Alex Gordon, Bela and Lillian Lugosi, Richard Gordon, and film historian William K Evereson in the Tokay restaurant in New York
Born in London on September 8, 1922, Alex Gordon, like his younger brother and fellow film producer Richard, developed a love for films, especially westerns and horror, at an early age. They started fan clubs for their favourite stars, Gene Autry and Buster Crabbe while still at school, and pursued careers in the film business at the end of World War II. While Richard worked in the publicity department of Pathe Pictures, the distribution arm of Associated British, Alex became the one-man publicity department for Renown Pictures, a small film distributor which later moved into film production. They supplemented their earnings by writing film reviews and articles for fan magazines. Both brothers dreamed of becoming film producers, but it soon became apparent that they were unlikely to realise their ambition in the austere economic climate of post-war Britain. Deciding to try their luck in the American film business, they emigrated to America in November, 1947 .
Richard and Alex shared a life-long passion for films
Setting up in New York, Alex became a booker for Walter Reade theatres, while his brother worked as an assistant sales manager for Jack Hoffberg’s distribution company while freelancing as a representative for several British film outlets. They continued to indulge their passion for the cinema by interviewing film stars for British film magazines. Learning that one of their idols, Bela Lugosi, was scheduled to star in a summer stock production of Arsenic and Old Lace in nearby Sea Cliff in August, 1948, they set out to meet and interview him. Lugosi not only consented to the interview, but also invited the brothers to dine with him and his wife at a local restaurant. Bela, who fostered hopes of starring in a Broadway or West End revival of Dracula was intrigued when Alex told him that many fans in England had been disappointed at the cancellation of his proposed eight-week English stage tour of Dracula earlier in the year. Contacting them several months later, Bela asked Alex and Richard to take over the management of his business affairs and to try find him film and theatre work in Britain. Having recently started working for his childhood hero, Gene Autry, Alex was too busy to devote his energies to helping Bela, so Richard took on the task of trying to interest West End producers staging a production of Dracula with Bela in the lead. He found it much harder than he had anticipated, and it was not until 1951 that he was able to negotiate a British revival tour of Dracula, followed by Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire.
Alex with his childhood hero Gene Autry
When Bela and Lillian returned to America from England in December, 1951, Richard missed the opportunity to see them upon their arrival in New York before they quickly headed for California. He never met them again. Alex, who had relocated to Hollywood, took up the quest to find work for Bela. They developed a script together for a film entitled The Atomic Monster, which was intended to be the first of three Lugosi films Alex would produce and release through Jack Broder’s Realart. Instead of going ahead with the project, Broder stole the title for a Realart re-release of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. film Man Made Monster. Although Alex and Broder reached a financial settlement, Bela was left without work. The script was taken up and rewritten by Edward D. Wood Jr., who filmed it as Bride of the Atom (later retitled Bride of the Monster) with Bela. Alex had introduced Wood to Bela when the two were sharing an apartment. Although Alex went on to produce many films, including genre favourites The Day the World Ended (1955), The She Creature (1956), Voodoo Woman (1957), and The Atomic Submarine (1959), he was unable to get a studio to greenlight a film with Bela. Later in his career, Alex worked at 20th Century Fox, where he was responsible for rediscovering over 30 Fox films that had thought to have been lost and instituting a film restoration project. He left the studio in 1976 to take up the post of vice-president of the Gene Autry Organisation. Alex died in Los Angeles on June 23rd, 2003. (Andi Brooks)
* * *
In 1963, Alex shared his memories of Bela in an article entitled My Favourite Vampire in issue number 5 of Fantastic Monsters of the Films.
What Bela Lugosi was really like – as revealed by the Vampire Man’s close friend, Hollywood Personality, Alex Gordon
My Favorite Vampire By Alex Gordon
When I was a boy in England, I was a very frustrated youth. Under the British movie censorship classification, horror pictures cannot be seen by anyone under the age of sixteen. Therefore, it was not until many years later that I was able to see the Bela Lugosi films. The first time I ever saw Bela on the screen was in Postal Inspector, a 1936 picture in which he played a gangster. I was also able to see The Invisible Ray, which he did with Boris Karloff, and which somehow escaped the adult horror classification. And ever since those early days, I had hoped that some day I would have the opportunity to meet Bela in person. This did not happen until 1950(1), after I had come to the United States and was living in New York. At the time, Bela was doing Arsenic and Old Lace on the stage at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, and my brother Richard and I went down to try and meet him. We waited near the theatre for hours and finally Bela – with his wife Lillian – drove up. We went up and introduced ourselves. They were both extremely pleasant and suggested we join them for dinner. They took us to an excellent Hungarian restaurant(2) where Bela was the center of attraction, the owner and other patrons being thrilled to see him. After dinner, we went back to the theatre and saw the show; and afterwards spent more time with the Lugosis and made a date to see them later.
Richard Gordon, Bela and producer George Minter on the set of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire
One of the things Bela wanted most to do was tour England with a new production of Dracula. He had made movies in England –The Mystery of the Marie Celeste(3), Dark Eyes of London – but had never appeared on the stage there. Happily, my brother, who represents British movie producers (such as the makers of the “Carry On” pictures) was able to arrange not only such a tour, but also for Bela to make another movie in England. Soon after that, in 1953, I became an independent producer in Hollywood after years of work in publicity and writing, and of course wanted to make a picture with Bela. We spent much time together, finally evolving a script entitled The Atomic Monster. For various reasons, however, the picture did not get off the ground. Meanwhile, American distributors were reluctant to buy Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire(4) – because of the British humor which they considered unsuitable for American audiences. Therefore, we put a new title on the picture, Vampire Over London(5), but still no one wanted it. I cut out all of Bela’s scenes and tried to make a new movie to be called King Robot, using all the scenes Bela was in and shooting new ones to match for the rest of the story. However, Bela had been very ill for a while and was very thin and haggard looking, and he did not match the original footage anymore. So we had to scrap that idea. While I was trying to set up a new picture, to star Bela and Boris Karloff, an independent producer (Edward D. Wood Jr.) rewrote my “Atomic Monster” script and made a very low budget picture vaguely based on it called Bride of the Monster. Poor Bela looked so very old and ill in it, that a double had to be used for many of his scenes.
Alex with Bob Steele, Warren White, an unknown man, and Edward D. Wood Jr. at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant in 1952.
One of his great hopes was to make Dracula in color and widescreen, and he thought the resurgence of horror movies in Hollywood after House of Wax in 1953 would mark a comeback for him. But the studios seemed to prefer other actors, like Christopher Lee when they made Horror of Dracula in color in England. The premiere of House of Wax, incidentally, was quite an event. Warner Brothers thought up a publicity stunt to have horror stars attend the premiere at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. They called Bela and asked him if he would go. Bela did not want to, but I persuaded him, as I thought it would be good publicity for our projected new picture with him and Karloff. Warners sent a limousine to pick us up at Bela’s apartment, and Bela was dressed in his Dracula cape. What he did not know was that the publicity boys wanted him to lead a gorilla (a man in a skin) on a chain into the lobby of the theatre – and I was afraid to tell him. The limousine made a stop at a large hotel, and Bela immediately asked what the stop was for. I timidly told him it was to pick up a gorilla. At first it seemed he hadn’t heard right, then he roared, “Gorilla?!” It took all my powers of persuasion to keep him from taking a taxi home.
Courtesy of http://microbrewreviews.blogspot.com/
When we drove up at the Paramount, there was a mass of photographers, newsmen, TV cameras, and hundreds of people milling around. Bela was, of course, the center of attention when he exited from the car with the gorilla on the chain. The gorilla chased after some girls while Bela shouted to me what we wanted him to do. We manipulated him over to a Red Cross stand where two nurses were selling milk for the Red Cross. The idea was to have a shot of Bela drinking milk instead of blood, but in all the bedlam he thought they wanted him to do a Dracula bit, and he suddenly grabbed the nurses by the necks. They were so surprised and shocked that they threw the milk all over him! Finally I got him inside the lobby, where a female radio-TV interviewer grabbed hold of him. I should explain here that Bela was a little hard of hearing in one ear, and he had asked for a list of questions ahead of time so that he could memorize the answers when they brought him up to the microphone. With all the noise and confusion, he felt he might not be able to hear the questions properly. Needless to say, the interviewer had mislaid her copy of the questions and started asking Bela the questions out of context with his prepared answers. I think I can leave the results to your imagination. By the time I had him seated in the auditorium, we were both completely exhausted, though the photographers had enjoyed an absolute field day. Bela did not want to stay for the film, so we left by a back door after it had started. I did not hear the end of THAT adventure for a long time.
Vampira and Bela on the Red Skelton show
Another incident I remember well was when Bela was to do the Red Skelton Show, on which Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr were to appear in a sketch with him. Bela was worried about the show because he knew that Red Skelton did not stick to the script, but adlibbed most of the show. And Bela was a stage actor who had to learn his lines and was not used to adlibbing. Red treated him well, but he did use adlibs which almost threw Bela. But the comedian managed to fill in so well that the audience never knew. However, it was an unhappy experience for Bela. He always preferred to work from a prepared script.
When the original Dracula was reissued once more, as it was at regular intervals, we went to see it, and Bela enjoyed it again. Actually, he almost lived the part at times. When he was on tour, he could not stand the hard mattresses in most of the hotels as he had trouble with his back. So he would place his beautiful silk-lined coffin from the theatre in the middle of his hotel room and sleep in it. This is absolutely true and no publicity story. It was not done for effect, just plain comfort.
Bela was a delightful companion, gracious and kind and with a good sense of humor. He was also a man of many moods, and sometimes he would sink into deep despair. Bela loved cigars, and he also became interested in religion, hypnosis, and philosophy. He was very particular about many little things. He once asked me to sort out his desk and papers, and I found receipted bills and other statements going back twenty years, which he thought he should keep for tax and book-keeping purposes. He also kept a large collection of stills from his movies in scrapbooks.
Bela in November 1955
When he lived in his small Hollywood apartment, he would call me to walk up to the corner with him at 11pm to pick up the next morning’s LA Times. It had to be the 11pm edition, and he was quite upset if he did not get it. He liked to keep up with all the latest news and was extremely well-informed about world events. But his daily dream was to make a good comeback, and he, like so many other former great stars, found it impossible to realize that Hollywood did not want him anymore. It is so ironic that stars like Bela Lugosi are so fondly remembered by audiences the world over, and yet were unable to get a job right here in Hollywood. It is something I have always found hard to understand. Since I became a movie producer, I have always tried to use as many old-timers in my pictures as possible, despite enormous resistance from distributors, financiers, and exhibitors who consider them “has-beens.”
At the peak of his stardom with other members of the Universal family. Bela can be seen in the back row along with Boris Karloff and James Whale. Carl Laemmle Jr., Carl Laemmle Sr., and cinematographer Karl Freund are in the front row
In a way, I think Bela regretted having turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster in the original movie that made Boris Karloff famous. Not many remember that Bela was actually a Shakespearean actor and a romantic star before he did Dracula and became typed in horror pictures. He played Hamlet and even Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans(6), among many other roles. I always thought the old Universal film, The Raven, was one of Bela’s best roles, as well as The Invisible Ray, and of course his role of Ygor in the later Frankenstein pictures was unforgettable. It is strange for me now to see and hear Bela on TV in his old movies. It is as though he is still around and as though that friendly, uniquely unforgettable voice is still calling. His friends and fans will never forget him.
Notes: (1) Alex and Richard Gordon first meet Bela in 1948, not 1950. He performed in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre from August 9 – 14, 1948. (2) Richard Gordon later recalled that the restaurant was a seafood restaurant. (3)Although several contemporary sources listed the film’s title as “The Mystery of the Marie Celeste,” it was released as “Mystery of the Mary Celeste.” (4) Pre-release publicity listed the title as “Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,” but the film was released as “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.” (5) According to an article printed in The Cinema News And Property Gazette of August 22, 1951, two months before filming began, the title “Vampire Over London” had already been selected for the American release of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (6) Bela played Chingachgook.