Vampire Bats And Devil Girls From Mars: John Chartres Mather, Producer of BelaLugosi’s British Tour of Dracula, Interviewed By Frank J. Dello Stritto.

John Chartres MatherJohn Chartres Mather (Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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

Poster mock-up 2John’s mock-up of a poster for the tour

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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

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

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

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

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

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Poster mock-up 1John’s mock-up of a poster for the tour

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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FDS: Why were you interested in Dracula?

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

FDS: Fronting up?

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

FDS: What was your budget like?

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

FDS: What about Routledge & White?

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

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Rough for advance publicityJohn’s rough idea for advance publicity for Dracula

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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

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

FDS: Was Lee Ephraim a backer?

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

FDS: How about Nigel Ballantine?

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

FDS: In jail?

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

FDS: What was your impression of Bela?

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

*Bela & Lillian Arrive in EnglandLillian and Bela Lugosi arrive in England aboard the S.S. Mauretania

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FDS: Tell me about your first meeting with Bela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bela Lugosi in the British Tour of DraculaBela Lugosi in John’s production of Dracula

(Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

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

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

FDS: Any special memories of Bela?

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

FDS: Do you have any memories of the rehearsals.

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

FDS: How about the dress rehearsal?

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

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Brighton Programme CoverDracula opened at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on April 30th, 1951

(Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

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

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

FDS: How did the tour do?

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

FDS: How was the company to deal with?

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

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

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

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Brighton - Bela, Arthur Hosking, Richard Butler and David DawsonBela Lugosi, Arthur Hosking, Richard Butler and David Dawson in John’s production of Dracula (Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

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

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

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

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

FDS: Theatre garden party?

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

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Bela Lugosi at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party.Seeing StarsBela Lugosi at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey. (From the British Pathe newsreel Seeing Stars)

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

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

FDS: Why did the tour end?

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

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Dracula newspaper advertisement for the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.The end of the road for Dracula in Britain, the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth (Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

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

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

FDS: But you played Portsmouth two weeks later.

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

FDS: When was the last time you saw Bela?

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

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Iris Russell and SonnyTufts in Shadow of a ManIris Russell and Sonny Tufts in Shadow of a Man (1952)

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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

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Devil Girl From MarsPatricia Laffan as the Devil Girl From Mars (1954)

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

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Anthony Newley, John Chartres Mather and Roger Moore, October 1968John with Anthony Newley (left) and Roger Moore (right) in October 1968 (Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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

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Related Pages

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

“Child, never look into my eyes!” The Hypnotic Stare of Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi photographed by Editta Sherman

Joan Winmill appeared in the role of the Mary Wells the maid for the first half of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Beginning her acting career shortly after World War II, she had an incredible stroke of luck in 1947 when she landed a leading role in the West End hit The Chiltern Hundreds.  For more than a year the unknown actress had one of the choicest stage roles in London. After one performance at the Vaudeville Theatre Joan was introduced to future American senator Robert F Kennedy. A romance followed, but Kennedy’s father disapproved. Despite Joan’s hopes of marriage, the relationship came to a sudden end in 1949 when Kennedy announced by letter from America that he was going to marry Ethel Skekel instead.

Joan found it difficult to follow up the success she had enjoyed in The Chiltern Hundreds when the run came to an end. Her relationship and professional woes fueled her personal insecurities and bouts of stage fright. She coped through phenobarbitals before performances and sleeping pills afterwards.  Although the barbiturates got her on stage and through a performance, they also caused her to slur dialogue or drop lines. 

Joan Winmill

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

In April 1951 Joan auditioned to play Lucy in Dracula, but only managed to land the much smaller role of Wells the maid, an indication of the extent of the reversal of the professional fortunes of the former West End star. She would perform the role 121 times before leaving the tour after eleven weeks when the play’s run at the Wood Green Empire ended on July 14, 1951. 

Her career began to improve over the next three years with regular work in the theatre, television, and films. Her television credits include a recurring role in Epitaph for a Spy, a 1953 mini-series starring Peter Cushing. She appeared in four films, including uncredited roles in Alastair Sim’s Innocents in Paris (1953), Forbidden Cargo (1954), which featured Greta Gynt who had played opposite Bela Lugosi in Dark Eyes of London in 1939, and The Harrassed Hero (1954), which gave Joan her highest profile film role as the leading lady opposite Guy Middleton.

Guy Middleton and Joan Winmill

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

Despite the steady progress she was making as an actress, Joan’s inner demons were threatening to overwhelm her. By her own admission, she was feeling suicidal. Her “salvation” unexpectedly came when, “for a lark,” a friend invited her to go along to The Greater London Crusade, a 12-week evangelical event organised by Billy Graham and the Evangelical Alliance at the Harringay Arena in North London in 1954. To the amazement of her friends, Joan answered the altar call at the event.

Harringay Arena 1954

Harringay Arena in 1954 (courtesy of lettersfromthelibrary.com)

From that moment she was a transformed person. She left behind her life and career in England and has since devoted herself to spiritual work with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in America. She continues to act occasionally in films produced by Graham’s World Wide Pictures and she has written several books on devotional topics. In her 1975 autobiography No Longer Alone, which was filmed by Graham’s World Wide Pictures in 1978, Joan recounted her time with Bela Lugosi during the 1951 revival tour of Dracula. 

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No Longer Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We returned to London and played all the surrounding theatres, and then our tour was over. I was rather relieved, I must say. Touring had never been my favourite part of theatre life, and now perhaps there would be a good break waiting for me.”

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Joan’s reminiscence, written more than 20 years after the tour, contains both accuracies and inaccuracies.

Giggling among the cast—“corpsing” in British theatre slang—was an occasional problem in the Dracula tour, as it was in many provincial tours.  But it was not persistent and common.  None of the dozens of reviews or personal recollections from audience members that we had already amassed mention it. 

In the closing scene, a mannequin did indeed lie in the coffin, as Lugosi supplied Dracula’s death cries from the wings.  However, he had no fear of lying in the coffin himself—he did exactly that every night on the tour in the play’s prologue before the opening curtain. 

Bela Lugosi and his wife often socialized with other cast members on the train. Richard Butler, who played Johnathan Harker in the production, told Andi Brooks that the couple were not aloof. “..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.”

Bela, Jr. did not accompany his parents on the 1951 tour. Joan is probably confusing him with Paddy and Sean Dawson, the sons of David Dawson, who played Dr. Seward.

Joan’s fear of looking into Bela Lugosi’s eyes was confirmed by tour producer John Mather, who recalled without prompting that she was genuinely terrified of the actor.

In an interview with Frank J Dello Stritto, Janet Reid, the assistant stage manager, recounted peeling the costume off the unconscious actress to take her place for the rest of the performance after Joan was overcome by stage fog in her big scene with Lugosi. She told him, “I do remember Joan Winmill. I remember when she passed out in Middlesbrough. I literally stripped off her costume backstage. There was no privacy. And I finished the performancefor her. In my career I was an understudy four times, and each time I got to go on when the actress could not perform. That one performance was my swan song with Dracula. I dropped out right after that. The company went on to Belfast, and I went back to London.”

Bat Head 3

Related Pages

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

The History of the Trunk

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

Bela in the Broadway production of Dracula

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

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

Bela in Arsenic and Old Lace

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

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

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

1136A Bela Lugosi Steamer Trunk

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

26 inches by 42 inches by 22 inches.

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

The Angels Are in the Details

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

Bela in the 1951 British tour of Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

Bela performing at a 1950s spook show.

Photo courtesy of Jim Knusch/Professor Kinema

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

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

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

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

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

Hope and Bela

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

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

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

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