Big Bad Bela: An Interview With Bela Lugosi

Picture Play July 1934

 

Picture Play, July 1934

Published in the July, 1934 issue of Picture Play, “Big Bad Bela” followed a by-then established format for interviews with Bela Lugosi. In an obligatory set-up, a shuddering reporter fearfully anticipates coming face-to-face with the living embodiment of the horrific characters the actor had become famous for portraying. When the two actually meet, Lugosi is either portrayed as living up to the reporter’s expectations by relating an allegedly true dark and mysterious episode from his life or, as in the case of  Big Bad Bela, as actually being an urbane and charming individual. Writer Joe Mackey spoils his own set-up by revealing that any fears he may have had about Lugosi had already been dispelled when the two met earlier in the year after a performance of Murder at the Vanities in New York. On that occasion the actor proved that he was both “human and humane” by his kindness towards a young disabled fan.

Another staple of interviews with Lugosi, and one which would continue for the rest of his life, was the actor lamenting his typing as a “heavy” and the Hollywood system’s reluctance to allow him to demonstrate the versatility he had displayed as an actor in his early career. Although he was occasionally given the opportunity to appear in non-heavy roles, they were inevitably as supporting characters rather than the starring roles which he craved. Perhaps his career would have taken a much more artistically satisfying direction if he had been prepared to turn his back on the starring roles in the horror films he claimed to despise and instead carve out a niche as a character actor. His unwillingness or inability to do this may have stemmed from something more than just his reluctance to relinquish his star status. Lugosi’s financial footing was always precarious. He was forced to file for bankruptcy at the height of his stardom in 1932. His need for ready cash led to him accepting every role which he was offered. Despite this, he continued to live for the day with little or no thought for the future, a philosophy he would come to rue. During a bleak period of unemployment during the late 1930s, Lugosi lost his house and was forced to apply for financial assistance from the Actors’ Fund when his son was born in 1938. 

That scenario would have been  unimaginable in early 1934. At the time of Joe Mackey’s interview, The Black Cat, Universal’s first star pairing of Lugosi with Boris Karloff, was about to be released. The film would be the studio’s biggest box office hit of the year. With Universal already talking about teaming him with Karloff in two further films, The Suicide Club (which was never made) and The Return of Frankenstein (which was filmed as The Bride of Frankenstein without him), the future must have looked very bright for Big Bad Bela Lugosi.

Bat Head 3

 

Close up Portrait of Bela LugosiHa, Count Dracula himself giving you the evil eye! But don’t be fooled. He’d rather play Don Quixote or something jolly so you can see him as he is in the larger photo.

BIG BAD BELA

By Joe MacKey

Lugosi, the screen madman and ogre, is tracked to his home and found to be a humorous, good-natured chap with a pretty wife and three pampered pups.

LUGOSI, the fiend!

I anticipated our meeting with forebodings. Although Lugosi’s residence in Manhattan was a modern apartment house, not even remotely resembling his Castle Dracula, I was certain that the interior would shame a sorcerer’s chambers.

With a vision in my mind of Bela, the master of terror who has chilled millions with his screen demons, I pictured rooms with heavy black hangings, skulls perched atop the piano, and a host barely able to restrain himself from leaping at my throat.

When my fearful forefinger touched the bell, a tall genial gentleman ushered me into a cheery suite of rooms. Surely this was not the home of the weird Bela Lugosi! (Pronounced Bayla Lu-go-see.)

Bela stood looking down at me. The features were those of the man who has raised the blood pressure and lowered the sleeping average of the nation, but the expression was actually benevolent. Benevolence on the face of Count Dracula was an amazing sight.

The Hungarian actor is a muscular chap with twinkling, intelligent blue eyes and an attitude that puts one at ease immediately. There are lines on his face, but they are not from the scowls of monsters. They are from smiling.

And strangely enough, the man who has become celebrated as a film madman and ogre ardently dislikes horror in all its forms. He would rather play Romeo or Don Quixote or comedy parts than creeping menaces.

He describes himself as a heavy by circumstance, not by nature. He bemoans his screen fate and says, “I am definitely typed, doomed to be an exponent of evil. But I want sympathetic roles. Then perhaps parents would tell their offspring, “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up to be a nice man like Bela Lugosi.” As it is, they threaten their children with me instead of the bogy-man.

“This typing is overdone. I can play varied roles, but whenever some nasty man is wanted to romp through a picture with a wicked expression and numerous lethal devices, Lugosi is suggested. Why, they even wanted to cast me as the Big Bad Wolf in ‘The Three Little Pigs’!”

Big Bad Bela 2

The actor’s tastes are in no way as outré as his film parts would lead one to believe. an example of his quite normal – and quite excellent – taste is Mrs. Lugosi. I had expected to meet an exotic with Machiavelian eyebrows and all the characteristics of a female Dracula, but she proved to be a charming. cultured woman who seems scarcely beyond her teens.

He is too busy for many hobbies but is an animal lover and is devoted to his dogs, Pluto, Hector, and Bodri, which he raised from pups. When his favorite, Dracula, a black Alaskan husky, died he could not work for days,

He is not a movie fan but chooses Mickey Mouse as his favorite screen player.

He considers his portrayal as Cyrano de Bergerac in the Royal National Theater in Budapest his best stage work, and the part that skyrocketed him to fame, that of the vampire count in “Dracula,” best of his film impersonations.

I asked him if he, not being a horror addict, could explain the continued demand for horror pictures.

Lugosi laughed, not the bone-chilling rasp of his movie self, but a pleasant chuckle. “Although I do not relish having my hair stand on end, the popularity of horror pictures is understandable. The screen is the ideal medium for the presentation of gruesome tales. With settings and camera angles alone, the suspense that s so essential in this type of story can be built up.

“Supernatural themes, if deftly handled, are better entertainment for the average moviegoer than love stories or comedies. They are unusual, unique – a departure from hackneyed formula. And they have an almost universal appeal.”

Bela began his movie career in the pretalkie days of 1923, as the villain in “The Silent Command,” and has been playing increasingly heavy heavies ever since.

His current role is opposite that other film fiend, Boris Karloff, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Following this it is planned to costar the two in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Suicide Club,” and “The Return of Frankenstein.”

“Incidentally,” said Lugosi, “I was originally signed as the monster in “Frankenstein,” but I convinced the studio that the part did not have meat enough.”

It was this role that made Boris Karloff his principal rival for the throne of King of Horror.

Lugosi, however, considers Karloff primarily a make-up artist, and a man inwardly too gentle and kind to be suited for grisly portrayals.

It is an interesting fact that Bela Lugosi was born in Lugos, Hungary, not far from the district where, in bygone centuries, vampires had been horrific realities to the peasants, and more than once a stake had been driven through the heart of a supposed member of the Undead.

One of Bela’s ancestors was the first to settle in Lugos which grew into a thriving village and even today retains the family name of its first citizen.

In New York when he was starring in “Murder at the Vanities” I visited him unexpectedly. A little incident backstage, which he never dreamed would reach print, revealed the true Lugosi.

A youthful paralytic had been waiting to see his idol, Bela, at the stage door. Some one told him after the show and he immediately had the lad carried to his dressing-room. He not only introduced the boy to members of the cast and autographed a photo, but broke a dinner engagement to stay and talk with him. And when the crippled fan left, he told Bela he was no longer just a shadow on celluloid, but a wonderful man. And he meant it.

Lugosi! Human and humane to a fault. I had heard of a huge bat ring with ruby eyes that had been presented to him by the “Dracula” cast, and asked to see it.

“Oh, my ring. Some one stole it.” His eyes became sad for a moment. “I loved that ring. But if whoever has it now will get more pleasure from it than I did, he is welcome to it.”

That is typical of the man who wants to forget horror, and the vampires of Transylvania, the zombies of Hati, voodoo doctors, monsters, maniac scientists, and live here as an American citizen.

And what do you think is the ambition of this premier fiend? It is, in his own words, “To own a dude ranch and live a natural, simple, wholesome life.”

Lugosi – the man!

 Bat Head 3

NotesPicture Play, July 1934 3

Joe Mackey’s interview contains several inaccuracies:

The Silent Command was Lugosi’s first American film, but he began his film career in Hungary in 1917. See Bela Lugosi Filmography for a complete list of all of his known films.

The Hungarian town of Lugos was not named after one of Bela Lugosi’s ancestors. Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, his stage name was derived from that of his home town.

Picture Play, July 1934 4

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.

Newspaper Advertisement

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.

—————————–

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

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Frank J. Dello Stritto

Beginning his writing career in the pages of the 1960s amateur magazine, Photon, Frank J. Dello Stritto has built up an enviable reputation as one of the “most eloquent chroniclers of horror films. His many articles in Cult Movies Magazine, as well as his chapters in Bob Brier’s Egyptian Mummies, Bob Madison’s Dracula – The First 100 Years, Gary Don Rhodes’ Lugosi, and, of course, our own Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain have earned him a dedicated following among both his peers and fans of vintage monster and horror films. In addition to his writing, Frank is a popular speaker on the film convention circuit, a frequent guest on Joe Viglione’s Visual Radio and appeared in Gary Don Rhode’s documentary Lugosi – Hollywood’s Dracula.

For A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films (Cult Movies Press), his follow-up to Vampire Over London, Frank has collected together revised and updated versions of eight of his best articles from Cult Movies Magazine, The Vampire Strikes Back from Dracula – The First 100 Years, the transcript of his talk at the 1997 Dracula Centennial Conference in Los Angeles, and four previously unpublished essays.

The book highlights Frank’s talent for combining meticulously researched historical detail with incisive interpretation of hidden meanings. The films covered are the 1930s and 1940s monster and horror films that he saw on TV as a young boy. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that he sees parallels in them with fairy tales and classical mythology. Many writers have found themselves getting carried away when analyzing the subtexts of vintage horror films, but Frank is too skilled a writer to fall into that trap. Where one viewer sees Count Dracula as the personification of eternal evil which each new generation must defeat and all that he represents, Frank wisely concedes that he may indeed be nothing more than “a count in a cape sleeping in a coffin.”

In the introduction to his book, which is reproduced in full below, Frank traces the origin of his lifelong fascination with vintage horror films and Bela Lugosi. He also recounts how the unlikely duo of Abbott and Costello were unwittingly responsible not only for initiating the after-school TV addicts of the 1950s and 60s into the mythology of those horror films, but also for priming a whole generation for life.

Just a count in a cape sleeping in a coffin?

For anyone interested in the films and the personalities, both in front of and behind the cameras, of the golden age of horror movies, Frank’s book is essential reading. The book itself is as physically impressive as the writing. Hardbound and wonderfully illustrated throughout, with cover art by renowned artist and filmmaker Haig Demarjian, it is of a quality seldom seen these days. (Andi Brooks)

To order an individually numbered and signed copy of A Quaint & Curios Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, please contact Frank at: fdellostritto@hotmail.com

ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY…

I can date the birth of my fixation on horror movies almost exactly. In the fall of 1957 Screen Gems, which had purchased broadcast rights for Universal Pictures, packaged some of Universal’s 1930s and 1940s horror movies into Shock Theatre, which it leased to television stations across America. My family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and our television broadcasts came from New York City where Shock Theatre played late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, well after the bedtimes of seven year-olds like myself. Some Fridays, while I slept soundly, my nine year-old brother crept out of bed and talked my parents into letting him stay up. On Saturday mornings, he would tell me the wonders that he had seen.

On January 14, 1958 Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man aired, and the next morning I listened in awe to my brother’s description of the two monsters’ climactic battle. At that moment—sometime before lunch on Saturday the 15th—I knew that I must see this movie and all the late-night horrors for myself. I did not know that I would see them over and over again, read all that I could about them, write about them, lecture about them. And still, like Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man and Count Dracula, I would find no rest. At the time I could not appreciate that my mission had a few of the trappings of the gothic melodramas that would captivate me: a nocturnal quest driven by familial tensions, a search for arcane lore, and an obsession with a terrifying and fascinating past.

Until that Saturday morning, I was not a likely candidate to be a “monster boomer,” one of the post-World War II generation obsessed with old monster movies. Four years earlier my mother had taken me to a matinée of War of the Worlds. Science fiction was then the rage and had temporarily pushed the gothic monsters out of the limelight. When the aliens zapped a few locals with a death ray, I screamed. I continued screaming and crying for the rest of the film. This outburst led to a decree in our household that I not be exposed to such terrors in the future, either at the movies or on television. Dismissed out of hand was my request a short time later to see Rodan, a Japanese epic about gargantuan flying reptiles.

My scheme to master the lore of movie monsters took some time to launch, and I received help from an unexpected quarter. In my earliest years, my favorite television program was The Abbott & Costello Show. In their comic banter, Lou Costello—the short, fat, stupid one—is constantly browbeat and conned by Bud Abbott. Circumstances often let Costello triumph, but only after Abbott had either berated the hapless little man or done his best to explain the real world to him. Abbott in his exasperation with Costello became one of the unsung educators to my generation. Week after week, Abbott parried with Costello on topics as diverse as playing baseball or craps, paying or dodging the rent, dealing with lawyers, judges and police, visiting doctors and dentists, caring for the very young and the very old. Poor Lou never quite grasped what Abbott was talking about, but we kids did. For their young audiences, the genius of Abbott & Costello was that explaining their jokes was part of telling them.

By 1960 Abbott & Costello’s television series had long been in re-runs, but the comedy team’s feature films from the 1940s were regularly shown on Saturday afternoons at 2:00. On one such afternoon—I believe it was a sunny day and I felt some guilt that I was not outside playing—I first saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bud and Lou deliver two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors. The crates contain “the remains of the original Count Dracula and the body of Frankenstein’s Monster.” The first crate is opened; Abbott pulls away a canvas shroud to reveal a coffin. “The Dracula Crest!” he says on seeing the emblem on the coffin lid. Did everyone know this insignia except Costello and me? Was this something I was supposed to recognize?

Lou understands enough to be terrified. Exhibit posters in the museum tell him a bit more. With a few fits and starts, he and Abbott work through the first one:

Dracula’s Legend

Count Dracula sleeps in this coffin but rises every night at sunset. Dracula can change himself at will into a vampire bat flying about the countryside. He keeps himself alive by drinking the blood of his victims. Count Dracula must return to his coffin before sunrise where he lies helpless during the day.

Abbott then reads the second poster:

 Frankenstein’s Monster

A scientist named Frankenstein made a monster by sewing together parts of old dead bodies. He gave the Monster eternal life by shooting it full of electricity. Some people claim it is not dead even now—just dormant.

 Purists might argue with the wording, but I had at last all the information I needed to start my quest. Even at this early point in the movie, Lawrence Talbot had already transformed into The Wolf Man. A few scenes later he explains: “Years ago I was bitten by a werewolf. Now, when the moon is full, I become a wolf, too.” The eternal question about vampires and werewolves—if you have to be bitten by one to become one, how did the first one become one—already nagged at me, but I left that issue to later musings.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was once dismissed as juvenile fare. Into the 1960s it became a guilty pleasure, and as the years pass it is increasingly acknowledged as the witty thriller it is. Whatever its merits, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein introduced many baby boomers like myself to American horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. This brilliant little movie encapsulates all the virtues of far more ambitious gothic tales: a quest for eternal life, a tortured protagonist, a death struggle between intractable foes, a forbidden text with unholy knowledge. And even this movie blatantly aimed at a young audience has a curious subtext, especially in relation to the monster films that precede it.

“Lugosi’s Dracula was the most awesome and magical figure I had ever seen”

In the film, soon after Abbott & Costello read the primers for the two great movie monsters, came the moment which sealed my fate. The pivotal character in the story is Count Dracula, whose plot to revive Frankenstein’s Monster drives the other characters’ actions. I did not know then that Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula was legendary, or that his long association with the role had come to dominate his career and his legacy. All I knew as I watched Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein was that Lugosi’s Dracula was the most awesome and magical figure I had ever seen. Lugosi’s first scene in the film is without dialogue. From his coffin, Dracula locks on Costello a stare more than human, rises and waves his hand and fingers with amazing fluidity. The vampire gently taps Costello’s chest to be sure that his victim is fully under his spell, and steps back to admire his handiwork. Costello was literally dumbfounded and so was I. The comedian shakes off the trance in a few minutes. I proved not so strong—more than 40 years later I am still under Lugosi’s spell. I had yet to hear him speak, to hear that magnificent voice.

By the time that I saw Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I had television programming on my side in my plot to see all the old horror films. By the early 1960s, the old black & white horrors were no longer deemed a threat to the young, and the airwaves were flooded with them at all times. Saturdays were saturated with 1930s and 1940s monster movies. Before the weekly Abbott & Costello movie at 2:00 on Channel 5 came a horror film at 1:00. At 7:30 on Channel 11 came Chiller Theater, and late night Saturdays usually had at least one horror. I first saw the early horrors of Universal and the German expressionists on Silents Please, a short-lived television series that played abbreviated versions of old silent films. The less specialized movie anthology programs had their share of monsters. Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9 played a single film repeatedly for a week—twice or three times each week night, and almost continuously on Saturday and Sunday—and gave the pre-video generation the opportunity to watch the same movie over and over.

“The first hardcover book I ever bought”

Within a few years I was something of an expert on 1930s and 1940s monster movies. I read all the monster movie magazines. The first hardcover book I ever bought was William K. Everson’s The Bad Guys, about movie villains. The first poems and short stories that I read of my own volition were the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first novels I chose to read were Dracula and Frankenstein. My first sojourns from New Jersey to New York City were to museum auditoriums and revival theatres to see obscure horror movies that had yet to be released to television. My first use of a reference library was to lookup reviews and articles of horror movies in old newspapers. Horror movies, in short, were always there as I grew up, and shaped my first forays into the world beyond my home.

 By the late 1960s, I had written a few articles on old horror films for Photon, an amateur magazine. In the late 1970s, I drafted five essays on Bela Lugosi, with the intent of collecting them into a book for his centennial in 1982. But adult life caught up with me—marriage and family, a house, a lawn to mow, a career—and I abandoned the project. I remained a fan of old monster movies, but nothing more.

*          *          *

“The Man of 1,000 Faces”

Fast forward to Christmas morning, 1991. Like countless divorced dads, I puttered around my apartment, waiting for my assigned time to gather up my sons. As I ironed my shirts, I watched a documentary about philosopher and historian Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With A Thousand Faces. I pondered as I folded a shirt that the great silent movie star and master of makeup, Lon Chaney, was known as “The Man of 1,000 Faces.” Campbell explained that everyone believes in a mythology, whether its basis is historical or folklore, religious or political. He described how a mythology is necessary to fit the real world into a comprehensible pattern based on some values and tenets. I believed Campbell, but could not identify my own mythology. Time had come to fetch my sons, and I tossed the question into the heap with the unironed shirts.

*          *          *

About a year later, I first saw a copy of Cult Movies Magazine. Inside was an ad for a video, On the Trail of Bela Lugosi. The Cult Movies gang had taken a video recorder and visited “Lugosi sites” around Los Angeles: homes and apartments where he had lived; theatres where he had appeared; studios and outdoor locations where he had filmed. Not bad for $9.95, so I ordered one. The video soon arrived, and on its heels came a letter from Mike Copner, editor of Cult Movies:

I remember your name as a Lugosi fan who wrote a Karloff/Lugosi piece for Photon magazine about 20 years ago or so. I thought that was a great piece, and hope that some of our stuff will live up to your high standard…Are you doing any writing these days? I haven’t seen your name lately, but then I don’t read all the zines available, since there are so many out there these days. We don’t pay much, but if you had an article or something related to any variety of cult films, I’d sure be honored to run it in our magazine.

Cult Movies #27: The Lugosi Curse

I was stunned. The article he remembered so well had been published in Photon more than 20 years before. In my job—I was then an engineer in the oil industry—my memos and reports were forgotten almost immediately, as were the dozen or so technical articles I had co-written. Mike vividly remembered something I had written a generation before. I dug out my draft articles on Lugosi—four of the five had survived, all handwritten—and read them for the first time in many years. Still pretty good, I thought. I sent one to Mike, telling him that I would type it into a word processor after I had revised it. I was sure some of its ideas and information would be dated. After perusing recent writings on Lugosi and horror films, I was surprised that my articles still seemed rather fresh. Over the next year, Mike had published all of them in Cult Movies Magazine. In the meantime, I had recreated my fifth article on Britain’s so-called ban of horror films in 1937. Unlike the first four pieces, which are basically historical—new facts that I had unearthed on Lugosi’s life and career—the fifth article strayed into horror films’ subtext, into what may lurk just beneath the surface. Or, perhaps more accurately in the case of 1930s horrors, into what the filmmakers might have included in their works that censorship pressures of the day forced them to mask. 

Karloff  “The Uncanny” in The Mummy

I had no plans to do anything more until a friend, Egyptologist Bob Brier, asked me to look at his chapter on mummy movies in a manuscript for his new book. I had little to offer until a strange epiphany came over me. A co-worker had just returned from a business trip to China, carrying with him the latest strain of influenza. I caught it and for a week had no strength for anything more demanding than downing cold remedies and popping videos in my home machine before collapsing in bed to watch them. Universal’s four Kharis movies of the early 1940s have a combined running time of just over four hours. I watched them in sequence, again and again. Perhaps it was my near-delirium, perhaps I was unconsciously looking for something fresh to offer Bob, but I found meanings and themes that I had never seen before. It occurred to me that this is how Poe might have conceived his stories—half-asleep and half-demented from drugs. At last I had something unique to give Bob. Bob loved my rewrite. His publisher and editor did not, and deleted it. Mike Copner thought it manna from heaven and printed it immediately. I recovered from the flu, but perhaps not from the delirium. Since then, about 1994, whenever I watch an old horror film I think of something I want to write about. Some of my ideas are in the pieces which follow.

 *          *          *

In the late 20th century, interest in old horror and monster movies rapidly grew into a legitimate field of study. Renewed interest in horror films gained momentum long before I re-entered the field. In the 1960s, histories of horror films rarely rose above juvenile fare. By the 1990s, research into the making of the old horror films and the lives of the people associated with them was well established. Thanks to many dedicated film lovers, dozens of people who worked on the old monster movies have had their memories recorded; old newspaper features, trade journals and diverse documents have been digested; “lost” and unavailable films have been brought to light.

Carl Denham’s map of Skull Island

As the history behind the films was slowly documented, speculations on what might be within the films themselves multiplied rapidly. The growth of home video made such musings inevitable. For the first time, a wide viewership could watch movies often and closely, could freeze frames to study minute details (such as the contents of Dr. Frankenstein’s journal, or Carl Denham’s map of Skull Island in King Kong), and could replay garbled dialogue until it was deciphered (such as the German-accented Latin read by Van Helsing’s assistant in Dracula). In short, thanks to video, film could be studied as thoroughly as painting. And just as some meaning could be found in every detail of a Renaissance masterpiece, so could film students search for some overlooked gem in a film frame.

Many 1930s and 40s horror films have proven particularly fertile ground for interpretative analyses. Is Frankenstein’s Monster a stand-in for the unwanted child; is the doctor a classic case of womb envy? Is Dracula’s duel with Van Helsing actually between the devouring and the nurturing parent? Is King Kong the avenging black man who has broken his chains, or the natural world lashing out against technology? Or perhaps, as King Kong’s creator once said, “sometimes a black gorilla is just a black gorilla.”

Just a black gorilla?

Over the past 30 years, horror and monster films have been proposed as allegories for sexual and gender anxieties, intergenerational and familial tensions, racial and class struggles, economic and political instabilities, and fears over aging—both growing up and growing old. Whether a viewer sees any such ideas in the shadows or just a big black gorilla is entirely a personal choice. But whether one relishes the subtexts or simply cannot accept them, these films achieve a rare blend of entertainment and myth.

*          *          *

The popularity of 1930s and 1940s horror films with the post-war baby boomers may be an accident of timing. Universal’s old monster movies hit the ariwaves en masse just as the boomers began to outgrow children’s fairy tales. The monster boomers replaced one set of myths with another. Fairy tales and monster movies can be cast as sequential mythologies for young people. In their original forms, neither was intended primarily for the young. In time target audiences for fairy tales became those not too far from the womb, and for horror movies those not too far from puberty.

Target audiences for horror movies were those not too far from puberty

Fairy tales and horror both invite a wide range of interpretations, but at the cores of the perennial favorites are familial dramas. Long before the 1950s, those dramas might be quite diverse. In early variants of Cinderella’s tale, the villain is as often the father as the stepmother. Tallies of 19th century vampire stories show undead women outnumbering men. By the time the baby boomers arrived, the evildoers in fairy tales were mostly women, while in horror movies they were almost exclusively men. Portraying fairy tales as basically about bad mommies and horror movies as about bad daddies is a simplification, but not one that is trivially dismissed.

Many fairy tales open with a family in crisis. Snow White lives with a murderous stepmother; Cinderella with a sadistic one. Rather than feed Hansel and Gretel, yet another stepmother drives them from their home. By the end of the tales, the evil stepmothers are dead or vanquished, and the children are living happily everafter. Not quite, for horror movies then pick up their stories. The movies often begin with young people somewhat older than in the fairy tales, living in that promised everafter. But young Dr. Frankensteins and Dr. Jekylls are compelled to abandon comfortable lives to pursue strange and dangerous quests. The happy unions of young Mina Sewards to young Jonathan Harkers are threatened when Count Draculas come a-calling. Evil is again defeated, but not all the young people find a new happy-everafter, and some do not survive.

“compelled to abandon comfortable lives to pursue strange and dangerous quests”

Persistent themes in fairy tales are that obstacles in life must be confronted, and that young people must master their weaknesses and summon their strengths to prevail. The same is true of horror movies, but with a new concern. The dangers often include actually becoming the evil that must be destroyed. Those who confront vampires and werewolves may join their ranks. Universal’s mummy series begins and ends with the same plot: a young woman learns she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess and may become a living mummy. Anyone can become a Mr. Hyde or an Invisible Man. Frankenstein’s Monster is literally an amalgamation of victims. Four of the eight Universal Frankenstein movies involve a new brain going into The Monster. Only one comes from a willing donor.

Varied and scholarly interpretations abound, but fairy tales are essentially a mythology for those entering adolescent life and horror movies for those entering adult life. Horror films with their more varied plots and complex characters may be much more. Just as fairy tales are not great literature, most 1930s and 40s horror films are not great cinema. Taken as a whole, they are a rich and detailed mythology.

*          *          *

Makers of Monsters, Makers of Men…and Women!

The subtitle of this book is “The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films.” History and mythology are inseparable. Delving into what is on screen means delving into what happened off it. All the chapters in this book combine mythology and history. A few, such “Makers of Monsters, Makers of Men,” and “Monstrous Ambition” are primarily histories. Each chapter has a historical postscript with an anecdote in some way related to the main text: incidents in the lives of the people how made the films, events from outside the world of film that either influenced the movies or were influenced by them.

Movie horror’s first surges in popularity coincide with the Great Depression and World War II, when real-life presumably offered terrors that more than matched those in the movies. The early horror films owe as much to the coming of sound films in the 1920s and the aftermath of World War I as to the headlines of their own decades. Horror and monster films certainly appeared before the advent of sound in the late 1920s; but the first sustained craze for the genre came a short time after the cinema found its voice. Sound also brought increased outcries from the reformers on the evils of the movies. Pressures from the censors soon followed. Some studio bosses ignored or opposed the objections of the watchdogs, but most eventually ceded the fight.

Peter Lorre in Mad Love, pushing the boundaries to the limit

Horror films were sometimes in the forefront of the never-ending debates on film content, but by any measure of explicit content they were hardly the most daring. Yet movie censors, particularly in Britain, singled out horror for special scrutiny. That scrutiny led to a virtual ban on movie horror from 1936 to 1938. The next-to-last essay in this book, “‘H’ Is For ‘Horrific’,” deals with the protracted battle in Britain over horror films.

Many of the movie monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde, Svengali, The Invisible Man—were born in 19th century novels. The 19th century saw the Industrial Revolution, the Darwinian revolution and the Freudian revolution. The horror novels reflect anxieties over technology, and over questions of what is man and what is self. Each of the monsters embodied the new tensions introduced by the then-modern world. Horror movies took those characters, simplified them, and served them up to the movie-going public of the 1930s and 1940s.

“..somewhere in the world, all the animals known only through fossil records must thrive.’

Among the advances in 19th century science was the inescapable conclusion that the earth had seen the extinction of countless species. “Science” long resisted the notion of extinction. Many scholars of the time, Thomas Jefferson among them, contended that somewhere in the world, all the animals known only through fossil records must thrive.  Science would drop the idea, but popular culture never did, and conjured mythical lands over the horizon.  Thus literature produced The Lost World, and the movies produced King Kong.

*          *          *

This book collects my essays on the horror and monster films that I first saw on television in my youth. Most of the pieces have been previously published in Cult Movies Magazine, but I have never stopped writing them. None of the movies that I write about ever frightened me, but they captivated me at an early age, and have never let go. Like my obsession with old black & white horror films, the writing of my essays never ends. The essays may be read individually, but have been sequenced and edited to allow a smooth progression and to remove unnecessary repetition.

The collection begins with the character and the actor who for me started it all.

“The Dracula That Never Ends”

*

Related articles

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto

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

Whatever Happened To Beatrice Weeks? The Unhappy Story of the Third Mrs. Bela Lugosi by Frank J. Dello Stritto

Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Bela Lugosi and Don Marlowe

The Tell-Tale Heart Publicity Photo

During the Second World War the public’s taste for escapist entertainment, particularly horror films, bolstered Bela Lugosi’s career. The War years saw him appearing in 22 films of varying quality. When the War ended and service personal, who’d had their fill of real-life horrors, began to return home, the public’s demand for screen monsters waned rapidly. Bela made just two films in 1946, Genius at Work and Scared to Death. After completing work on the latter in April 1946, he received no further offers of film roles. His meagre earnings came from one-night stands in spook shows and capsule versions of Dracula. In early 1947 his prospects seemed to improve when he was given top billing in Three Indelicate Ladies, a mystery-farce that, according to the play’s publicity, would return Bela to Broadway. Critics, however, found numerous faults with the play, including Bela’s “almost criminal” miscasting as an Irish gangster. The production folded long before Broadway beckoned, leaving Bela forced to fall back on short provincial runs of Dracula and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Three Indelicate Ladies

Bela and Elaine Stritch in Three Indelicate Ladies

Often cited as a key factor in Bela’s career woes was his failure to secure adequate representation. Although the prestigious William Morris Agency represented him from 1940 – 1942, he went through five agents in the following five years. By September 1947, with next to no offers of work being made, Bela decided it was time to change agents once more. He chose to inform his current representative, Virginia Doak, that he had signed a new exclusive contract with the Don Marlowe Agency by letter on October 8th, three weeks after the event.

“My darling friend Virginia,

The reason why I am putting on the sugar so thick in addressing you is to make you accept the bad news that on Sept. 18th I signed an exclusive contract with Don Marlowe, which naturally means that if he can’t realize even one of his promises in four months that contract expires.

It is easy for people that have a steady income from some source to be able to wait for help and achievement of their friend who is in the managerial business. But it is close to two years that have had some many projects in view which unfortunately – naturally not your fault – did not realize. That would have been alright if I would have had money to cover my overhead expenses – which I didn’t – and especially that I was not working for two years and getting very deep in the red. I had to borrow money on my last collateral to escape from Hollywood and try to cash in on my popularity and box office value in the east.

I couldn’t help signing with him for a year which means four months if he can’t deliver. But I signed for motion pictures only and the radio field is still free for you. So as far as motion pictures are concerned he is entitled to full commission for anything he knows and is able to deliver but if you should know of anything of which he does not – naturally you should receive full commission regardless of my obligations to Marlowe.

So I would suggest, my dear, to cooperate with Marlowe for the time being and believe me I would not disappoint you. I need a job very badly and am just human when I say that I do not mind who helps me to get my bread and butter I have to take it. So when I return to make a picture arranged by whom-ever I can make the radio recording platters and finally try to get out of the red.

Please answer by air mail and believe me, we are your sincere but desperate friends.

Truly,

Bela”

*

Don Marlowe Agency

Don Marlowe Agency publicity material

Exactly when and where Bela and Marlowe met is unclear, but it was unlikely to be in 1939, as suggested by Marlowe in his quasi-autobiography. Prone to exaggeration and outright lies, Marlowe falsely claimed to be Porky of the Our Gang comedies in his publicity material, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in his recollections. Described as having more enthusiasm than talent as an agent, he did work hard on behalf of Bela and achieved something that his predecessor failed to do – he got Bela working. On November 19th, only one month after signing Bela, the two set off on a tour of The Tell-Tale Heart, written and produced by Marlowe, who also provided the sound effects. In the absence of complete records, the extent of the tour is unknown. Posters do survive from a handful of dates. The production, a 40 minute dramatic reading by Bela supported by a reissue of the film Dracula, appears to have played in sleepy backwaters, but it gave Bela work, and more importantly a pay cheque. His contract for the tour guaranteed him $1,000 per week against 10% of the top gross plus hotel accommodation, transportation from New York to the engagements and return transportation to his choice of New York or California.

Bela must have felt that his decision to sign with Marlowe was justified when Universal cast him as Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in January of the following year.  What part Marlowe actually played in securing the role for Bela is unknown, but his own account is known to be grossly exaggerated. He claimed that he stormed into the Universal offices just days before filming began and used moral blackmail to shame executives into giving Bela the part, reminding them that Dracula had saved the studio from ruin in 1931. However much Marlowe overstated his role, Bela did receive his most prestigious, critically acclaimed latter-day role under his representation. The return to the limelight, however, proved to be short-lived. The critical and financial success of the film mysteriously failed to rejuvenate Bela’s career. Whether it was a measure of Marlowe’s true ability as an agent or, as Frank Dello Stritto has suggested in his article Lugosi in Politics, the result of a secret blacklisting due to Bela’s unwitting involvement in the Communist-backed Hungarian American Council for Democracy during World War II, Bela found himself once more cast professionally adrift. He did not make another film until Mother Riley Meets The Vampire at the end of his 1951 British tour of Dracula.

October 2nd, 1947

A letter to British agent Rita Cave detailing Bela’s terms for appearing in a proposed 1948 London revival of Dracula

Bela almost found himself performing Dracula on a British stage in 1948. In late August of 1947, Marlowe appears to have started inquiries into the possibility of a British production with the Paul Kohner agency, which exchanged several letters and telegrams with its representative in London. There seems to have been a genuine interest in securing Bela, who by October 2nd was quoted as asking for $2,000 per week against 18% of the gross. One week later the American press reported that Bela would shortly sail for England to star in Dracula. Nothing more was heard until February 4, 1948, when Variety announced that Bela would leave for London to revive Dracula on April 15th. One month later The Evening Independent’s Bob Harris quoted Bela as saying that he would perform in an eight-week run of Dracula in London during the summer. However, Bela would not find himself reviving Dracula in England until 1951. It is unclear at the moment just how close to taking place the proposed 1948 revival came. 

Marlowe had many other ideas for new projects for Bela, including The Bela Lugosi Show with CBS, The Return of Dracula and an Invisible Man film at Universal, The Inner Sanctum at MGM, and a Chandu serial at Columbia. All failed to materialise.

Don Marlowe ad from Mad Monsters # 3, 1962

Marlowe placed this ad in Mad Monsters #3 in 1963

By 1950, Bela had moved on to another agent in search of the elusive comeback which he never quite gave up on. Whether as a true mark of respect or an attempt to publicize himself, Marlowe placed a memorial advertisement in Variety when Bela died. He showed his true colours at the funeral. As Bela’s casket was being taken from the Utter McKinley Mortuary to the waiting hearse, he pushed aside official pallbearer Richard Sheffield, one of Bela’s teenage friends, so that he would be photographed carrying the casket by the assembled members of the press.

Don Marlowe & Edward D Wood among the pallbearers

Marlowe, back left, looks into the camera. The other pallbearers, including Edward D. Wood Jr., back right, concentrate on their footing as they descend the steps of the mortuary.

During the 1960s, Marlowe attempted to cash in on his relationship with Bela by offering for sale items such as copies of Bela’s memorial service card, Screen Actors Guild membership card, photos, a recording of Bela’s rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart and one of Bela’s personal scrapbooks through monster magazines. In September 1970, he set the film collecting world alight when he placed the following ad in Classic Film Collector magazine and Midi Minuit Fantastique in France:

*          *          *

Bela Lugosi – For Sale: Screen test Bela Lugosi made for the original Frankenstein. 35mm sound, running time 21 minutes; same scene is shown twice with change in lighting, etc. Between scenes camera was left running and Carl Laemmle Junior, James Whale, Colin Clive and Lugosi can be seen and heard discussing test and wardrobe Lugosi was wearing. Film can be examined and screened before purchase is made. Price: $4,000. Don Marlowe. Hollywood, Calif. 90028″

*          *          *

What made the advertisement so astounding was the mention of James Whale. It was well known that Frankenstein’s original director, Robert Florey, shot test footage with  Bela on the Dracula set, but it had always been assumed that Bela’s involvement in the film ended with Florey’s when James Whale took over as director. Could Whale have made his own screen test with Bela or was it just another of Marlowe’s tall tales? Unless the film resurfaces, we will never know because, despite financial inducements, he did not allow anyone to see the footage, subsequently claiming that he had sold it to Carl Laemmle Jr. for $3,500 dollars.

Don Marlowe duplicate item

A duplicate of Bela’s memorial service card sold by Marlowe

Time has not been kind to Marlowe’s reputation. His often questionable behaviour, such as secretly taping a telephone conversation with Stan Laurel and marketing the recording as a “lost” interview, and the unmasking of his many false claims have left him discredited. Although it should perhaps be approached with caution, the following extract from  The Hollywood That Was, Marlowe’s 1969 account of his “mis”adventures in Hollywood, does provide a rare first-hand account of a period of Bela’s life and work which has not yet been fully documented, and, until researchers are able to shed more light on the Marlowe years, remains our primary source of information. (Andi Brooks)

One of the best friends I have ever had was Bela Lugosi. We were devoted friends for almost thirty years, until the day he died. I doubt there has ever been an actor in the history of motion pictures or the theatre who has been more misquoted by the press than this gentleman…and gentleman he was…a true continental with manners to match. I could write a book on Lugosi alone recording the very many interesting experiences I have had with him over the years. Besides being his close friend, I had worked at various times as his manager, agent, producer, director and frequently worked with him as an actor.

Lugosi had very few English-speaking friends because he preferred to speak in his native tongue, Hungarian, and the few friends he did have, other than myself, were Hungarian. Bela and I seemed to hit it off quite well from the first time we met. During the many years I knew him I never once heard him raise his voice or use any profanity. He had manners which never left him regardless of circumstances. As an example, we were playing Green Bay, Wisconsin one night many years ago in his great stage success, Dracula. In addition to producing the play, I was playing a part in this production. Although he had performed his role in this play hundreds of times before, on this particular night, as happens once in a while with all actors, he forgot his lines. I happened to be on the stage in a scene with him the night this happened. I had quite a long speech and Lugosi’s line followed my dialogue. As I looked at him expecting the line I could see that he could not think of it. I adlibbed a line to try to get him back on the track. However, this did not seem to help. Mrs. Lugosi was working as a prompter, offstage, and she threw him the correct line. She did not speak quite loud enough for Bela to pickup the exact words. Without flinching, Lugosi said, as though it were a line in the play: “I beg your pardon?”

Mrs Lugosi repeated the line loud enough this time so that Bela got it right and proceeded with the scene as though nothing untoward had occurred.

Don Marlowe Agency publicity

Don Marlowe Agency publicity material with characteristic exageration. When, where or if this “evening of character sketches” took place is unknown

I produced several road companies of the play Dracula with Bela Lugosi playing the lead. On one of these tours we opened at the Coronado Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. To get the show off to a good start, we flooded the town with publicity. Lugosi’s picture could be seen on almost every fence and telephone pole in town.

We arrived in Rockford the night before the opening. Bela, his wife Lillian, and I had enjoyed a late, festive dinner in the hotel dinning-room. We toasted each other several times to the success of the tour and all of us left the table in high spirits. As we were walking through the hotel lobby, Mrs. Lugosi said she wanted to retire early and went to her room. Bela and I decided to walk downtown to take a look at the theatre where we were to appear the following night.

It was about ten o’clock and practically all of Rockford’s inhabitants were indoors on this cold November night. As Bela and I walked briskly along the street, we noticed a brightly lighted stretch ahead of us. This turned out to be a long bridge, right in downtown Rockford. In the distance, we could make out the lone figure of a young boy about ten, coming toward us from the opposite direction.

Lugosi, usually a modest man, but now in an elated mood, turned to me with a twinkle in his eye, and said:

“He will spot me any minute, watch.”

As the boy approached us we could both see his expression of disbelief as he recognised Bela Lugosi. Bela was smiling and as we got near to the boy he said in a gentle voice:

“Good evening, my young man.”

The astonished boy timidly returned the smile and managed to blurt out:

“Could I have your autograph, please?”

“Certainly,” said Lugosi, turning to me with a triumphant grin.

The boy took a piece of paper out of his pocket and I offered my pen to Bela. As he was about to sign his name, Bela paused momentarily and said to his young fan:

“And, young man, what is my name?”

Without hesitation, the boy said: “Boris Karloff.”

The Tell-Tale Heart playbill

On another Lugosi tour we were running his original picture Dracula with a forty-minute stage presentation. For part of the show I had written a short, modern version of the Edgar Allen Poe story, The Tell-Tale Heart.

After the first night, I dreamed up the idea  that it would add realism to the play if we could reproduce the sound of a beating heart, which was what the play was about. The Tell-Tale Heart story is about a murderer who imagines that he hears his victim’s heart beating after the murder. The lines: “And the heart kept beating louder, and louder, and louder,” were repeated many times throughout this sketch.

I knew that it would be impossible to get sound recording in this part of the country. In a second-hand store I found an  old drum which seemed to have just the right sound.

Because we carried no stage-hands, I handled the sound effects on the drum myself. I did this until we reached the city of Racine, Wisconsin. I always stood as close to the stage as I possibly could without being seen, in order to be able to hear Bela’s dialogue. As I have already mentioned, the drum I was using was in poor condition and as Lugosi was going through the lines of  The Tell-Tale Heart that night, I was beating the drum softly at first, as usual. When Bela got to the part, “and the heart kept beating louder and louder and louder,” I began to hit the drum harder and harder and harder. As we came to the climax of this vignette, my mallet broke into the drum. This threw me completely  off-balance and I fell over the drum, past the curtain and landed on the stage, practically at Lugosi’s feet in full view of the audience.

Bela looked down at me with an expression I had never seen before on his face, then very calmly announced:

“Ladies and gentlemen…my manager, Mr. Don Marlowe.”

I quickly recovered my composure and walked off-stage. Lugosi, undaunted trooper that he was, went on with the performance as though nothing unusual had taken place.

 In the course of his lifetime, Bela Lugosi earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was, however, always in one of two extreme predicaments…either incalculably wealthy or completely broke. The actor never worried about money. He spent it faster than anyone I have ever known. He lived luxuriously in a stately mansion with lavish furnishings…wore elegant clothes and entertained in superlative taste. He owned a priceless stamp collection and his only other hobby, to which he devoted his leisure time, was reading books mainly dealing with scientific subjects and world history.

The Tell-Tale Heart 1947

One of the few confirmed performances of The Tell-Tale Heart

One morning we were having breakfast at the old Gotham Restaurant in Hollywood. There were only four of us in our party, yet the check came to almost three hundred dollars. Bela had ordered Eggs Benedictine. He liked the way this restaurant prepared this gourmet dish and he ordered two cases of imported champagne for the chef to show his appreciation. For the excellent services rendered by the waitress, he ordered two dozen red roses for her. He had a second thought…it might hurt the feelings of the other waitresses to overlook them, so he ordered the same token of his appreciation for each of the other girls. It was in this kind of whimsical extravagance that the actor frequently indulged himself.

Bela was with me one afternoon when I was giving writer Henry Lawrence a lift home. Harry lived only a short distance from my home. Lugosi and Lawrence had one thing in common which they discussed during the ride. Neither of them had ever learned to drive.

Several months later, when Lugosi was in one of his many financial crises, he had urgent need for a small amount of cash. He went to my house late one night hoping to borrow some money from me, but I happened to be out that night. Remembering that Harry Lawrence lived only a short distance from me, Lugosi went to his home. He asked the writer to lend him ten dollars. Harry good-naturedly handed him the money. Then, recalling that Lugosi did not drive, Harry asked: “But how will you get back home?”

Bela shrugged and said: “Oh, I have a cab waiting.”

Don Marlowe duplicate item 2

A duplicate of Bela’s Screen Actors Guild membership card sold by Marlowe

I was visiting with Bela Lugosi one afternoon and got into a serious talk with him about his main problem in life…the important matter of the way he mishandled his finances. He listened thoughtfully and did not interrupt me. When I had finished, he looked at me and said:

“Don, give me one good reason for saving money.” Then he went on to say: “Isn’t the real purpose of money to spend  on things that one enjoys? When I don’t have it I can’t spend it.”

To convince me that his own philosophy was not unique, he produced a paper on which was written the following:

In 1923, a very important meeting was held at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Attending this meeting were nine of the world’s most successful financiers. Those present were:

The president of the largest independent steel company:

The president of the largest utility company:

The president of the largest gas company:

The greatest wheat speculator:

The president of the New York Stock Exchange:

A member of the president’s cabinet:

The greatest “bear” in Wall Street:

Head of the world’s greatest monopoly:

President of the Bank of International Settlements.

Certainly we must admit that here were gathered a group of the world’s most successful men. At least men who had found the secret of “making money.”

Twenty-five years later let’s see where these men are:

The president of the largest independent steel company – Charles Schwab – died a bankrupt and lived on borrowed money for  five years before his death.

The president of the largest utility company – Samuel Insull – died a fugitive from justice and penniless in a foreign land.

The president of the largest gas company – Howard Hobson – is now insane.

The greatest wheat speculator – Artur Cutton – died abroad insolvent.

The president of the New York Stock Exchange – Richard Whitney – was just recently released from Sing Sing Penitentiary.

The member of the president’s cabinet – Albert Fall – was pardoned from prison so that he could die at home.

The greatest “bear” in Wall Street – Jesse Livermore – died a suicide.

The president of the Bank of International Settlements – Leon Fraser – died a suicide.

All of these men learned well the art of

Making money, but none of them

LEARNED HOW TO LIVE.

When I had finished reading these very stirring accounts of famous men, Lugosi said: “Don – happiness to me is contentment, and spending money gives me contentment.”

Such was the philosophy of Bela Lugosi…the only man I ever knew who lived life to the fullest.

The entry for Don Marlowe, Inc. in the 1948 edition of The Production Encyclopedia stated that Bela was represented as both an actor and a writer by Marlowe.

Don Marlowe promotional poster

Don Marlowe  promotional material

Ccourtesy of University of North Texas Libraries, Hardin-Simmons University Library , Abilene, Texas.

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