The Girl Who Burned Bela Lugosi’s Capes – Anne Croft Interviewed By Marcus Brien

Ann CroftAnn Croft
(Courtesy of http://www.davidcroft.co.uk/)
During our research for Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain (Cult Movies Press), Frank Dello Stritto and I were fortunate enough to be able to trace and interview many key members of the cast and crew of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 revival tour of Dracula. When our book went to press in August 2000, however, there were still several who had defeated our efforts to locate them.
We continued our research into Bela Lugosi’s British film and theatre work after publication, and eventually amassed enough new information to warrant producing a revised and expanded second edition. As we were preparing the new edition, we were contacted by writer Marcus Brien. He had been introduced to Ann Coupland, a member of the Dracula company who had continued to eluded our efforts to locate her. Ann was the effects manager during the early stages of the tour.
Although Ann seemed to have vanished into thin air after leaving the company, she was in fact in plain view. One of the difficulties we had tracing the female members of Dracula’s cast and company was that we often had no idea if they had married and therefore changed their surnames. Thanks to Marcus, we learned that not only had Ann married David Croft, one of Britain’s most famous TV sit-com writers, in 1952, but she was also used the name Ann Callender (Her mother’s maiden name) professionally. After Dracula, Ann continued working as an actress in the theatre and on television for several years before becoming a  TV presenter. She later embarked upon a successful career as an agent.

Marcus interviewed Ann at her home in Suffolk on a crisp winter’s day in December 2013. The study where the interview took place was the very room where David Croft created his numerous award-winning sit-coms. Marcus recalled that he was reasonably relaxed until he realised he was sitting three feet away from a BAFTA!  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. He was kind enough to ask Ann some questions on our behalf and generously shared his complete interview with us for our second edition, which was published in July, 2015. After the interview he presented Ann with a copy of the first edition 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.

Bat Head 3

British TourA publicity photo by Editta Sherman used throughout the British tour of Dracula

Bat Head 3

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 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 matinée 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. Editor’s note: Dracula did not play in Finsbury Park. Ann told Andi Brooks that it was “probably Wood Green.” )

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?

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Ann Coupland ContractAnn Croft’s contract

(Courtesy of Ann Croft)

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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, it was Arthur Hosking) 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 it was, 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 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.

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Bela and Lillian at the premiere of ScroogeBela and Lillian Lugosi at the premier of Scrooge in London

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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 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 it was because of sciatica. He got addicted to morphine and he admitted bringing a pound of morphine or methadone back from here (the 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 armchair, 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 lightning 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 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s, 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 1950s, or just in the 1950s, 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 he, 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 was 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-Tees. 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 Traveler 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.

MarcusMarcus lives in Suffolk, UK with his wife Karen and baby daughter Orla. He is currently writing a screenplay on the life of Bela Lugosi. His friends Martin and Harvey Clarke thoughtfully arranged for him to meet their family friend; Ann Croft. Without them the interview would never have happened.

Marcus’ earliest memories of Lugosi are in the 1970’s with his regular appearances in the BBC2 Horror Double Bills on Saturday nights. These evenings are also some of the only memories Marcus recalls of his own father, so his interest in Lugosi provides it’s own personal nostalgia.

During his research for his screenplay Marcus has come to understand Lugosi as a person who always acted.

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

Derek's autographed Photograph

Derek’s signed photograph

It was sometime in the afternoon of Friday the 14th of September , 1951, possibly 2 or 3 o’clock, when I first saw the poster for Dracula on an advertising board. The venue was the Hippodrome Theatre in Derby. The Hippodrome was formerly a cinema which was converted to a stage theatre and later, regrettably, a bingo hall. Having seen the play advertised, I was rather thrilled about it because I had seen a couple of Bela Lugosi’s earlier films.

Although I was underage to see a film with an ‘H’ certification, my aunty’s ex-boyfriend happened to be the manager of a cinema in Derby, now long-demolished. All I had to do if I wanted to see a film was to have a word with him and he would let me in. I saw three of Bela Lugosi’s films, and I was rather taken with the technique of the actor and the characters he played. Even at that young age I had a keenness for the arts.

It would have been during the first performance of the night, commencing at 6.10pm, on Wednesday the 19th of September that I decided to go to the theatre and, hopefully, obtain the autograph of Bela Lugosi. It took a little bit of courage, being of such a young age I did not know what to expect. I was very apprehensive. I knew that I would either be rejected at the stage door or the book would be taken from my hand, taken to him to be signed and then returned. Alternatively, I might catch a glimpse of him, as I had done with other celebrities from time to time, and hopefully attract his attention and ask for his autograph.

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As it happened, my arrival coincided with the end of one act of the three act play. I suspect it would have been soon after act two. I knocked at the stage door rather loudly. Realising that more than the stage door attendant might have heard my loud knocking, I then started to knock more gently. Eventually, the door was opened by a rather tall lady. I was rather diminutive at the time – I was only about four feet tall. She was quite tall and slim, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s. Her hair was of the fashion we now call afro,. Very, very curly! I was rather taken aback by her. She seemed a very daunting figure. I don’t know who she was. She said, “Yes?”

“I’m very sorry to trouble you,” I said in my usual very polite way, “but is it possible you would kindly ask Mr. Lugosi if he would give me his autograph?” I held out my autograph book.

There was a moment’s silence when I thought, “I’m going to be told to clear off.” A big smile spread across her face and she said, “Yes! Would you like to step inside?”

I went up three steps and stood with my back to the wall by the door as she closed it.

“If you would like to wait here, you must be very quiet. I will have a word with Mr. Lugosi and ask if he will sign your autograph book,” she said before going off.

Derby Programme CoverCoverof the Derby programme

Needless to say, I became extremely nervous. Not because here was one of the greatest of all creatures ever written about, a vampire called Dracula, but because I was rather in awe of this personality I had only seen on film. As I waited, I could hear noise in the background – “oohs” and “ahs” and the occasional applause. Then, to one side of me where I could see the curtains in the wings of the stage, a tall young man stepped into the shadows and started swinging his arms around his shoulders. His face was a livid colour, yet had a pale pallor. His lips were thin and very red, he had curly hair. I wondered what he was doing, then all of a sudden he put his hands around his mouth and let out a horrifying, loud howl. I thought, “I’m getting out of here. This is more than the nerves can bear.” After this, he looked at me and smiled. Possibly, he thought I was frightened. I suppose I was in a way. I was, after all, only about 141/2. He went off. I don’t know which direction he too, he just seemed to melt into the dark corners of this section of the theatre and disappeared. Obviously, I should imagine, to his dressing-room.

I waited and waited. I could hear the noises on and off stage. I thought, “What a strange thing!” Then it dawned on me that that was the character I had seen in the film of Renfield, and the actor, I refer to the programme, was Eric Lindsay

Suddenly, from around the edge of the curtain in the wings of the stage, a very tall, dark person walked towards me. The hair was tightly swept back, almost as if it was greased, the face looked pale and haggard, the lips were red, the eyes looked tired. The figure was wearing an evening suit with a bow tie, and was covered up to and over the shoulders by a long black cape. I saw the long black cloak was lined with what looked appeared to be red satin.

Hat was very striking was this figure walked so tall – no sign of any roundness of the shoulders could be seen. The figure walked past me. By this time I was a little nervous because Bela Lugosi looked very stern. “I’m not going to get his autograph,” I thought. I did not know whether to turn around, open the door and run. It is not very often that one comes across such a well-known and well-followed film star.

A Derby Ticket

A ticket stub from Dracula’s run in Derby

I waited for a few more minutes. The lady approached from the direction of the wings of the stage and informed me that she would now go and have a word with Mr. Lugosi and return with his answer. She went up some steps and through a door to my left. As she went through, I could see the light within was rather bright. As she came back out of the room, which was Mr. Lugosi’s dressing-room, I caught a glimpse of him, sitting. “Mr. Lugosi would like to see you now,” she told me. So, gathering up all my bravado and my courage, I walked with her up the steps to the door.

The room was well-lit and although it was rather narrow as you walked in, it was rather longish. I cannot remember what size it might have been, but it was not over big. The great man sat on his chair, facing his dressing-table. On the table were a lot of grease-paint sticks, a pot of what appeared to be cold cream and a pot of white powder. There was not room between the dressing-table and the door, it was rather near the door, so I walked to the other side and turned to face him. He looked up at me and gave me the widest, nicest smile I have ever seen. Believe it or not, I didn’t see any teeth, let alone fangs. He gave me a smile of his lips without opening his mouth. When he did that I relaxed.

I said, and I remember very clearly, “Oh, Mr. Lugosi, thank you for seeing me. I was rather nervous waiting for you. I didn’t know whether you would agree to see me or not. I have seen some of your films and I thought maybe you would be kind enough to give me your autograph.”

“Hello, very nice to see you. What is your name?” He spoke smoothly, quietly and calmly at my sudden outburst of excitement. His accent, which was not unlike the accent of his character, was quieter and not so pronounced.

When I told him my name, he said, “Pull up that chair, Derek, and sit and we will have a talk. I have a little time to spare before I go back to the show.”

So I pulled up a smallish upright wooden chair and sat about two feet away from him.

“How old are you?” he asked me. I told him that I was 14, coming on 15.

“Do you go to work or are you still at school?”

I am still at school,” I replied. “I leave next year after I am 15.”

He then asked me about the school I attended and the subjects I was studying. I told him that I had an interest in photography.

“What do you intend to do for a living when you leave school?” I told him that I was interested in learning to play the piano. I wanted to take it further, but Mum and Dad could not afford to continue to pay for lessons. My mother, whom played very well, taught me as best she could. She knew someone who worked in a music shop in Derby which sold pianos. They told me that I could get a job there with them learning how to clean and repair pianos.

“That sounds like a very interesting job,” he commented. “I wish you every success for that. Are you interested in movies?”

Derby Programme

Centre pages of the Derby programme

I told Mr. Lugosi that I had seen three of his films and I had been very impressed by his character, it was so domineering. I then asked him if it took him long to put on his make-up.

“No, not really,” he replied. “After a few years in the business one doesn’t need a make-up artist. One can do it one’s self. It’s just grease-paint.”

He seemed to be more interested in myself. It took some time to get around to talking to him about his films. He told me that he did not have much time because he had to go on stage again soon. I very quickly got round to the subject of films in which he had appeared. I told him that I was very interested in special effects and he explained to me how the transformation from bat to man was achieved – a combination of models, animation and live action. I also mentioned that I was interested in Boris Karloff and that they had both played the Frankenstein monster. Basically, our conversation was about film making.

He was certainly very intent upon his conversation with me. I respected that and I know that he would have liked to have talked to me a lot more, but he did tend to ask about myself. We chatted casually for a brief period of time, but I can’t remember what was said. He did ask me if I had seen the show. I told him that I hadn’t as I only got two shillings a week pocket money. He did not comment, he just turned and pressed a bell button on one side of his dressing-table. The lady who had let me in came into the room. He quietly spoke to her and then she left. He turned to me and we chatted informally for a little while until she returned. She handed him something which he looked at. He turned to me. Held it out and said, “Here is a ticket to enable you to get in to see the show.”

I was dumb-struck. I couldn’t believe it. He then asked me if I would like him to sign my autograph book. I handed it over and he signed it.

Derek's autograph

Derek’s autograph

“While I’m doing this, I might as well give you my picture.” He reached for a photograph, signed it and handed it to me.

“I’m shortly due on stage, so I will have to say good night to you now and prepare for my next entrance,” he told me. We shook hands and I went through the door, my heart pounding. The lady was by the stage door. She opened it and said, “Good night!” I went off into the night.

The ticket had “COMPLIMENT” rubber-stamped across it in red. I went to see the show and when I took my place in the auditorium I found I was in the middle of a number of people who were the notables of the town of Derby, including the Mayor. Well, I sat there and looked at the programme. Suddenly there was some music, I have an idea that it was recorded music, and the curtain opened. I sat entranced throughout that show.

When the show was over I left my seat and walked out with the rest of the audience and went into the night. “I must remember my manners and thank Mr. Lugosi,” I thought as I came down the steps. I shot around the corner, went to the stage door and knocked on it. A gentleman opened the door to me. I explained that Mr. Lugosi had given me a ticket to go to see the show and would appreciate, realising Mr. Lugosi is busy, if you would pass a message on for me that ”Derek enjoyed the show very much and thank him for his kindness. Tell him that I will never forget him.” I thanked him and came away.

Bela Lugosi was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He took time to see me and talk to me. He was the only one of all the people whose autographs I had sought who really took trouble to speak to me. I kept my promise, I never forgot him. He was a gentleman, a very quietly spoken gentleman – that is the only way I can describe him. I was so sorry when I heard of his tragic death. I hope that in spirit he has found relief and happiness.

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Related pages and articles

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

Knee-Deep In Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler

Knee-Deep in Ice Cream, Smoke & Wayward Rubber Bats: An Interview With Richard Butler by Andi Brooks

Richard Butler played the role of Johnathan Harker in the 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Apart from a two-week break when he had to do military reserve training, he was with the tour for its whole six months, acting opposite Bela Lugosi in 210 performances. I interviewed Richard on July 4, 1996, at the National Theatre in London while researching Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain.

 Richard as the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Richard began his acting career at the age of 12 in a stage version of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley in his native Yorkshire. He went on to enjoy a long and varied career on stage, screen and TV. His impressive list of theatre credits include a West End revival and touring production of Charley’s Aunt and A Provincial Life opposite Anthony Hopkins at the Royal Court Theatre. In early 1951, however, he found himself “resting.” It was a tough period for theatrical actors in Britain. Post-war austerity and competition for audiences from TV and the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition to promote the British contribution to science, technology and the arts, left theatres half empty and led to plays which had been expected to succeed to fold. Richard supported himself as best he could while waiting for a call from his agent:

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.

(Ed: The company rehearsed for two weeks, beginning on April 16th in London and finishing with a dress rehearsal on April 29th at the Theatre Royal in Brighton)

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.

(Ed: Rehearsals took place in a banquet room above an unidentified pub in Pont Street in South Kensington in London from April 16th – 22nd. They then moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End from April 23rd – 28th. The dress rehearsal took place at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on April 29th, the day before the premiere.)

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 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.

Bela, Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Richard 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 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.

(Ed: The tour ended at Bela’s request. Although further dates near Newcastle and Liverpool had been lined-up by producer John C. Mather, it was clear that the production was unlikely to ever reach the West End as intended. Bela was exhausted by the tour’s punishing schedule. When John told Bela that they had to play the proposed new dates if the tour was to continue, Bela replied, “John, I can’t go on, it’s taking too much out of me.  Please finish it quickly.” The production took a two-week break before fulfilling its final contracted run at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth from October 8th – 13th.)

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”.

(Ed: Despite the still persisting legend that Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was hastily arranged to provide money to pay for his passage back to America after he and Lillian were left stranded in England when the tour collapsed after a few disastrous performances, his involvement in the film was first announced in the August 9th issue of Kinematography Weekly – three months before filming began, and two months before the tour ended.)

Richard, Anthony Hopkins, Shivaun O’Casey, and Geoffrey Whitehead rehearsing for A Provincial Life at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966

After Dracula Richard became an in-demand actor for over 40 years. He made his debut television appearance in 1952. 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 many 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 died in early 2004.

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

“Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot Fails To Sell At Auction

The Return Of The “Mother Riley Meets The Vampire” Robot

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

 

Eric Lindsay as Zee in Las Vegas

“You have the eyes of a magician,” Bela Lugosi prophetically told Eric Lindsay when he played the role of Renfield in Lugosi’s 1951 British tour of Dracula. It was to prove no idle observation. Although Eric was working hard to establish himself as an actor, he would eventually enjoy international success as a critically acclaimed illusionist.

Born within the sound of Bow Bells in London’s City Road Hospital on November 13th, 1929, Eric discovered that he had the theatre in his blood at an early age. From his first tentative steps onto the stage in a Salvation Army production of Aida while a schoolboy, he went on to enjoy a long and varied career. As an actor, he starred in the original West End production of Tobacco Road, made films in France, appeared on British TV and, of course, toured with Bela Lugosi in his last full production of Dracula. In common with his famous predecessors, Eric earned nothing but praise from the critics for his portrayal of Renfield. As an entrepreneur, with his lifetime partner, the actor Ray Jackson, he opened two coffee bars during the great boom in the 1950s, including the fondly remembered Heaven and Hell, which was next door to the 2 I’s, the birthplace of British rock and roll. When Eric and Ray expanded into the nightclub business, their Casino De Paris club was so successful that Eric temporarily retired from the stage. When he returned, he enjoyed the biggest success of his show business career as Zee, one of the greatest British illusionists.

I first met Eric in 1997 while researching the Bela Lugosi biography Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain.  During the interview, we focused on Bela Lugosi and the British tour of Dracula. Interesting as that was, it was only six months out a fascinating life and career, about which I have long wanted to interview Eric. Now enjoying his retirement, but still working towards fulfilling two outstanding ambitions, Eric gracefully submitted to my cross-examination and dug through his archives to make this first retrospective of his life and work possible.

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When were you first attracted to performing?

At a very early age. There was a repertory theatre in Stoke Newington and my mother would take me there to see the plays. How she got the tickets I have no idea, but we used to go regularly.

Was it difficult to get tickets or was it a matter of money?

I really don’t know whether my mother bought the tickets or she was given them by a friend who worked at the theatre.

What is the first play you can remember seeing?  

No idea, but I remember seeing Private Lives. Yes, I think it was Private Lives.

Did your parents or any family members have a theatrical background?

No, not at all,but my mother loved the theatre.

What did your parents do?

My mother was a Court Dressmaker in the West End of London.  My father was a tailor and later a night-time taxi driver, so I never really saw much of my father except on his days off.

What were your first steps into the theatrical world?

 When I was evacuated and the Salvation Army were putting on a production of Aida, and I walked on carrying a palm leaf.I joined an amateur dramatic group called the Angel Players when I was about 12 or 13 and did bits and pieces with them. At first it frightened the life out of me but I loved it. It was the smell of the grease paint, the scenery and everything that went on backstage. Remember, the War was on and I had won a scholarship to go to a grammar school, but there were no grammar schools in London. They were all evacuated to the country. There were only four emergency secondary schools in London,one in each corner,east, west, north and south. I went to Parmiters Emergency Secondary School, which was at Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, East London, as it was the closest to home. Forget about the schooling that I had,it was the time of the major bombing and of the Buzz Bombs and we would only go to school in the mornings, and then we spent most of the time sitting under our desks as it was just useless to keep on going to the shelters. So real schooling I did not have. In the afternoons I would get a bus and take myself off to the West End of London and go to all the theatre matinees or else the cinema. I was very lucky and saw all the great actors in spectacular roles and plays. That I remember, what happened yesterday I forget! School books just did not interest me. It was the theatre. Yes!

Where were the Angel Players based?

Itwas in a school off the Pentenville Road which is between the Angel Islington and Kings Cross.I have no idea what the name of the school was.

Did you have any heroes or role models in the theatre?

Not really. When it came to magic, now that was another thing, but much later in my lifeAlthough when I was 13 my father took me to see Lyle’s Cavalcade of Mystery at, I think it was at the Aldwych Theatre in the Strand. That was something that stayed with me all my life. Cecil Lyle did the most amazing illusions. There was one called “Find the Lady” which I always remember and a levitation which when I became an illusionist, my Robert Harbin version was far better.

Where did you start your professional training?

With Marion Ross, she was my agent and she also had a drama school in London.The school was advertised in the Stage and I went along and auditioned for her and she took me on as a pupil.  She also ran a theatrical agency and I was automatically put on her books

When did you become a full-time professional actor?

When I was 17. My first role was in Barnstaple Rep. in Devon. I played Octavious in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.It was only a short engagement, for about 3 months. From there I worked in various reps for about a year before going into Tobacco Road at the Playhouse Theatre, where I understudied and then played the role of Dude. From the West End I then toured in the same production for about 6 months. I went to France to make two films, Metro Pigalle and Antoine and Antoinette.I then filled in doing odd broadcasts and TVs until I auditioned for Dracula and got the role of Renfield.

Did you have any other jobs while trying to establish yourself in the profession?

Many. My father insisted I learnt a trade as an actor’s life, he thought, was terrible,you are more out of work than in, and he was right. So he sent me to the Morris School of Hairdressing, which was opposite Selfridges in Oxford Street. I was happy because I was in the West End and I could go and see all the shows and also go to my amateur dramatic group three times a week. I also worked at the United Services Supply Company where we sold everything form a handkerchief to a tent. I also worked at the Ideal Homes Exhibition, you name it I did it!

Did you work as a hairdresser after attending the Morris School?

Yes I worked in a shop in Shaftesbury Avenue called Shacks, and hated it. I then got a job in Brewer Street in a basement below a butcher’s, and all I remember about the place was the stains of blood that would seep through from the slaughter house above. I hated that too.

How difficult was it for a young actor to get regular work?

In the theatre regular work doesn’t happen unless you are in a repertory theatre. Unfortunately those reps, which were all around the country, no longer exist.

What happened to them?

They just went out of fashion and TV arrived and people didn’t go out that often. The cost of running those theatres became so astronomical that they just weren’t viable anymore and slowly, one by one, they closed. The Arts Council used to give grants out to various theatres, but that was stopped over a time.

Eric (bottom right) in The Cinema Studio, March, 1951

What was your ambition when you began your career?

Really, I wanted to do films, but that didn’t happen for me. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw and my face didn’t just fit.

What was your experience of trying to break into films in England?

Hard! I was under contract for a short time with the Rank Organisation and was sent to the Charm School that he had. I was there with Diana Dors, Barbara Murray and Anthony Steele. Nothing really came of it. Just doing odd bits in pictures didn’t really further my career

Why did you decide to go to France to get film experience?

It was just the offer that I had from the director Henri Marchal. He saw me playing Dude in Tobacco Road at the Playhouse Theatre in London in 1949. He saw me in a matinée, and came backstage afterwards.

Could you speak French at that time?

No, although I learnt it at school for 4 years, really I hadn’t a clue.

Tell me about the films you made in France.

I played Roland in Metro Pigalle and Antoine in Antoine and Antoinette.

Eric during filming of Metro Pigalle in Paris

 What kind of films were they?

Kitchen sink, made mainly on location, which saved the cost of hiring a studio. They were violent in a way and the type that were in vogue during that period.

What was it like working in the French film industry?

Great, far more easygoing than in England.The main thing that I remember is that I was always cold and very wet from spending most of our time outdoors on location.

How long did you stay in France for?

Almost a year.The Studio that we worked in was a very large warehouse in Pigalle. The other really big studios were on the outskirts of Paris. But these were much grander than ours. I stayed in a very small family hotel off of Place Clichy and when I wasn’t filming I would be out drinking and smoking and doing the usual!

Where you tempted to stay?

I loved France and still do, but I wanted to try to make it back home.

Did your French experience open doors in the British film industry?

Not really. My working in France didn’t mean a thing when I returned. It only meant that I was off the scene for almost a year.

Next came Dracula. Had any of your previous work prepared you for such an offbeat role as Renfield?

Yes, as I said,I played Dude in Tobacco Road, and he was retarded, so I just seemed to fit into these weird parts. Maybe it was because of my large eyes?

Eric and Ruth Dunning in the West End production of Tobacco Road

In terms of your career at that point, was taking on the Dracula tour a good career move?

The role of Renfield was such a great part. It is the second major role in the play, and also whenever they weren’t talking about Count Dracula they were talking about Renfield. What more could one ask for?

Did you do any special preparation for the role?

I’d seen the film, which frightened the life out of me. Then I used to loosen up in the wings before I went on. Like running on the spot and shaking all over.

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

No, but I knew Sheila Wynn who played Lucy Seward from a Coffee Shop that we would go in the afternoons called Taylors in Rupert Street.

Sheila remembered you telling her that you had saved 100 pounds during the tour. That must have been a lot of money in 1951, what were you saving for?

Ray and I had decided that we would open a coffee bar, as espresso coffee was the in thing at the time after just arriving from Italy. It was just a question of when and where.

She also said that you were very serious about your role and could be irritable backstage while waiting for your first entrance. Is that a fair comment?

True. Renfield was a very nervous soul with an hysterical laugh which I really had to work myself up to, to get into the mood. So I didn’t like anyone talking to me just before I made my entrance as it would put me off my concentration. Also I was used to getting a round of applause on every exit that I made and if I didn’t get it I was doing something wrong. The other parts in Dracula are very staid and dreary, they are just feeds for Dracula and Renfield, giving the plot of the play to the audience. So, my getting a round on every exit did not endear me to the rest of the company. Still that was something that I was used to.

Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing in Dracula

Although Bela’s career was practically over in America, he was still viewed as a big Hollywood star in Britain. How did you feel at the prospect of working with him?

I was thrilled, excited and frightened.The man was a star. Whether he was washed up in the States really didn’t matter. He was there in the flesh and blood and I had the best role apart from his in the play. It was a gift, because although the roles of Dracula and Renfield are the smallest in the play, whenever we were not on Stage they are talking about us. The other players may tell you it was a tatty production, and the set was cheap, but with the lighting that they used it became alive in an eerie Victorian House.

Was it intimidating as a young actor to work as closely as you did with someone of Bela’s reputation and experience?

I never thought about that, I was too scared.

Scared of Bela?

Scared, no, in awe maybe?  No, never, Bela was like a big cuddly bear. He was a gentleman in every way.

How did he measure up to your expectations when you met him?

He was exactly the same as he was in films, but not so menacing. He was great and very funny.

It is said that Bela would walk through rehearsals, working for accuracy and not throwing himself into the part until the dress rehearsal, which worried producers and directors who didn’t know his work methods.

I suppose he would just mark his performance at rehearsals, but if he didn’t know the role who should. I cannot understand anyone worrying about him, after all, he was Dracula.

Sheila said that he told her that Dracula was his Macbeth. Did you get that impression?

That is perfectly true. In Hungary, he told me, where he was a big star he was at the equivalent of the Old Vic or National Theatre playing all the major roles. It was only when he went to Broadway to appear in Dracula that he got typecast and nobody saw him in another role. He was wonderful as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein, which was a completely different role. But those parts were few and far between.

Dracula was his play. He was the star. He was the whole reason for the production. How did he behave towards his fellow cast members?

He was generous in all ways.

Six months seems like an awful long time to tour. Was that unusual in those days?

No, some shows would tour for a year or years. Remember, there were so many theatres and there was no television.

How did you keep your motivation and performance fresh as the tour progressed?

It was difficult sometimes. You would get a sort of blockage with a sentence or a line, maybe through lack of real concentration. Also, Bela was inclined to add or change the odd line. So you had to be on your toes.

His interpretation of Dracula wasn’t fixed?

Sometimes he would change slightly, but not a lot. It was always basically in the same format

Both yourself and Bela received excellent reviews, even if the play itself or other cast members were criticised. Did you build a special relationship?

I like to think so. My role was a gift and I used to grab it with both hands.

The nearest the play got to the West End was the second week of rehearsals at the Duke of York’s Theatre. What do you think it would have taken to have got the play into the West End?

Luck! We did play Golders Green and Streatham Hill, both theatres close to the West End. There was always talk about us going to the Comedy Theatre for the Christmas season. It was a toss-up between Dracula and a farce which starred Mishu Auer, a comic film star also from America. The farce won, but I think it only ran for two weeks. But by that time ourDracula production had already finished.

There were some cast changes during the tour. How did they affect the production?

I don’t think it helped, but it didn’t really affect me, when I was on stage I was doing basically a solo performance which did not take in any of the other actors apart from Bela.

What did you do immediately after the tour?

Nothing, I was looking for work.

Bela and Lillian stayed in Britain until December while he made Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Did you see him again before he left?

We had tea together at Fortnum and Masons just before they left for America.They had given me their telephone number when we finished the tour and we arranged to meet for tea before they sailed home. So Fortnum’s it was. I just remember that it was very pleasant and that they were looking forward to seeing Bela Jnr.

Did you stay in touch with him or any of the other cast members?

Only Sheila, who I would see occasionally in Taylors.I was only friendly with Sheila and Joan Winmill during the tour. Really, I had nothing in common with Richard Butler and John Saunders. They would stay in a little clique togetherand Richard Butler would treat John as a taxi service because he was the only one in the cast that had a car. The rest of the cast were old, so they used to do their own thing.

I understand that you spoke to Bela Jnr. and Lillian when you later visited America.

Yes, it was the first time I went to America in 1960. Bela had already died and I rang Bela jnr., who was a lawyer in L.A. and absolutely charming and helpful. I told him who I was and he gave me Lillian’s phone number but when I rang her she could not remember going to England or anything about the tour.

Why do you think Lillian said that? It couldn’t have been easy to forget eight months in Britain?

I think she was suffering from some sort of illness. I seem to recall that Bela Jnr. might have told me that she had been ill. So my phone call could have come at a bad time for her.

What kind of work did you do between Dracula and you and Ray opening your first coffee bar?

You name it I did it. The hundred pounds that I had saved I just kept in the bank and I made up my mind that I would not touch it until we used it for a business of some kind. I sold non-slip floor polish at the Ideal Home Exhibition. From there I decided to work as a hairdresser, although I had forgotten everything that I had learnt.  So I decided that I would start off at the top and work my way down the list of jobs for a junior assistant. The first place I went to was a salon in Davies Street, Mayfair, called Martin & Douglas. This was Lady Docker’s hairdressers and also Princess Margaret’s. The top man there was a French man called Rene who did both Lady Docker and Princess Margaret. He was a tall handsome, charismatic man with a great personality. In fact, he was a young Bela with all the French charm. He had a wicked sense of humour. I was there only two weeks and the assistant to Rene left and I got his job with really not a clue what I was supposed to do. But I coped and fortunately Rene liked me. He found me amusing. His ladies, as they sat there, would touch him up as he would lean over to either set or cut their hair. I used to catch his eye when this occurred and he would give me the odd wink. Who knows maybe he was worth touching up!

What year did you open your first coffee bar?

I think it must have been some time in 1954. Espresso coffee had just arrived in England.

Heaven & Hell, Eric and Ray’s coffee bar, next door to the famous 2 I’s

What prompted you to go into the coffee bar business?

Coffee bars were in vogue and they were full of young people who would sit there for hours at a time. I suppose they were the hip and cool people of the day.  Things then were so much simpler, there wasn’t the pressure and stress that there is today. We didn’t have any live music, we left that to the 2 I’s that was next door. Originally the 2 I’s was called the 3 I’s and it was run by three Iranians. One of them left the business and they renamed it the 2 I’s, and then two Australian wrestlers bought it and the rest is history.

Weren’t there any problems with you opening up next door to another coffee bar?

You must remember that coffee bars were all the rage in the ’50s and it was the more the merrier. So they and we were only too pleased to be next door to one another because people would go from one bar to another, backwards and forwards and that’s the way they spent their evenings.

You named your coffee bar Heaven and Hell.

Ray and I were in Paris together in Pigalle and there was a cabaret of some kind called Heaven and Hell and the name intrigued me.

How did you and Ray meet?

We appeared in a play together called Murderers Child written by Edward Rutherford at the New Lindsey Theatre in Nottinghill Gate and became friends. He was a child star from the age of 13 during the War when he appeared at the Old Vic in Oedipus Rex leading Sir Ralph Richardson onstage as the Blind Muse.

 

A portrait of Ray by Vivian

Did the success of your coffee bar mean that you quit acting at that point?

No, not at all. I worked at the Richmond Theatre, which was very close to East Sheen,and Ray did many TVs and films.I made the TV some time when Ray and I had The Regency Coffee Bar in East Sheen,don’t ask me about the date because I have no idea. The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel was a TV series that ran for about 6 months and I appeared in a couple of the segments of it.The only person I remember in it was the star Marius Goring he played the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Eric in The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel TV series in 1956

Your next venture was to open a nightclub, wasn’t it?

Yes, we opened aclub, which was called the Casino De Paris at 5-7 Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus. W.1.I think it was April 21st, 1958, the same day as Paul Raymond opened his Revue Bar.

You stopped acting at this point, didn’t you?

Yes, at the time we were making too much money.Ray continued filming.

 

Ray (left) with Richard Todd in Yangtse Incident

Were you still running the coffee bars?

Yes, but the manager that we had, slowly ran Heaven and Hell into the ground and we sold it at the same time as the 2 I’s.

What kind of entertainment did the club offer?

It was a striptease theatre.

Why striptease?

Because a new law had come into existence which allowed striptease to be performed in private members clubs. The Windmill Theatre was the only place in London where nude posing was allowed, provided the artist did not move. With this new law, providing it was a members club, artistes were allowed to move naked. We also opened another night club whilst we still had the Casino de Paris. It was called Ricky Renee’s in Covent Garden. We spent a fortune on it, but it was a disaster and we had to close it and lost a great deal of money. But that’s Show Business!

Click on the following link to watch a British Pathe newsreel film shot at Ricky Renee’s on April 20th, 1967

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=2263)

It was during this time that you got a taste for magic and embarked on the next stage of your career as an illusionist. How did that come about?

I always had it. When I was 13 my father took me to the Aldwych or the Strand Theatre to see the Great Lyle in his Cavalcadeof Mystery, so you see I was into magic at a very early age, but it was only the big illusions that interested me.

Bela Lugosi once told you that you had magician’s eyes. Did you take him seriously at the time?

It was whilst we were on tour. Of course I took him seriously, I used it enough in my publicity.

Didn’t you also receive encouragement from the girls at your club?

I always tried to have a magician in the show at the Casino De Paris and I always produced and choreographed the show, designed the costumes and lighting, and swept the stage. In fact I did everything including the music, which was on click back. So whenever a magician was there I would dress the act with strippers as assistants and include as many illusions as possible. Basically the magicians were only used to doing small magic and that was how I met Robert Harbin, because a magician brought him in to advise him on two of Harbin’s illusions that he was using. So we became friends. I also had the first nude male magician called Malcolm Vadell who would appear nude at the end of his act from the Substitution Trunk. The magic fraternity were in shock ! But that’s Show Business !

When did you begin your career as an illusionist?

I think it was some time in 1977, I’m not quite sure.

Did you give up the club?

Yes,the lease was up, and they were supposed to be rebuilding the area, which later never happened.

How did you pick your new stage name?

I went from A to Z and realised that an illusion act could never be the star turn, or so I thought. Then it would be better if you cannot be at the top of a Bill to be at the bottom. So that’s how I got to a name beginning with Z. I came up with two names, Zarak and Zee. I decided that Zarak was too circus. Zee was much more modern. So, ZEE & Co. The Co. came from a film at the time with Elizabeth Taylor called Zee and Co. I thought the title was very with it and modern, not like Zarack, which was, as I said, a bit circus.

Zee & Co. performing the sword levitation illusion at the Magic Castle at the Cambridge Theatre in London

What was your act like?

Fabulous, if I say it myself. I only performed major illusions. I would open with flaming torches that turned in walking sticks, followed by two large diceboxes that were shown empty and from which I produced, umbrellas, flower bouquets,a chinchilla cat, which promptly vanished and turned into a silk, two enormousflags and a silk that was four metres square, from which, when placed over the dice, my female assistant appeared. She was then hypnotised, ala Bela Lugosi, and laid onto a table by my two boy assistants. She slowly floated up from the table to my fingertips. The table was removed and she floated around the stage as I passed a hoop over her. She floated down into my hands and when I shouted, “Go!” she vanished. Next I got into to a box which was already on stage and showed it empty. I placed a light into the top of the box and did a few hand silhouettes, clapped my handsand the girl reappeared by burstingthrough the paper in the front of the box. I then put her into an empty cage, spun it around, pulled off the silk and, voila, my leopard, Scorpio, was there in her place. That was the fastest change that has ever been done! (See the Zee & Co. Gallery after the interview for photos of Eric’s act.)

Earlier, you mentioned that you became friends with Robert Harbin, the renowned magician.

Robert Harbin was my mentor. He was one of the finest magicians in the world. His mind was exceptional and I was very lucky that we became friends and that I had his guidance and advice to prepare me for the Magic World as one would say. So when I decided to become an illusionist it was he who sat with me for hours as we worked out the finer points of the act. When I told him that I was going to get a leopard for the act, he said that it would “rip my throat open” and fifteen years later that is what happened. It was my fault completely and to go into how it happened would take too long. Suffice to say, he ripped my throat open and I was in hospital in Marbella for a week. He was put down by the vet, and it was all my fault.

Eric’s mentor and friend, the celebrated magician Robert Harbin

Scorpio the Indian leopard was one of the big attractions of your act, wasn’t he?

He was my Baby, I had him from 2-weeks-old. He had been abandoned by his mother and could not be left in the cage with her for fear that she would eat him. He was bottle fed for 3 months on Complan. Then as he grew he had to be weaned onto meat, which was a production in itself. Then he started to grow. As a matter of fact, I kept a diary with his measurements for 6 months, which is somewhere around. He was completely tame. I used to feed him by hand, and how he could tell the difference between my fingers and the chicken bones would amaze me every time I fed him.

I’ve seen a photo of him arriving at a theatre in a Rolls Royce. Was that usual?

No it was a one-off, just a publicity shot at Sandown Pavilion on the Isle of Wight.

Scorpio arriving at the Sandown Pavilion in style

In an interview with the TV Times you said that Scorpio began to speak.

He would make a heavy meow sound that would go into a yawn as though he was trying to shape the words. To me I understood him.

You also used a tiger in your act, didn’t you?

He was rented. I worked with him in Vegas and Reno, but I would not go near him. Far too dangerous!

The magic circle described you as the greatest illusion show in the UK.

They were perfectly right. All the hours of talking and planning with Robert Harbin paid off.

How long did it take to bring your act to that level of perfection?

Within three months of working with Ken Dodd every night, I had it down to perfection. And really, if I say so myself, we went from success to success. When we did the Magician’s Convention in Blackpool we stopped the show. They truly had not seen anything like it for years. It does sound very much as though I’m blowing my own trumpet, but it was true.

You did a “record-breaking” season with Ken Dodd in Scarborough. Was that your big break as an illusionist?

Business wise it was record-breaking and audience wise also. My big break came before that with Ken Dodd when he did his Xmas Laughter Show in Liverpool.

Where else did you perform as an illusionist?

Within 18 months Zee & Co. was appearing at the London Palladium.

After the Palladium you took your act to America. What was that like?

We were in America from the end of 1982 onwards working at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami for about 6 months. We then went on to Las Vegas where I rented Juliet Prowse’s house for about a year. Ray and I loved America until we worked in Reno, which I hated. From the sophistication of Las Vegas to the unsophistication of Reno was like chalk and cheese. The audiences were basically cowboys and they thought I had come from Mars. They would sit in the show room with their cowboy hats on and their feet on the table. It was so different from Miami and Las Vegas and was not my scene at all.

Did you go to America with the act again?

No, never. I had no desire ever to work there again.

You did make a big impact in America. A review in Folie a la Carte said that you were as impressive as David Copperfield and Doug Henning.

I did my best.

Were you able to fulfil the expectations of the critics during your career? Did you continue to develop bigger and bigger illusions like Copperfield?

I didn’t have major corporations backing me. I was the one who had to pay to build all my Illusions, unlike David Copperfield.

Did you take your act to other parts of the world?

Yes. France, Spain and Portugal.

At one point you lived in Spain, didn’t you?

Yes, for ten years. It was after I finished working at the Magic Castle in London that Ray and I decided to move to Spain, mainly because of the climate. We looked around Marbella and finally decided to build a villa close by. Of course, I got carried away and basically built a palace that was enormous and quite beautiful. It took nearly two years to build, during which I was starring in the show at the Scala Melia Castilla in Madrid in a review that was built around Zee & Co. The villa had four master bedrooms – one for Ray’s mother, one for my parents, one for Ray and one for me.  By the time the villa was finished my parents had died, Ray had died, his mother had died, Scorpio had been put down and Suki, my chinchilla cat, was dead, and I was left in a bloody big house alone.

Eventually you moved back to London.

Yes, because I was sick of living in an enormous house all alone. After Ray died I never really properly worked again. It was as though all my amazing luck had gone. The date was October 25th, 1989.

Have you completely retired now?

Yes, I’m forced to………too old

When was your last professional engagement?

In Dubai in 2001 when I did a command performance for the Sultan of Dubai.

Eric (wearing sunglasses) in Dubai for the final show of his career, a command performance for the Sultan

When you look back upon your long career, are you satisfied with it?

 I have to be. I can’t change it. I have been so lucky nearly all my life, but you cannot expect everything to run smoothly all the time. It was just that the shit hit the fan when all my family died.

What was the highlight?

There were many, and also a lot of ups and downs. 

Which gave you greater satisfaction, acting or being an illusionist?

When you are an illusionist you are acting because basically you are a furniture salesman selling boxes and dreams. So you can say I had the best of both worlds.

Do you have any ambitions left?

Yes, to do a lecture tour about Bela Lugosi and Dracula and write a novel…..and stay alive long enough till my money runs out.

What kind of novel do you want to write?

Ah-ha ! ! !  You will have to ask my co-author about that! (Eric and I are currently writing a vampire novel)

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If you are interested in hosting Eric’s Bela Lugosi and Dracula lecture, please contact andobi@hotmail.com

Eric now has his own blog, detailing his fantastic adventures in showbiz at:

http://ericlindsay.wordpress.com/

I am indebted to Andrew Jaymes for sharing both his memories of seeing Zee & Co. on stage and his collection of cuttings.

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