day routine of the traveling Dracula stage company, he read:

Bela in the 1951 British tour of Dracula

After Saturday night’s performance, the actors would deposit their costumes into the “skips”—large wicker hampers—one for the men and one for the women. Janet Reid had the costumes cleaned and pressed, and hanging in the assigned dressing rooms of the next theatre in time for Monday night’s performance. She did not handle Bela’s cape and wardrobe. He kept his effects in a large steamer trunk, which was shipped directly from theatre to theatre. He took particular care in looking after the cape. A “Bela Lugosi Dracula Cape” was not yet the prized collectible it is today, but he was mindful that it might go astray. It traveled between engagements in his stage coffin. After every performance, he carefully folded it into the trunk, which he kept locked. During the company’s ill-starred week in Lewisham, he left the key in his hotel room. The desk clerk retrieved it, and dispatched it to the theatre in a taxi, which arrived just in time for Bela’s prologue

At David’s behest I contacted the eight surviving members of the company that Andi and I had located. Several remembered the trunk. Richard Eastham, the play’s director who worked closely with Lugosi through April 1951, recalls:

“Although I never saw it, I remember the mention of it. He made a point of saying he had his own “full dress”—“tails” in our jargon—and he could just “take it out of his trunk without pressing.” All my family had these “cabin trunks,” which meant we could have extensive wardrobe in one’s cabin. My family’s trunks were covered with ship’s line labels.”

Joyce Wilson, who traveled with her husband, Ralph Wilson, the tour’s second Van Helsing, remembers seeing the trunk often in Bela’s dressing room, but “that type of wardrobe trunk was very popular both before and after the second world war, but nobody has them now.” Joan Harding, the tour’s second Wells the Maid, has a clear memory:

“I would say it was Bela’s without a doubt, though I remember it more when it was open standing on its end with the drawers and wardrobe showing I can’t remember much else about it apart from seeing, for the first time, a photograph of their son standing on top of it.”

Bela performing at a 1950s spook show.

Photo courtesy of Jim Knusch/Professor Kinema

Probably, Bela kept the photo of his son in one of the trunk drawers, and always had it handy to set up in his dressing room. John Mather, the Dracula tour’s producer, has no memory of the trunk, but clearly recalls the scrapbooks that Bela carried with him even to England.As Andi and I relate in our book:

“John arrived at the Lugosi’s flat early one evening for a brief chat about the production. As Lillian hurried to dress for dinner, Bela sat John on the sofa, left and returned with a large scrapbook of ancient newspaper clippings, 40 or 50 years old. John could not read a word of them except “Lugosi” and play titles like Romeo & Juliet. From what John could divine, they were theatre notices from Hungary, printed long before he was born. They were rave reviews. Bela always impressed John as humble and quiet, not at all conceited; but he could see the actor’s pride as Bela patiently guided him through the scrapbook, describing each page, conjuring a distant memory for each.”

The Lugosis returned to Los Angeles in late 1951, about the same time as his young writer and producer friend Alex Gordon moved to the West Coast. Alex’s brother Dick had arranged Bela’s stage and film appearance in England (after the Dracula tour ended, Lugosi appeared in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire), and in California Alex too worked as Bela’s sometime agent. After viewing photos of the trunk, Alex clearly remembered it in Bela’s apartment on Carlton Way, and seeing the cape and scrapbooks in it. Alex planned to write David a longer reminiscence, but passed away in June 2003.

In 1952 Alex introduced Bela to the infamously inept film director, Edward D. Wood, with whom Lugosi would make three of his last films, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster (co-written by Alex), and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood’s “company of players” included actor Paul Marco, who would appear as “Kelton the Cop” in Plan 9 From Outer Space (though Bela never heard that title—he appeared in test footage for an unmade film which, after Bela’s death, Wood incorporated into his opus). The most elaborate memory of the trunk unearthed to date is Marco’s tale of Bela’s and Hope’s wedding night. Marco’s story appears in both Robert Cremer’s Lugosi – The Man Behind The Cape and Arthur Lennig’s The Immortal Count. David sent Marco photos of the trunk, and the actor repeated his reminiscence to David over the telephone. Hope and Bela married in Los Angeles on August 24, 1955. Bela, Jr. was the best man, and in attendance were a few friends of Hope and some of Bela’s co-workers. Lennig quotes Marco:

“After it was over, all of the photographers left, and eventually the only ones there were Bela, Hope, Eddie, Jo (Ed Wood’s girlfriend) and me. So, here we were, driving Bela and Hope to their wedding apartment. We were coming down Western Avenue when Bela spotted this big Italian deli and cried out, “We gotta stop here!” Eddie stayed in the car with Jo and Hope while Bela and I went into the store. There were half a dozen people in there, everyone started congratulating Bela on his marriage and he was felling good. We walked out carrying jugs of wine, long loaves of French bread, long salamis, jugs of olives, provolone cheese—my arms were full! They were giving us this, giving us that—I don’t think we paid for much of anything, everybody was giving us things to congratulate Bela on getting married.

Hope and Bela

We arrived at Bela’s apartment and walked in—pitch black! Either they hadn’t had the electricity turned on yet or they didn’t have enough bulbs, but there was very little light in this huge, old-fashioned Spanish living room. There was practically nothing in the room except a huge trunk right in the middle of the floor—it looked like a coffin, it was that big! We moved some boxes and chairs around the trunk while Hope got some kind of a tablecloth to spread over the top. Then we brought out all the wine and bread and cold cuts, and we all sat around this trunk like picnickers, laughing and telling stories. That was Bela’s wedding dinner.”

Countless fans have personal items that once belonged to movie stars, and many of Bela Lugosi’s former possessions now reside in various collections. One of them is even the subject of a recent “mockumentary” (Gary Don Rhodes’ hilarious Chair, included on his otherwise serious DVD documentary of Lugosi’s life and career). Few of these almost holy relics compare to the steamer trunk, which Lugosi kept close by him for decades, and which held some of his most prized possessions. He owned the trunk for perhaps as long as he “owned” Dracula. As he opened it each evening, he would see his whole life captured in its contents: Dracula cape and costume on one side, scrapbooks of cherished memories on the other, and a photo of his son in one of the large drawers. He would place the framed photo on top of the trunk, don his cape and submerge himself in his character as he prepared yet again to mesmerize his audience.

*          *          *

To order a copy of Frank’s critically acclaimed new book, A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, Please contact him directly at: fdellostritto@hotmail.com

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10 responses to “Dracula’s Coffin: The Story Of Bela Lugosi’s Steamer Trunk by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

  1. Pingback: Hit List: January 4, 2012 « IMDb: All the Latest

  2. It’s nice to read that he had some happiness near the end of his life. His wedding dinner sounds like a lot of fun, surrounded by friends.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Big Hollywood » Blog Archive » Daily Call Sheet: Oscar Trailer, Duke as Dirty Harry, More Stupid Studio Moves Against Netflix

  4. The last office I occupied at UW Oshkosh prior to my retirement was in the recently built Sage Hall, which occupies the space once filled by the large Oshkosh Trunk factory. I guess that counts as a brush with fame!

    Like

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