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

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

Marcus interviewed Ann at her home in Suffolk on a crisp winter’s day in December 2013. The study where the interview took place was the very room where David Croft created his numerous award-winning sit-coms. Marcus recalled that he was reasonably relaxed until he realised he was sitting three feet away from a BAFTA!  He found Ann to be warm, interesting and frank with her recollections of the 1951 tour. What stood out for him was the admiration she had for Bela Lugosi as a professional and above all as a human being. He was kind enough to ask Ann some questions on our behalf and generously shared his complete interview with us for our second edition, which was published in July, 2015. After the interview he presented Ann with a copy of the first edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi In Britain, which now sits proudly in her study alongside her signed version of Dracula, signed by the cast and crew of the 1951 tour, including Bela and Lillian.

Bat Head 3

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

Bat Head 3

MB: Mrs Croft, thank you again for seeing me. Sorry, I don’t want to sound like David Frost as I’d rather just have a conversation. It’s so much easier…

AC:  (Laughs) Not at all I am delighted to see you.

MB:  Thank you. Do you mind if I start by asking how you got into theatre. What did you do when you had left school?

AC: I went to RADA…I went to P-RADA…which was the Proprietary Academy and then I went to RADA. And then when I left RADA I was lucky enough to be signed up by a very good agent at the time called Betty Farmer. And, erm, Dracula was probably my first professional job. They thought I ought to go out on tour a bit because I was a bit big-headed. I’d done quite well at RADA. When they said Bela Lugosi was coming over to do the tour, Betty sent for me as she was a great friend of John Mather’s, who was the, erm….one of the managers, and said, “You’ve got to learn about the business from the real end.” The metaphorical equivalent of sweeping the stage! Had I done a few weeks with the Old Vic before that? Carrying a spear and understudying Peggy Ashcroft, I think. We got £3 a week I think….£4.10d….and he said this tour was going out and they were going to pay £7.50…£7 10d….I went along to audition because I was going to understudy Lucy as well. And..I got the part. Turned up for rehearsals as I say and we had a big meeting, with a cup of coffee, and all the cast. As I was saying previously, Bela took one look at me and came straight across, hugged me and said, “My ideal Lucy!” , which immediately put me in the…. not very good books with the leading lady really and truthfully. (Laughs)

MB: (Laughs) No wonder Sheila finished the tour and never went sick I wouldn’t imagine after that…

AC: (Laughing.) She used to get very angry. It was nothing to do with Bela really, but when we used to leave by the stage door, people used to come and queue up for autographs. For whatever reason, they would always be queuing for Bela and all the rest of it, but as soon as I left, they always asked for my autograph as well, (Laughs) that didn’t help. Bela thought that was very, very funny. (Laughing) The fact that I was the lowest person in the cast that there possibly could be, well maybe other than the stage-hand…and er…..maybe I carried myself like a star! (Laughing)

MB: I think you’re…well you’ve still got an air about if you don’t mind me saying….you have.

AC: But anyway, he was very nice and I don’t think really obviously that they had any children of their own and I would have been about nineteen I suppose….and he was very, very kind….I had no knowledge of stage management whatsoever. Joan…Joan…I can’t remember who it was who was the….Peter Whelpton was the General sort of Manager and he became a travel agent…travel writer afterwards. We got on very well. I think it was an experience which I am very glad I had. However I wasn’t entirely sure I was learning a great deal about what I thought about as show business, which was very much. The National didn’t exist in those days, so it was The Old Vic or whatever or Comedie Francaise, which I’ve done as well.

MB: What would you say, that at that time I mean we were literally what six years after the war, was theatre, was entertainment, was it a much needed release or was it a self-indulgence at that time in terms of people being able to afford to go to theatre?

AC: I don’t know….it did quite well. Golders Green was actually a very good week. Finsbury Park was a good week. Lewisham as I explained earlier was certainly not a good week.

(Ann refers to a conversation we had before the recording in which she explained that Bela was approached by John Mathers and told of the three people in the audience at an afternoon matinée in Lewisham. Mathers said he would cancel the performance. Bela asked only if they had paid, which they had. ‘In that case we play’ he insisted. Editor’s note: Dracula did not play in Finsbury Park. Ann told Andi Brooks that it was “probably Wood Green.” )

Three artist, I mean three members of the audience and a cast of oh I don’t know what it was…ten or eleven. The other members of the cast were not in agreement with Bela, about playing, they thought that was absolutely ridiculous. ‘Give them their money back’ is what was generally said by the others. But he was the Star and what he said – went. I was actually in great sympathy with him, because I thought of these poor three people sitting in the front row. I did ask permission not to have to go and scream but I didn’t get it. (Laughs) I still had to go and do it.

MB:  You still had to do the scream and faint and…(Laughs.)

AC: And all that business yes. (Laughing)

MB:  Can I just recap as well….so you joined the tour and you would have had the rehearsals Mid-April probably time?

AC:  Yes.

MB: And then when did you actually leave the tour?

AC: I don’t know…..I was out for about ten or twelve weeks I think.

MB: And would you mind recounting the story again of how you left the tour?

AC: (Laughing) Oh well if it’s of any interest (Laughing)

MB: Of course it is.

AC: I kept my contract for years which, cause it was very amusing or at least I thought it was and it said if I was going to work for my £7 a week or whatever it was…to do the effects managing which involved the use of the….can’t remember what they called it……The Gun! I said that I didn’t know much about effects managing, but I thought I was a quick learner and thought I would do well there. I’m trying to think if that was…..did we open at Theatre Royal Brighton?

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Ann Coupland ContractAnn Croft’s contract

(Courtesy of Ann Croft)

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MB: Yes. Yes you did. The tour started in Brighton on April 30th.

AC: Because I had to….in those days Equity wasn’t all that strong and it did take a lot of rehearsal so we did run over our rehearsal time a lot. Then on one occasion they weren’t very happy with some parts of the scenery and John Mather came and said, ‘Well you can’t go back. You are going to have to paint a bat on a drop sheet.’ I said, “What?” So he says “The big drop sheet that comes down. It’s got to have this big bat on it.” So I said, well I didn’t really know what a bat looked like, a mouse with wings! So they gave me some sketches and then they all left me alone in a haunted theatre, to paint a bat on a……they were called gauzes, that’s right. The only trouble was nobody had explained to me that, erm, if you put water on the gauze…it shrinks! So I had painted this large bat, which wasn’t too bad. Went and made myself a cup of tea in the dressing room, came back and the bat was like all this…all twisted up. Because, of course, I hadn’t weighted. What you had to do was weight the gauze before you painted the bat which I hadn’t done and of course it had dried off half…it was no good me putting weights on back onto the thing. John Mather was not very pleased, he said it had cost him a lot of money. The other thing I had to do (laughing) was to throw bats on stage on sticks on wire.

MB: I’ve heard of that (laughing) there’s a few stories of that in the book (Vampire over London).

AC: It had a bat on a wire on a stick and you had to stand on the side and when the bat used to come round, its head used to go like this and it would come in and go shhhhheewww and off. Only one night I wasn’t very quick and I got it wrong and the big four poster bed that Lucy was in, this bloody bat flew round and round the four poster bed and died and stopped! (Laughing) when the wire ran out it couldn’t go any further.

MB: Well it was a dead bat at that stage you know.

AC: Again, Bela thought that was very funny and Lillian was in hysterics.

MB: Was she?

AC: Peter Whelpton was not amused at all because the audience could tell there was something not quite right about this. So they just had to play the rest of the scene with this bat, hanging like this on the four poster bed. (Laughing) It had obviously died. That was quite a funny memory actually.

MB: I mean, what an education for you.

AC: We learnt an awful lot. This gun thing you had to fill with glycerine. You plugged it in, left it on the side of the stage and heated it to a certain level when a little red light would just come on. Then you unplugged it, pressed this button and these puffs of smoke came out. And gosh it’s a funny thing to remember….I was very nervous on the opening night, I had a lot of difficulty with this gun, I had too little smoke or I had too much smoke. They were getting a bit impatient with me, but unfortunately on the actual opening night and Bela was making his first appearance. The arms are out like this and I was behind, up his cloak at the back, and I’m puffing this smoke you see that went all around. So he went on but you could hardly see him. Because there was an awful lot of smoke. I was very worried about this so I put the gun down but I didn’t switch it off. So the smoke kept on coming (laughing). The first five rows of the audience (laughing) couldn’t see anything at all. They had to open windows. John Mathers was not very pleased about that either, that was the actual opening night. I think that’s why they grew so found of me, because there were so many little silly things that happened. It did cause a lot of amusement.

MB: I think he probably admired in you, what he did; just got on with things and acted.

AC: That was the start of the show. As a cast we got on quite well. The one who played Van Helsing – wasn’t very good. He wasn’t a very good actor, I mean and Bela thought he wasn’t a very good actor either.

MB: I think it was David Dawson (incorrect, it was Arthur Hosking) at the start and then Ralph Wilson took over.

AC: And I was a bit disappointed to be perfectly honest. It’s one of the lead roles and it’s terribly important, and it was, in my opinion, as if he was reading from his script all the time and not giving Bela the build-up that he required.

MB: Where you aware at that time that his vision and hearing wasn’t the greatest?

AC: I knew his hearing wasn’t very good because my father happened to be deaf from the First World War. So of course I had a big voice and Bela never had any trouble hearing me. Not that that happened on the stage as I didn’t appear on the stage with him as such….other than under his cloak! (Laughing) But I did know his hearing was bad, I did not know…you say his sight was bad as well?

MB: His sight, yeah I mean he never let anybody see him in his glasses, and he always apparently had a script. Always read the Dracula script apparently, even before a show, I don’t know if you recall that? But literally during rehearsals he would be dependent on people’s movements for his cues, at times. So he would know when they had finished saying something, rather than the actual words.

AC: I don’t remember that on that tour at all. I know he always used to say, as I had to cue him a few times on various things, he used that he was a little hard of hearing and he was very grateful that I had a voice that carried. So that’s rather…not pronunciation…what do they call it…projection that’s it.

MB: Did he ever discuss acting with you personally?

AC: Yes, yes on a couple of occasions. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said well I suppose what I really wanted to do was go back to the Old Vic, but not as a spear carrier or understudy. And play in the West End Theatres. I understudied Vivien Leigh in (inaudible) something like that. Well I was a what they used to call a walking understudy for Tenants who were the big producers at the time. It was a regular job, I’d just had a child. And I think I never played….I played for Barbara Braiden in…what on earth was it called…all about commercial television, was a big success on tour. It was by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields….Anniversary Waltz. It was a massive success on tour. When we came into the West End we under-ran 25 minutes, on the opening night. No laughs! The critics and the West End audiences those days, they often came to the theatre in Dinner Jackets and those things. They just didn’t think it was funny. It was wrongly timed. It was all about jingles and commercial television and we didn’t have jingles and commercial television in this country. So the rather smarter people, the other people saw it for what it was, which was a rip-roaring farce. But the smart people who came to the opening night, they didn’t, they all said what the hell was it all about? You know there was lots of laughs at Persil washes not only clean but white and that sort of thing. But before anybody had heard it here.

MB: So it was a bit before its time?

AC: Yes it was before its time. He came to my Dressing Room, Jerry, after the opening night. And it was Joan Winmill who was playing…..she also played the sort of little friend in Anniversary Waltz as well. That was a Tenants Production.

MB: Joan Winmill was the maid in your tour of Dracula.

AC: Yes she was. Anyway, talking about Bela: that’s what I told him I had wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a walking understudy, but I wanted to work for Tenants.

MB: Did he encourage you? Did he offer you any tips or advice?

AC: Oh very much so. But he said you must always remember that acting is a job, like any other job, and you bring your best attention to it. It was a phrase actually that David used many years later – Work comes first. If work doesn’t come first, nothing else comes afterwards. And I think that’s absolutely true. Because you can’t pay your digs, because if you’re not doing any acting you’re not going to….

MB: There’s a lot to be said for that…nothings for free?

AC: I think that also…..because he could hear me….I hadn’t really realised that particularly at the time. He and Lillian used to spend a lot of time with me. Which again I don’t think the rest of the cast…thought it was a bit strange.

MB: Did you know at that time that they had a son that they had to leave back in America? Bela Jr, and he was in a Boarding School. But literally one of the reasons they came over (to the UK) was to make sure….

AC: Was to make sure he could pay his fees….

MB: Yeah…you know work…work comes first. And obviously that caused a lot of heartache I would imagine for both of them.

AC: That’s why they probably liked a 19-year-old – still a very young person to them. So they used to take me out for coffee and things like that.

MB: Yeah…would you mind me asking how did you see their relationship? Did she mother him….

AC: I have to say that you surprised me, when you said they divorced about two years later?

MB: Yes it was in 53 I believe.

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

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AC: The impression that I got, was that they were absolutely devoted. She was very…mother hen towards him. She was always in the dressing room. Peter Whelpton used to say, “Lillian’s absolutely marvellous, she helps with the dressing and everything else. But he said she’s hardly going to let you do it is she!”but I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, whether she thought he might pat me on the head or something like that. He was never left alone with me, except on one occasion when we hadn’t got a spare cloak handy as I burnt this damned great hole in the first cloak. Lillian went off to find a replacement cloak. He was so nice about it, but he bought his own cloaks you see.

MB: How many did he have then?

AC: Three. He had three and I burnt two of them. I’m not sure if I didn’t burn three and they had to get another one from America? Cause he always, that cloak was very special.

MB: It’s well documented and whether or not the documents are true…that he did have an eye for the ladies…

AC: (Laughs)

MB: At the end of the day he was a film star, he was very handsome, you know and you were a very attractive young lady at that time……cough cough! (laughs)

AC: Well Lillian didn’t leave us alone very much I have to admit.

MB: There are also lots of stories of him being very controlling over her, as in he used to tell her what to wear as well. But I think it was very much to do with his Hungarian background.

AC: I have to say I never noticed that particularly. Not that we spent any great length of time when we went for a coffee, would be forty minutes at the most you know. You didn’t have coffee bars like today, it was some American ice cream parlour type things, particularly in Brighton. I didn’t notice him being authoritative with her at all.

MB: In public, I think a lot of people say that she was mother hen, she would even cut his food up for him and you know…I think it got to the point where they had that type of relationship where…well I think…the opinion that I’ve formed is that I think she saw a lot of people take advantage of him throughout the years. He wasn’t a good businessman when it came to money, he would just do work for the sake of it, just to keep working. I think she saw that and she tried to keep him away from people like that? And I believe from the book that you’ll read there, Ann, (Vampire over London) is that John Mathers had great issues with her. The rest of the cast loved her, but her and John Mathers didn’t get on at all.

AC: That’s interesting.

MB: So I think she felt he was being taken advantage of. He was an old man, he wasn’t well…he..

AC: I must say she fought very hard, not to get me dismissed. And I think the main reason why and he won’t like this story coming out either. The main reason why John Mathers did sack me, although they were perfectly within their rights for drinking during the show; unforgivable, was the fact that he chased me around the prop room a couple of times and hadn’t got anywhere. Well I think that came into it as well. (Laughs)

MB: You were Non-Compliant let’s say. (laughs) This is turning into a book about something else here Mrs Croft. What a fascinating period for you. Can you remember of hearing when Mr Lugosi passed away?

AC: No I only read it in the papers. I think it may have been Peter Whelpton rang me, and said had I heard and at that time I hadn’t, but it was then in that day’s paper. So he said to me at that time; well he (Bela) was still working. I don’t know what he was doing, he was half way through a movie or something?

MB: He was working with a gentleman at the time called Ed Wood.

AC: Oooo…he had the reputation for making the worst movies that were ever made. Some are shown at the Film Institute now, as examples of what not to do.

MB: I think they’re really good myself (laughs).

AC: I don’t think I have ever seen any of them. And of course he kept Bela in for the first half didn’t he? And then had a stand in for the other bits, you never saw Bela’s face again at the end of the movie it was always the shadow and the arm.

MB: That’s right and the cloak up at the eyes and the height difference was amazing too. In 55 I believe he checked himself, I believe he was one of the first ever celebrities, if you like, to ever check himself into rehab because he was addicted to painkillers, and again I believe that it was because of sciatica. He got addicted to morphine and he admitted bringing a pound of morphine or methadone back from here (the UK) back into the US, but he got off it. I think he took it so he could work, not as a recreational drug so it would make him feel good, I think to take away the pain. Do you recall any sort of images of him being on-stage as an upright Dracula figure and then off-stage as a……

AC: Yes…I remember one day mostly. I’m trying to think of the dressing room. He had an armchair, quite a high one, but you didn’t see him struggle to get out of it or like that and it wasn’t a chair like this. I’m trying to remember….there was slight tendency to suffer from headaches. Or Lillian….oh how interesting it never occurred to me in anyway whatsoever….Lillian had the phrase, “Oh Dear I think Bela may have one of his headaches.” Well maybe that was so if I saw him taking pills I would think it was for a headache. Or if he was not looking so good and I thought and now you’ve mentioned it, God it takes me right back. I just dismissed it as migraine. I thought a lot of actor’s suffered from migraine. So I never noticed the difficulty with the moving, because on stage it didn’t show at all. And off stage by the time he had struggled out of the cloak, you wouldn’t have noticed either. And as we never went out for dinner after the show, I mean on our own, we had a couple of occasions when the cast went. Well, again I wouldn’t have noticed, but if we had gone on our own I would have noticed if he’d limped or something, but we never did, so….

MB: I think they used to call them “the lightning pains” where it would come and go and like I said there was one scene where he grabbed Eric Lindsay around the throat and couldn’t let go. And I think he put everything into….

AC: That sounds more like rheumatoid arthritis because sciatica is in the main sciatic nerve. It shouldn’t affect the hands.

MB: I think he was in that much pain as he hadn’t had any medication for it that everything just froze up, everything froze up in his body in the middle of a performance.

AC: That probably frightened him, he wouldn’t have liked that. Because the audience was everything you know.

MB: Do you ever remember him talking to any of his younger fans? There’s a great story in the book about a gentleman called Derek Pickering who came to see him and he said he treated children like adults. Bela himself has worked from the age of 12 and I think his young fans were, he would treat them like adults. He would listen to them, he would show interest in them.

AC: Never noticed that particularly. But we didn’t have a lot of young people in the main. I don’t know whether it was John Mather or not, but nobody was allowed back stage. You were talking earlier about people bringing in programmes to be signed or the effects manager or the stage manager bringing them in to be signed. I don’t remember that at all. I only remember the stage door where people, well I suppose it all depended on your stage door keeper. But I never actually saw him talking to young fans, but I can well imagine as he was extremely kind, well at least I thought he was. So I can well imagine that was the truth but I never personally saw it, because I know Lillian would try and get him back to the hotel as quickly as she could. Which is one more reason why you didn’t have dinner after the show as much as anything, but he was obviously in pain.

MB: I believe so.

AC: I didn’t, I thought, it was just Lillian not letting him get too tired and the cold in Middlesbrough or somewhere like that. He wouldn’t want to be standing outside signing autographs, or having a conversation. I’m not saying he didn’t, he always signed autographs for anybody. If he was in the street or anything else, nothing was too much trouble in that respect at all. It never occurred to me but I did wonder sometimes, why we didn’t go and have meals after the show, because most people need that hour and a half to wind down. Because Lillian mothered me, I suppose, it’s funny, it never crossed my mind, they used to take me for tea, but they’d never take me to dinner. But I think she would be fussing around him and saying “enough now, enough now, get back to the hotel because you must rest.” I can remember that quite distinctly, but remember I was nineteen and he was sixty-nine. So sixty-nine at the time was very old indeed, in fact actually it was quite old for the period of time. People now live into their 70s, 80s, 90s and 100s, so sixty-nine doesn’t sound very old. People now start new careers at that age now, but to me at that time in the 1950s, or just in the 1950s, it was considered quite old.

MB: And that’s what fascinates me, is that, how he kept going and I think 280 shows in a five month period, and he never missed one. And you know I really do think the pain, it was pain management I think and I think she was doing that for him.

AC: I didn’t know, obviously, but now that you’re coming to talk about it, these were things that happened or didn’t happen, I never gave it any thought at all but I put it down to the fact that he was not a young man. And he needed plenty of rest if he was going to do a show that took out as much out of him as it did.

MB: I believe for other personal appearances, fetes, summer fetes, he used to ask other cast members to go on his behalf. He did a few but like you say the rest in between was obviously vital to him. Can I just recap on a couple of things you mentioned earlier on? You are the only person in the world who has burnt two Bela Lugosi capes….possibly three (Laughs), you used to have your hand between his legs (laughs) under his cape. When he performed can I ask did he frighten you, I know it’s a huge jump, did he have that look, the eyes that a lot of people talk about? Did he, could you see a change in him?

AC: Oh you would see the change. But Alec Guinness was the same, he used to come down and if I was standing back stage, he would look, he always had a mirror near the top corner and he used to come down and stand and look in the mirror. He always came down three minutes before he went on. And he would go and stand for a full minute, in front of the mirror, staring at himself. And I asked him once why? So he said you’re having conversations in the dressing room and depending on the type of role, you need to become that person. That’s what being a true cypher actor is all about. And the way I could do this was taking just a moment or two, to get out of myself and into the character that I’m playing. Now to think of it, Bela in a way did that, not staring at himself in a mirror but he always, because I was always with him for about five minutes before he went on, whilst we were testing these damn things (smoke gun.) And yes he did change, he started to stand up properly, the eyes did narrow. But as far as I was concerned it was just him getting ready to the job. So I was never ever frightened.

MB: And you studying acting would know it was just a character change anyway. I think for the likes of me as a fan, I think I would have been there wide-eyed in the audience if you know what I mean.

AC: Oh yes well I’m quite sure it was from the other side, unfortunately I never really saw it from the other side, except for a few seconds when I was mostly being carried out! (Laughs.)

MB: That’s the amazing part of being involved as you were. You’ve got your perspective on it, when the rest of the world, we see it what everybody else sees. Where you had a one unique perspective on that and I’d rather your perspective on that. What happened to you afterwards then, after the tour?

David and Ann Croft and childrenAnn with her husband David and two of their children

(Courtesy of http://www.davidcroft.co.uk/)

AC: I got married, I did, as I said I did the walking understudies. I had two children by the time I was twenty-two. Then my husband went up to open Tyne-Tees Television, so I went with him. I used to do a programme with Kenneth Horne called Trader Horne. I did that for a couple of years, then I had three more children in quick succession and I started coaching for Associated British (inaudible) – starlets and things like that because I was qualified to do that. So I never really acted again, then in 1964, my husband’s agent which was man called Richard Stern, had been Chief of Combined Services actually, coming back to what we were talking about before and he heard me talking about a singer that we had Chris Langham up in Tyne-Tees. He said to me have you ever thought about being an agent? And I said no, I hadn’t. So he said think about because, I’d quite like you to come and work with me and I think you would be rather good at it. So I said thank you very much, anyway I then had a contract with ATV in Birmingham. I was a television presenter and I did this programme up in Newcastle, I was on fifteen shows a week. I did the one o’clock show, all the historical shows, Guess Who, used to share a dressing room with Jimmy Saville.

MB: One question sorry I forgot to ask earlier, but for yourself it was 1951, a young lady, on tour, working. How was that seen by your family or other people was it…?

AC: Nobody worried about it at all.

MB: I can’t thank you enough for talking to me, before I go can I just mention one other gentleman who Gary Don Rhodes who has written this book here. No Traveler Returns. He is a Professor of Film Studies in Belfast. He is an American guy and he has written everything there is to know about Bela Lugosi. He is currently writing a book about his theatre tours and when I mentioned that I may have the opportunity to go and speak to you, he would be delighted, if he could ask you to write, if you would be willing, a Foreword for his future book. Because you are one of the few who are left that actually toured with him.

AC: How many are left of the original cast?

MB: I believe Eric Lindsay is still alive, Richard Butler who was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, he was the vicar in that. John Mather passed away but he went into a talent agency.

AC: He was mostly in management, I think, he went back to being an actor…did he?

MB: No I don’t think he acted, he became part of a talent agency.

AC: Yes became an agent; those that do; do and those that don’t become agents!

MB: One of the things he was involved with was casting Clint Eastwood who was out of work at time in the spaghetti westerns I think.

AC: Really. Well I can’t say I’m thrilled as I never liked him and he never liked me, so I’m not worried (Laughs.)

MB: What was he like? Obviously he tried to chase you a few times.

AC: Aggressive! Ambitious! Didn’t like anybody, whether it was Bela or not, saying no. He was trying to put the show on for not enough money. That I did know enough about show-business to realise.

MB: Trying to do it on the cheap?

AC: Very much so and I used to get talking to the stage door keepers, he was not a popular man with the managers of the theatres either. Very brusque.

MB: So from that would you say that him and Lillian probably wouldn’t have seen eye to eye?

AC: No they wouldn’t have done in fact they didn’t, I do know that. I think he meant very well but thought he would make a lot more money than he actually did. Everything was done on the cheap. There was no way, and really and truly in this day and age it wouldn’t be allowed, that they should have let me as a girl virtually straight out of RADA, work that gun. That gun was dangerous. But there should have somebody who just dealt with the gun. The person who dealt with the gun shouldn’t have been running around, pulling strings for pictures and throwing bats. It wasn’t, I didn’t mind but he expected everybody…a pint of blood you know literally.

MB: One final question if I may and it’s probably a terrible question. It’s about Mr Lugosi. If you could describe him in a couple of words, what springs to mind?

AC: Absolutely delightful. Yes I think so…well I know so actually. I was very sorry that his career had its strange ups-and-downs. I used to sort of watch out for the odd movies and things.

MB: Just incidentally had you seen the screen version of the Dracula the 1931 film before you worked with him?

AC: Yes. To John Mather’s credit, I think it was he who suggested that we did. That was his idea and it was the correct thing to do. It also built up the star image so that we all thought we were touring with a big, well we were, touring with a big star. It was the advice.

MB: This has been fascinating and it has been a pleasure for me to meet you, full stop. I can’t thank you enough.

AC:  Not at all, an absolute pleasure.

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

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

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

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Bela Lugosi, A Generous Star – An extract from the 2nd edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain

Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

Originally published in 2000, an expanded and revised 2nd edition of the critically acclaimed Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain by Frank J. Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks was published this July by Cult Movies Press. Taking an in-depth look at Lugosi’s 1951 British stage tour of Dracula and the three films he made in Britain, Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935), Dark Eyes of London (1939) and Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1951), the new edition contains not only newly discovered information and images, but also additional first-hand accounts from people who worked with and saw Bela Lugosi as he toured across Britain. One of the most fascinating newly-added accounts comes from Joyce Wilson, the widow of Ralph Wilson, the Dracula stage tour’s 2nd Van Helsing. Joyce traveled with her husband on the tour and was able to gain a unique insight into the production. The following extract from the book is based on Joyce’s recollection of her husband taking over the role of Van Helsing from the tour’s original vampire hunter, Arthur Hosking.

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About the same moment that Arthur Hosking told Alfred Beale that he would leave the tour in a week, character actor Ralph Wilson attended the polo matches in Roehampton (a suburb southwest of London) with his wife Joyce and her sister, as well as their vicar and his wife. After the match, as the Wilsons walked down the street to their flat, they heard the phone continuously ringing until they could reach it. Wilson’s agent, Dorothy Jane Ward, asked if he could go to Leicester the next day to take over Van Helsing as soon as possible. Could he meet with the manager and stage director, Sunday night in Leicester? He reported as asked, and saw the script for the first time. Only in Leicester did he appreciate the size of the role that he had just accepted, and the amount of dialogue to learn. On Monday morning Ralph called Joyce. He needed her to help him prepare. His World War II combat service had left him hard of hearing, and he could not easily rely on spoken queues or prompters during a performance.

Bela Lugosi and Arthur HoskingBela Lugosi with Arthur Hosking, the tour’s original Van Helsing

The outgoing Wilson mingled with the company in his free time, quite the opposite of Hosking. Onstage and off, Wilson was the new energy the play needed. As a career soldier, he had an immediate rapport with the reserved Sheila, daughter of a Colonel. As a lover of art and culture, Wilson took to the aloof David Dawson. Except for two weeks to have her tonsils removed, Joyce would be with Ralph husband for the weeks on the road to come. Both were good mixers, and soon had good friends among the company. The Wilsons already knew Eric Lindsay, and became close to John Saunders.

Another surprise for Wilson in the script handed him in Leicester was how small Dracula’s role is compared to Van Helsing’s. How would a world famous star in that smaller part—who would also be directing the rehearsals—take to the newcomer? 

Raph WilsonRalph Wilson

By mid-week in Leicester, Wilson was ready for rehearsals, conducted in the afternoons before the evening performances that still featured Hosking. Ralph and Joyce arrived early. Stage director Tommy Muschamp confronted them. He did not want Joyce in the theatre. He did not want anyone not involved in the rehearsal present. Ralph tried to explain that he really needed her with him. Before the back-&-forth went too far, Bela entered. He introduced himself with a flourish, and took Joyce by the arm. “You must come and sit with me for all the rehearsal,” said Bela as he guided her to the third row center, “and then you will be better able to help your husband to study the part.” Muschamp bit his lip, turned, and went backstage. 

Bela soon realized Arthur Hosking and Ralph Wilson were as different on stage as off, and made many changes to production to suit the new personality. The Wilsons thought Bela’s reshaping the play very effective. Neither director nor star could hear very well. When Bela called out directions, the other actors had to repeat to Ralph what Bela had said. Ralph would reply, and Joyce repeated his words to Bela—perhaps explaining why Bela insisted that Joyce sit with him. 

The rehearsal went smoothly until the key scene of Van Helsing’s confrontation with Dracula. After a few go-throughs, Bela stood close to Ralph, and said with emphasis and loud enough for all to hear: 

This is your scene, Ralph.   The spot will be on you and I will move back into the shadows so that all the attention is focussed on you! 

Such generosity from a star particularly impressed Joyce. 

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Leicester Theatre Royal ProgrammeRalph Wilson made his debut as Van Helsing at the Saturday matinee performance at the Palace Theatre in  Leicester on August 4th, 1951. 

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In the weeks to come, the Lugosis and the Wilsons became great friends. Joyce particularly warmed to Lillian: 

I spent a lot of time in Bela’s dressing room with Lillian during the show.   We would have liked to go out together to a film, or perhaps for a drink, but Bela was obsessively possessive of Lillian and could not bear her to be out of the theatre during the show.  

Lillian, as well as Bela, talked incessantly of their son, whom they had not seen in so many months. 

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Sheffield Lyceum Theatre ProgrammePrinted in advance, the programme for Ralph Wilson’s first full week as Van Helsing at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield listed his predecessor, Arthur Hosking, in the role.

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Wilson first played Van Helsing at the Leicester Saturday matinee (August 4). No back stage staff was available as prompter, and Wilson felt adrift. Again to Muschamp’s fury, Bela insisted that Joyce do the job. Bela fortified Ralph, as he had Alfred Beale three months before, with few Benzedrine tablets. Ralph finished the performance with only one prompt, provided by Joyce through the fireplace.

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Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain 2nd Edition

Today, 60 years after his death, horror movie star Bela Lugosi remains a Hollywood legend. This ground-breaking book uncovers the untold tale of his 1951 Dracula stage tour across Britain. That tour, like the three films Lugosi made in Britain in 1935, 1939 and 1951, is often overlooked in his life’s story. This book tells the full story at last, and adds to a legacy unmatched in Hollywood history. The tale of 1951 also delves in the anything-goes world of post World War II British music halls and theatre. The rich history of British stage, combined with Lugosi’s unique career and persona, makes a compelling history. Originally published in 2000, the critically acclaimed biography of Bela Lugosi was the product of over a decade of extensive research by the authors and was the first book to study a particular, and neglected, period of Bela Lugosi’s life and work.

The expanded and updated second edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain, which contains 132 more pages than the 1st edition, can be ordered for $30 plus $3.99 shipping from Cult Movies Press at http://www.cultmoviespress.com (International shipping rates are available upon request). It is also available at Amazon International http://amzn.com/0970426933 and Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0970426933

To obtain a discount on your order, contact Frank Dello Stritto directly at fdellostritto@hotmail.com

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Reviews

“Vampire Over London, which is beautifully produced and of a quality we seldom see today, is a model of documentation and informed and entertaining writing. I was so fascinated by it that I gave up virtually an entire weekend to read it. I cannot claim to be a big fan of Bela Lugosi, but the authors’ enthusiasm, clarity and intelligence were such that I was mesmerized as much as any of Dracula’s victims. A magnificent book.”– Anthony Slide, Classic Images

“In this impressively researched book the authors’ combined sense of detail is remarkable…Dello Stritto and Brooks cover the six months of the touring company with three-dimensional clarity…you can almost smell the cigars Lugosi smoked while standing in the wings.”– Tim Lucas, Video Watchdog

“Just when you thought everything that could possibly be written about the classic horror stars had already seen print, along comes the fascinating Vampire Over London. It’s an admirable book, written by that rare breed – film historians who actually know how to write…it’s essential.”- Richard Valley, Scarlet Street

“This tremendous new volume manages to offer a wealth of new information! A must for Lugosi fanatics…the authors have done their research on this subject, and the result is the final word on this portion of Lugosi’s life…It’s a humorous, informative and often touching tribute to a little known slice of Bela’s life.”- Shock Cinema

“Genre cinema historians Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks perform an invaluable service for Bela Buffs. Their painstakingly researched tome is a book no self-respecting Lugosi lover can afford to be without.” – The Phantom, Videoscope

“An indispensable tome…exhaustive…Physically, the book is as impressive as the research and writing…will quickly become a collector’s item.” – Tom Weaver, Fangoria

“…a remarkable book…a carefully researched work of scholarship with a concern for accuracy usually reserved for much weightier subjects.” –  Henry Nicolella, Castle of Frankenstein

“A superb piece of literature! I think Bela must be resting in peace at long last in his satin-lined coffin.” – John C. Mather, Co-Producer of the 1951 British Dracula tour

“A really splendid piece of research, it has to be definitive.” – Richard Eastham, Director of the 1951 British Dracula tour

“It is a wonderful epitaph for a very special person.” – Richard Butler, 1951 British Dracula tour cast member

“If you’re a Lugosi fan, the book is an essential…it also serves as an excellent history of an era of British stage history that simply doesn’t exist anymore..If you possess the first edition you are a fortunate person, but you are even more fortunate if you have both editions.” – Doug Gibson, Standard Examiner

For those who love Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) or Dracula, and you know who you are, this book is essential…Dello Stritto and Brooks do not drown in their own research. They are scintillating raconteurs, and this 300+ page book moves along as breezily as a fascinating dinner conversation…This is a terrific book, not to be missed.” – James Abbott, The Jade Sphinx

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 Related Pages

“Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” New Expanded Second Edition

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

Vampire Bats And Devil Girls From Mars: Dracula Producer John Chartres Mather Interviewed By Frank J. Dello Stritto.

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

When Dracula Invaded England

“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.”

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Related Pages

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

Bela Lugosi’s Clara Bow Nude Painting Sells For $30,000 At Auction.

Clara Bow Nude

Prominently displayed in each of his homes from when it was painted in 1929 until his death in 1956, Bela Lugosi’s nude oil painting of actress Clara Bow sold at Bonhams in New York for $30,000 on November 25th, 2013.

Until being announced as lot 138W in Bonhams’ “What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic at Auction as Curated by TCM” auction, the whereabouts of the 37 3/4 x 33 1/2 inch canvas had remained a mystery since being sold by Lugosi’s widow, the former Hope Lininger, to an undisclosed art dealer before she moved to Hawaii in 1976. It is now known to have passed through at least two private collections during its “lost” years.

Lugosi commissioned his friend and fellow-Hungarian Geza Kende to paint the portrait as a memento of his brief affair with Bow, who kept a signed photo of Lugosi until her death. Despite their relationship making headlines in November 1929 when Lugosi’s third wife, Beatrice Weeks, told a reporter about it after filing suit for divorce, very few details of it are actually known.

Lot 587

This photo from Lugosi’s estate sold for $1,000 at the Icons of Hollywood auction at Profiles in History on December 16th, 2011. The catalogue described Kende’s portrait as the “infamous nude painting of  Clara Bow.”

Lugosi and Bow first met backstage after a performance of Dracula during its eight-week run at the Biltmore Theatre in Los Angeles sometime between June 24 and August 18th, 1928.  The meeting was recalled by Bow’s friend, the actor Jack Oakie, in his autobiography, Jack Oakie’s Double Takes. 

‘Suddenly she came running out (to her swimming pool, where she had left friends to take a phone call). “Come on everybody! We’ve got tickets!” she said. “We’re going down to the Biltmore to see Dracula.” She was so excited she didn’t stop to dress. She just threw a great long mink coat over her swimsuit, and we all got into her chauffeur-driven black Packard limousine. Bela Lugosi was starring in Dracula on the stage of the Biltmore Theatre downtown.

Bow had read about it. “I want to meet that man,” she said. “Do you know he doesn’t know how to speak English.” She couldn’t get over the fact that he was on stage for two hours performing in a language he couldn’t speak. Bow kept her mink coat on, and we watched Bela Lugosi in his monstrous makeup with his teeth sticking out, chewing on gals’ necks all evening. Then we went backstage.

Clara Bow In Dancing Mothers 1926

Is it? Isn’t it? Despite disagreement on the identity of the model in Geza Kende’s painting, she bears a striking resemblance to Clara Bow as seen in this publicity still for Dancing Mothers, 1926

He couldn’t speak English, but no language barrier could hide his thrill at meeting Clara Bow. He was overwhelmed with the redhead. “How do you know your lines?” Bow asked him immediately. We finally understood the Hungarian’s explanation. He told us that he memorized each word from a cue and, if by mistake another actor should ever give him a wrong line, he would be lost for the rest of the night. Bow invited him to her home, and they became very good friends.’

Neither the depth nor the length of their relationship is known. Lugosi is said to have shown off scratches on his body which he bragged were inflicted by Bow during their lovemaking. Beatrice Weeks, whose disastrous marriage to Lugosi effectively ended after only four and a half days, told a reporter from The Daily Mirror that Lugosi had confided that he and Bow had become engaged during their relationship, but had decided to spend a year apart to test the strength of their relationship and would marry after the divorce was finalized. There is no evidence to support Lugosi’s alleged claims.

The only account we have of Lugosi and Bow together after their first meeting comes from Bow biographer David Stenn in his biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, in which he writes of Lugosi being invited to stay at Bow’s Malibu cottage one weekend. Upon his arrival, it was discovered that every bedroom was already occupied by other guests. One of the female guests gave up her room to him and moved in with Bow. In whose room Bow actually spent the night is unrecorded.

Clara Bow Nude postcard

A willow nude? Clara Bow in the flesh.

Despite the fact that Bow had previously posed nude for photographs and had appeared semi-nude on screen, it is not thought that she posed for Kend, who also painted an impressive full-length painting of Lugosi in the early 1930s. There is also nothing to suggest that she was even aware of the existence of the portrait, which was painted after whatever relationship they may have had was over. It has been suggested that the image was in fact conjured up from Lugosi’s memory, which may explain why several commentators have stated that it is not a painting of Bow and actually looks nothing like her.

Whatever the truth of the identity of the model, described as “a willow nude” by reporter Bob Thomas when he interviewed Lugosi at his home in October 1953, the memories Lugosi associated with the painting remained potent enough for him to compel his next two wives to live under its gaze for the duration of their marriages.

Clara Bow Nude in Lugosi HomeLugosi, Bela Jr. and fourth wife Lillian pose under the watchful gaze of Clara Bow

What could have driven him to have kept this memento of a distant brief affair on open display when married to other women? Maybe writer Adele Rogers St. John had the answer when she wrote of Bow’s effect on men, “When men fall in love with Clara Bow, they go a bit mad.” Perhaps Lugosi’s madness for Bow, like Dracula’s grip on his life and career, never ended. (Andi Brooks)

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Related articles

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

The International Workers Order and Bela Lugosi by Sander Feinberg

Bela Lugosi and my grandfather Carl Schwartz (aka Kalman Marki) were close friends in the 1930s and 1940s. My grandfather and grandmother were in the center of the Hungarian cultural and progressive political community in NYC. It was a close-knit community of immigrants and exiles which in many ways was egalitarian and open to people of all walks of life and economic status.

My grandfather Carl Schwartz (aka Kalman Marki), Lillian Lugosi and Bela

My grandfather, Lillian Lugosi and Bela as seen in my family film in 1947

I have no information on how they met, but I have many pictures from that time showing them together at events and gatherings. As you will read in my article, I was quite astounded to find an old family movie which includes Bela and his wife Lillian. I hope you enjoy this little bit of both family and political history. The links in the article on my website include a little more about other members of the Hungarian community who also were close friends of my grandfather and at least acquaintances of Bela.

Since all the principals have passed away, I don’t know much about the last few years of Bela and Carl’s friendship. My father hinted there was a falling out. I do know that when Bela was down and out my grandfather sent him some money. Bela left him two plots of land in Lake Elsinore in his will. I just discovered that this land was practically worthless at the time of Bela’s death and that he also left similar bequests to others in his will.

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Family Home Movies

16MM Cine-Kodak Box

16mm Ciné-Kodak Kodachrome film box

I recently transferred some old home movies from 16mm to digital. In compiling them I looked at the box the film came in and was surprised it did not have my Dad’s return address since he took all the other movies (Perhaps you young folks don’t know that in the “olden days” exposed movie film was sent back to Kodak for developing!). The name on the package was Anton Schlussel. I was able to find someone with that name who was the right age, but I have not found much more info about him yet. Below is a photo of him.

Anton Schlussel

Who was Anton Schlussel?

The film was shot in color in 1947 with a popular movie camera called the Ciné-Kodak.

Bela Lugosi

When I looked inside the box flap I found the message you see in the photo below which mentioned Bela Lugosi (spelled “Lugosy”). I couldn’t wait to get the film transferred. When I watched the film it appeared to be a dinner in honor of my grandparents. And sure enough there were Bela and his wife Lillian, sitting next to my grandparents. Bela and my grandfather were best friends for many years. They were both Hungarian actors and at one time Bela lived in NYC where there was a large Hungarian cultural community. My grandparents were at the center of the community. This is a long and fascinating story which I will tell some other time when I will post personal photos I have of Bela and my grandfather.

Inside flap note in Hungarian

I sent a photo of the box flap to my cousin Ervin in Budapest and he translated it for me: “I.W.O April 26, 1947. Kalman Marki is participating at the soiréee given by Bela Lugosi.” Well that helped explain a bit. But what in the world was I.W.O.?

What was the I.W.O.?

The I.W.O. was The International Workers Order, which, according to Wikipedia(1), “was a Communist Party-affiliated insurance, mutual benefit and fraternal organization founded in 1930 and disbanded in 1954 as the result of legal action undertaken by the state of New York in 1951. At its height in the years immediately following World War II, the IWO had almost 200,000 members and provided low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, and supported foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities. The organization also operated a summer camp and cemeteries for its members.” 

kheel-center-cornell-university[1]

A flier from the International Workers Order Records, Kheel Center, Cornell University

In her article “Contraceptive Equity, The Birth Control Center of the International Workers Order,” (2) Elizabeth Temkin explained, “For 35 cents a month per family or 25 cents a month per individual ($4.36 and $3.11, respectively, in 2007 dollars), members in New York City had unlimited access to the district physicians contracted by the IWO to provide care in their office or on house calls.”

Another small tidbit: The International Workers Order’s post-1940 logo was drawn by Rockwell Kent, a famous artist whose etchings were hanging in my parents’ home. He became a member of the Harlem Lodge of the International Workers Order in 1939. (3)

Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent

I will refrain from editorializing about the idiocies of the McCarthy era hatred which deprived 200,000 working class people and their families of insurance and medical treatment. If you do not know about that sad era in US history I urge you to educate yourself.

temkin_f1~s1000x1000[1]

A political cartoon entitled “Reaping the benefits” as featured in Fraternal Outlook, 1947, from the New York Public Library.

Hungarian Connection to the I.W.O.

Now on with my final interesting connection. In its history of the International Workers Order, the Early American Marxism website (4) relates that “In the Summer of 1932, the Hungarian Workers’ Educational and Benevolent Society merged through the decision of a convention of its membe[r]s and subsequent referendum. 4,000 members of that organization were thus established as the Hungarian Section of the IWO.” 

Connecting the Dots

I have no documentary proof (yet!), but to me this connects up the dots. My grandfather supported many causes and organizations, especially those helping Hungarian immigrants and also those still in Hungary after WWII (yet another story to be told). I believe that he and Bela and their friends were members of the Hungarian Section of the I.W.O. And I now believe that the photo below is a meeting from the late 1930s or early 1940s of that group. And I may be imagining this, but could it be Anton Schlussel in the back row (check out those big ears!).

Louis Weinstock Photographs Collection, Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Back row: Rose Weinstock, Hugo Gellert, Louis Weinstock, Julia Schwartz, Unknown, Jenny Bachner. Middle of front row: Carl Schwartz; Max Bachner.

I found the photo among a collection of papers and photographs donated to the Tamiment Library Wagner Archives of New York University by the family of Louis Weinstock, one of my grandfather’s best friends. You can read more about Louis Weinstock on my website. The photo (used with permission of Louis Weinstock Photographs Collection, Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University) was taken by Gabriel D. Hackett. In his “Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers” (McFarland & Company, 1997), Lugosi biographer Gary Don Rhodes wrote that one of Bela’s favorite photographers was “Gabriel D. Hackett , whom he said always caught his best side. Hackett and Lugosi met as early as 1928 and remained friends for many years. The two often spoke of a mutual interest: photography.”

One crazy footnote is that Bela and my grandfather were mentioned in Senate testimony for helping Hungarian citizens after WWII. More on that in my next article.

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Please help!

If you have any information on any of these personalities or organizations, I would be so grateful to hear from you. And if you want to follow developments in my detective story, please subscribe to my newsletter at http://sanderfeinberg.com.

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About the Author

I began my career in business and non-profit management. Since the early 1980s I have been involved in both systems development and developing leadership and technical training materials. Recently I have added videography to the mix.

I have been taking photographs obsessively since I was 16 and used a Rolleiflex. Now I am 100% digital. My wife and I spend a lot of time at costume events, dance and music performances, traveling to far-reaching places and in nature in the beautiful Pacific Northwest where we live.

My interests in photography and history intersect as my wife and I seek out vintage photos from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Please visit my website http://sanderfeinberg.com to see stories about our adventures from the last 7 years as well as my research into the areas of history which fascinate me.

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Sources

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Workers_Order

(2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1994190/

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockwell_Kent

(4) www.maristhistory.org

When Dracula Invaded England

Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 – October, 1958

For over forty years, until the publication of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain by Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks (Cult Movies Press), the article When Dracula Invaded England gave us the most in-depth look at Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula. Although containing many inaccuracies and juvenile in tone, it was key to the early research conducted by Frank Dello Stritto and I into the tour. Published in Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 in October, 1958, the article drew heavily on interviews conducted with Bela and his wife Lillian by the British press upon their arrival in Southampton aboard the  S.S. Mauretania on April 10th, 1951. Whereas the tour would be written off in a few short lines as a total disaster by most Lugosi researchers over the following four decades, Famous Monsters of Filmland, writing exactly seven years after the tour ended, and only two years after Bela’s death, hailed it as “extremely successful.” The truth lies somewhere in between. The play toured Britain for six months, and would have continued for at least another month had Bela, exhausted by age, poor health and the rigours of life on the road, not requested that it be brought to an end. Although Bela garnered mostly excellent reviews, the play was too dated and the production too under-funded to compete with more modern and sophisticated entertainments of the day. As a result, it was not a great financial success, although, despite the legend, the whole cast were paid in full. It also failed in its primary aim of securing a run in the West End, which Bela had hoped would give him one final triumphant comeback. (Andi Brooks)

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A new expanded edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain has been published by Cult Movies Press. Please see Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” New Expanded Second Edition for details.

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For Eager Victims

On the night of 10 April 1951 the notorious Count from Transylvania invaded Great Britain and, somewhat to his surprise, found the island’s inhabitants perfectly willing to surrender!

The Master Vampire, it is reported was not accessible immediately after his arrival and was not, indeed, on hand for an interview for at least several weeks. But as his bad-will ambassador, Bela Lugosi, was present, accompanied by his 4th wife, Lillian. Unconfirmed sources insist that the latter was secretly the Bride of Dracula but her fondness for daytime appearances sheds doubt upon this statement.

Apparently convinced that Mr. Lugosi & Dracula were one and the same person, crowds of squealing teenage fans and squealing middle-aged newspaper reporters followed him wherever he went. Odd scraps of paper were constantly being pressed into his hand and he would obligingly scrawl his autograph in blood-red ink. His fans were delighted by this symbolic touch.

Female fans, who comprised the majority of the crowds present, regarded Mr. Lugosi with the same sighing idolization normally reserved for Danny Kaye or Frank Sinatra – the most popular American movie stars at the time. These girls would either watch him wide-eyed or greet him with excited giggles as he toured the country, performing mock terror scenes over delighted “victims”.

Blood (Orange)-Sucker

One reporter wasted no time in getting down to the heart, liver and kidneys of the matter. He inquired of Mr. Lugosi: “Is it true that you suck blood oranges?”

“All the time,” he replied. “I often eat 6 at one sitting.” An enigmatic gleam – possibly humor, or perhaps . . .

The reporter continued, “And raw steaks?”

“When I can get them,” Lugosi replied. Now, in addition to the gleam in his eye, there appeared a slight twist of the mouth. He was prepared to go on in this manner indefinitely when finally the reporter’s courage gave way and he made an abrupt exit. Lugosi broke into a broad Slavic smile.

It had happened before.

Bela & Lillian (Photo by Harold Clements Express)

Bela and Lillian, wearing a silver bat broach, upon their arrival at Waterloo Station on April 10, 1951

Looking Dracwards

With other reporters who preferred to avoid the subject of his affinity for the red fluid which coursed thru their veins, Lugosi indulged in a bit of nostalgic reminiscing. Asked if he shared the superstitions of his peers in Lugos, Hungary, he replied:

“I was not such a brave kid in Hungary. I was born in Transylvania where the Dracula legend comes from, and never did I go down into our cellar. It was full of bats.”

In his youth Lugosi was the goalkeeper for the football team in Transylvania – the name of which has not been… unearthed.

Having not known Lugosi as well as we, the reporters were interested in whether he found the role of the vampire prince enjoyable because he shared some of the fiend’s innate wickedness. Lugosi answered, when he recovered from the shock, that the worst thing he ever did was to steal hats!

“I was a hat hunter like the Indians who used to collect ‘headpieces’ of their enemies. In 2 years I got 1500 hats from boys of a rival school. I put them up for sale and made a lot of money.”

The conversation drifted from to the origin of his career.

“Never become an actor,” he warned one young man. “There is only one place in the world where it is worthwhile – Hungary.”

Hamlet & Horror

“Over there you have a 4-year training course, and once you have passed thru that you have nothing to worry about. Even in your old age you still get a pension. In America there is always the fear of unemployment.

“I was, as a young man, an actor in the Hungarian Royal National Theater.  I played the romantic leads. I have played the role of Hamlet on more than one occasion.” Lugosi, at that point, smiled proudly. “I have only played the role in Hungarian, tho.”

If he was so successful, they asked, why did he leave Hungary?

“I left my country in 1920 and have never been back. I do not like to live under a dictatorship of any kind, and I am now an American citizen.

“When I came to Broadway in 1923 I played still romantic parts – the Spanish lover in ‘The Red Puppy’ (sic) and the Valentino-type sheik in ‘Arabesque.’ Then they wanted someone to play Dracula. In America, you know, they have the type system of casting. And there was no male vampire type in existence.

“Someone suggested an actor of the Continental school who could play any type, and mentioned me. It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success – such a success!”

Programme for the premiere in Brighton

Horrorwood & Frankenstein

“I was branded then as a horror specialist, going to Hollywood in 1931 to recreate the stage role for the film DRACULA. If I had just one percent of the millions that film has made, I wouldn’T have the pleasure of sitting here now.”
Lillian interrupted jokingly: “No, Honey, you’d be stretched out by our lake in California, doing nothing.”
Lugosi chuckled. “You know, DRACULA is the only film to be reissued every year without a miss? Next I went on to play the mad scientist in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and following that I was told to make a ‘costume test’ for the part of Frankenstein’s monster.”

We need not elaborate on the outcome of that venture.

Then suddenly Lugosi made an announcement which, for the monster master, was totally unexpected and almost unbelievable.

Dracula Retire?

“Horror is my business – it pays off best,” he intoned. “But I’m tired of gore. I hope that in England I find some broad-minded, intelligent producer who should say, ‘Let’s give Lugosi a comedy!”

Shortly afterward he was given a role in Glen or Glenda? – something which might be called a comedy – and then in Vampires (sic) Over London. The latter was finally released in America as My Son, The Vampire, known in England as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (1)

But Lugosi did not switch to comedy and abandon the horror field, as the record of his subsequent films proves. He was, however, a natural for less serious roles.

The reporters found him a mild-mannered, inoffensive gentleman with a pronounced Hungarian accent and a personality that would be envied by many. As photographers took publicity stills of the “Dracula” company, he even assisted with the lights and offered friendly advice.

At other tomes he sat quietly at the side of the stage, coming out with occasional wisecrack (sic) or calling a friendly “Hi!” to the theatre folk as they went about their work.

When all was ready for the publicity stills, he grabbed his leading lady for the play. She slumped helplessly in his arms as he exposed her lily-white throat and bared his fangs.

The flashbulbs flared, the cameras clicked and the reporters happily went on their ways.

Bela met his British fans at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey on June 16th.

In The Mood For “Food”

The primary purpose of Lugosi’s presence was, of course, the presentation of the stage play Dracula to Britons. The premiere was on 16 June 1951, at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. (2)

Reporters of the time were let in on a few secrets hitherto or quite unknown to monster fans.

“It takes me about half an hour to warm up before the curtain rises, “  Lugosi confessed. “I never  eat before a performance – I like to go on thirsting for blood.”

Lillian explained: “He has to get himself in the mood. I can’t even talk to him for an hour before the show. And I wouldn’t want to! He’s impossible for half an hour before and after each show – he’s still Dracula!”

Normally he has rather small hands, but with a flick of the fingers he was able to twist them into one of the terrifying positions so well known to monster fans. Suddenly his fingers looked immensely long and thin.

His eyes were deep pools in which swam nameless terrors, at least as Count Dracula. Often he would warn a young girl reporter. “Never, never look into my eyes! Always I tell my leading ladies never to look into my eyes – at my forehead or nose, never my eyes. The last lady who looked into them went off – boomp! – into a hypnotic trance. I woke her with cold water.”

And many times that young girl reporter would mistake Lugosi’s usual tongue-in-cheek attitude for a fang-in-throat true account!

Dracula—1951

Concerning the British stage version of Dracula, Lugosi explained, “We are playing it perfectly straight and it has been modernized since I played it on the American stage.”

For horror, he said realistically, is not what it used to be. When the play was first presented on Broadway there were members of all audiences who took it  literally. People screamed and fainted. First-aid staffs were kept busy. Lugosi as Dracula did not then dare to pretend to bite his victim’s neck, for fear of hysterical reaction from the public!

Now the customers, especially the children, know it all. They have seen plenty of horror films with Lugosi taking part, and they are more sophisticated, as they were even in 1951.

The British production of Dracula acted on the presumption that there was still, nevertheless, a strong public demand for the old-fashioned spine-tingling horror play – provided it was properly presented. Capacity audiences endorsed this view when Dracula premiered.

No concessions were made to changing or more sophisticated tastes among the theatregoers, save for a slight modernization of the setting, with the result that demoniacal laughter often rang thru the theatre, the air was seldom free from the distant barking of dogs and wolves and from unidentifiable whistles, clammy mists swirled thru doorways and windows and, in fact, almost every feature of unabashed melodrama was present.

Strangely enough, in the more recent production, there were uniformed first-aid attendants on duty throughout the play, even tho the most horrific bits were inclined to inspire more titters than gasps. There have, however, been actual cases of shock in the audience – but those were all elderly people.

After six months on the road, the curtain came down on Dracula at Portsmouth’s Theatre Royal

Good Guy Or Bat Guy?

“I don’t scare the kids,” Lugosi said. “They know I’m the good guy at heart.”

This increased awareness among audiences, plus his desire to change to comic roles, almost caused Lugosi to react against his will. Often he found himself tempted to play Dracula for laughs – especially in his curtain speech, when he said, “There are such things as vampires,” and vanished in a puff of ghostly mist.

To play Dracula in a humorous “vein” would be one thing to which Lugosi was adverse. He frequently muttered about his role in Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein and told reporters:

“The horror business is certainly not what it used to be. Boris Karloff, a great horror specialist – look what he is driven to do. Comedy stuff in New York!”

Despite the sophistication of the audiences, the 1951 British stage production of Dracula was extremely successful. A newspaper critic of the time gave this account:

This is melodrama in the Henry Irving tradition, magnificent, macabre and gloriously bloodcurdling; not staged, but invoked, and declaimed rather than acted. Hollywood could never provide realism like this. At a lesser theatre it would be capacity twice nightly.

The Only Way To Fly

In the modernized version of Dracula most of the action took place in the asylum of Dr. Seward (Arthur Hoskins) at Hampstead Heath Row. His daughter Lucy was played by Sheila Wynn, and the attendant, furnishing comic relief, by John Saunders.

Dracula calmly filled six packing cases with local soil and took an air-liner to Heath Row, where he mystified the Customs officials by firmly declaring ordinary boxes of earth. He explained to them that he needed them “for horticultural purposes.”

With that he began operations on London’s outskirts, where the Count in black, reeking of brimstone and tombstone, claimed the blood of the living as his due.

At last Dracula was laid to rest by the final driving of a yard-long stake thru his heart.

Bits & Pieces

Bela and Lillian Lugosi each carried a token of the vampire prince to whose greatness their fame and fortune can be attributed. Bela wore the heavy silver Dracula ring – a replica of the ring worn by the actual Count Dracula! And his wife wore a silver bat on her beret. (3)

To Bela may also be given the honor of having told the very first elephant joke! During conversations with reporters and fans, while Lillian kept up a bright and witty conversational stream, the raven-haired Mrs. Lugosi firmly announced:

“Bela could not tell a story to save his soul. He always forgets them halfway thru. There’s just one he can remember, and that takes half an hour to tell.”

“Shall I tell them the one about the elephants?” he asked.

“No!” she shouted. “That’s the one I’m talking about!”

Alas, we shall never be able to hear it.

Bela visiting the home of Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman and his wife Wendayne

Dracula Without His Cape

Hitherto we have seen the several faces of Bela Lugosi: Bela the Vampire, Bela the Jester, Bela the Actor. But we have yet to see the final face – that of Bela the Man.

We shall see this thru the eyes of Lillian Lugosi:

“He tells me he loves me every single day. I think that’s very nice, don’t you? Men get so neglectful. I know when he’s angry with me – the day he doesn’t tell me he loves me.

“Bela’s good about the house, too. Only one fault – he leaves his stamp collection all over the place.”

Bela interjected, “I love stamp collecting. I love soccer. I love dogs. I used to have seven little dogs, then little Bela Jr. Came along and Lil said we must have room in the backyard to hang up the diapers, so now I have only six dogs.”

What does he read in his spare time?

“Political science, in which I am very interested. I never read novels, but I like to keep up with things in the newspapers and magazines – especially the diplomatic news. Everybody double-crossing everybody else!”

“I love women’s fashions,” he added.

“Yes,” said Lillian, “he goes with me to buy all my clothes. Only yesterday I bought some gloves and a handbag and because he didn’t like them he marched me back to the shop to change them.”

An interviewer queried Lillian: “Does he ever get up in the middle of the night and wander around in the dark?”

“Oh yes! He’s always getting up in the middle of the night. I leave a glass of milk and a pear for him in the icebox. He gets hungry round about 2:00 in the morning. Midnight snack, you know.”

In 1951 Bela Jr. was 13, when the interviewer asked, “Did you ever scare your son?”

“How could I?” interjected Dracula, prince of vampires, lord of the un-dead, master of the nosferatu, famed voivode of ages past. “He sees me in my underwear, and how can any man have any dignity in his underwear?”

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Notes

(1) Although pre-publicity for Bela’s final British film gave the title as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, the film was released as Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.  It was released on August 18, 1952. Glen or Glenda was not released until 1953. The confusion over the order in which the two films were released in the article arises from the fact that Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was not released in America until 1963 as My Son the Vampire. The film had failed to find distribution in America when released in 1952 under its original export title of Vampire Over London.

(2) Dracula premiered at Brighton’s Theatre Royal on April 30th, 1951, not June 16th as stated in the article.

(3) Photos of Bela and Lillian’s arrival in England show Lillian, sans beret, wearing the silver bat broach on the lapel of her overcoat.

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of Jonathan Harker in Dracula?

Richard Butler: I was simply called by my agent to go for an audition. I went and I got it. At the time I was doing a stint at Walls’ Ice Cream factory in Acton, a temporary job, to earn some money. I remember going from my night shift to this audition and I got the job. But it wasn’t due to start for another couple of weeks so I stayed on, very nobly stayed on, at the ice cream factory, knee-deep in ice cream for another two weeks and (laughing) I’ve never been back to an ice cream factory.

AB: Was it an exciting prospect to be playing with Bela?

RB: Oh yes, because, let’s face it, I was in the ice cream factory. Although I had done an awful lot before I went there, it was one of those long periods of unemployment that all actors have. I’d done better work, much better work, than Dracula, but I took the job because it paid money. I’d much rather work than not work.

AB: Were you familiar with Bela’s films or the novel?

RB: Yes, the films, I certainly was. I’d seen Ninotchka then, you must have seen it? I think he’s marvellous in that, that’s the true Bela. I don’t think that I was terribly familiar with the novel, but, you know, one sort of knew it.

AB: How long did you have to rehearse before Bela arrived from America?

RB: He came there at once! We probably didn’t rehearse more than…certainly no more than three weeks. We might have rehearsed for as little as two weeks, but I really can’t remember.

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

AB: Do you recall where rehearsals took place?

RB: They took place in London, though I’m not certain of the exact location. It would certainly have been in the West End. I have an idea it was somewhere near the Embankment in Chelsea.

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

AB: It has been claimed that Bela was so unhappy with the production that the premiere was held up because he demanded changes.

RB: I don’t think that happened. He was never disloyal to the management. He never said “Oh, this shouldn’t happen to me at my time of life,” nothing like that. He just accepted things, and he really did his very best. I’ve worked with people who haven’t really done their best at every performance because it’s been a matinée or there have been few people in, things like that. But he had the very highest standards. Bela kept his dignity throughout and never criticised or complained. I do, however, remember that, talking to us youngsters during rehearsal break one day, he said—“I’m over here to do this show because I can’t get work in films these days. Some time ago, both Boris Karloff and I realized the skids were under us…so we take what work we can get.” We were visited at the dress rehearsal and first night by Megs Jenkins, a very well-known actress. She gave invaluable help to Sheila Wynn with her hair-do, make-up and costume. We had no wardrobe mistress as far as I can remember, and we had to fend for ourselves. Megs Jenkins, incidentally, was married to George Routledge of Routledge & White, the management company that organized the tour. Some time later, he left her in the lurch, taking all her money.

AB: About the 1951 tour, a recent magazine article about Bela claims that (Andi reads) “the supporting cast smacked of poverty row…the rest of the cast, too inexperienced to do otherwise, had not mastered their lines.” What’s your reaction to his accusations?

RB: Absolute rubbish! Absolute rubbish! You write another article. That is utter rubbish. Bela was the only “name” in a cast of mainly young unknowns, but the whole cast was quite experienced. Arthur Hosking had been an established actor, especially in musicals, for many years. David Dawson had done television and was quite a presentable leading man. Sheila Wynn had done quite a bit of work, as had Joan Harding. I first came across Sheila in 1947 when she and I worked together. John Saunders had certainly done a lot of work. Who else was there? Oh, Eric Lindsay. Well, he had done work of a sort.

Richard as Braithwaite in the hit TV series Budgie (1971)

AB: What was the pay like for appearing in Dracula?

RB: I think I received about £12 per week. In those days £10 per week was considered a good salary in weekly repertoire, and one was always paid a little more for touring. But there was no such payment as a touring allowance then and rehearsals were unpaid for several years to come. At the time, actors were expected to provide every item of contemporary clothing, except for special items such as morning suits and uniforms and as a result, our wardrobes were somewhat depleted. I daresay David had his consultant’s morning clothes supplied, similarly John Saunders’ attendant’s uniform and perhaps Eric was helped with his Renfield clothes.

AB: The article is very critical of the sets.

RB: That’s true, they were very cheaply made. The backdrops and scenery were painted on cloth, very shabby. The special effects, flying bats and magical appearances by Dracula, were very rudimentary to say the least, and very unreliable. The bats were a particular problem. They would be catapulted across the stage, and often they wouldn’t make it and would land in the middle of the stage, where they would have to stay. In the climax of the short prologue to the play—which was a solo spot for Sheila, standing spotlit in front of black tabs, a large model bat on wires descended from the flies in a large cloud of smoke (fired from a smoke gun behind the tabs) and lowered over her head as she screamed. Immediate black-out, followed by the black tabs opening to reveal the brightly lit consulting room. I, as Jonathan Harker, then entered to await the imminent arrival of David Dawson. Invariably, there was a considerable amount of smoke—a cloud, in fact—still hanging over the stalls, which we had learned to live with, but on one dreadful occasion the model bat was also present; its wires having jammed, suspended over David’s desk between his chair and the chair I was about to occupy. I steeled myself for the ordeal to come and resolved to suppress my inner hysteria. I remember wondering how and if David and I should refer to it in any way, but decided that we had best ignore it! David entered, saw the bat, of course, and we both knew instinctively that eye contact between us must be avoided for the scene to continue. When we took our seats the bat was dangling between us at eye level—it was quite a sizeable object! So, we proceeded to ignore it and each other, and spoke our lines directly to the audience. My firm resolve was shattered when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw David gently easing the bat to one side in order to see me, but with a great effort of will we both managed to keep talking. There wasn’t a titter nor any response from the audience to indicate they were aware that anything was amiss, and in some strange way this helped us. We battled on, but when, a short time later, the bat’s wires were sorted out and it suddenly shot up into the flies and out of sight, I’m afraid we were both quite helpless with laughter. Disgraceful behaviour on our part, but I think you’ll agree we were sorely tried.

AB: It’s strange that all the people whom I have spoken who saw the play were particularly impressed with the special effects.

RB: Really? That is strange.

AB: Did Bela ever offer advice as to how the rest of the cast should play their roles?

RB: Only once. After our first night in Brighton, Bela met me in the wings one night after I had played my first scene with Lucy, who in the play has been visited by Count Dracula and somehow indoctrinated into vampirism. This was all unbeknownst to me, her fiancé, who is visiting her, as she recovers from the vampire attack. During the scene I express my worries and fears for her safety, and she gradually gets the urge to sink her teeth into my neck. Horror stations! And a merciful black-out ended the scene. Bela said to me, “I think you could get more out of that scene. Would you mind if I rehearsed it with you both?” This was music to my ears as our director, who was memorable for his fancy socks, had left us immediately after our first performance with a single note, which is not unusual, even today, and there would have been inevitably much in the production which could have been improved. Well, Sheila and I were re-rehearsed by Bela and whatever he did in the way of re-directing us must have helped because after we had played the scene as directed by him, he had watched us from the wings, he put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks in the continental manner. “That was much better,” he said, and referring to the kisses, “and I am not a fairy!!” That’s the only time he did something off his own back, and I was only too grateful.

Bela, Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Richard and David Dawson (Dr. Seward)

AB: What did you think of Bela as an actor?

RB: Oh, I thought he was first class. He had height and a stunning presence, no excess weight. He had saturnine looks, and his greatest asset of all, a superb voice. On stage this was produced so effortlessly. He could speak in a seeming menacing whisper at, say, The Hippodrome, Golders Green, and be heard at the back of the gallery. This is before the introduction of microphones on stage—a terrible practice! That’s what surprised everyone, that he was such a wonderful stage actor. You get many people, like Olivier or instance, who give out when they’re on, but don’t give out so much when they’re off, but he (Bela) wasn’t a nonentity off stage.

AB: How did you find him as a person?

RB: Both he and Lillian were charming and very accessible. He was instantly friendly, but he was treated with all due deference because he was a movie star, and he was the reason that we were doing that play. There was an atmosphere of great courtesy on both sides. We called him “Bela”, we asked if he minded, Lillian said, “Sure, sure go ahead.”

AB: What was life like on the road with the Lugosis?

RB: This was in the days when the pecking order in any theatrical company, be it in the West End, number one, two or three tour and some repertory theatres, was always strictly adhered to. In those days on tour when theatre dates were rarely longer than a week in any given place, companies travelled by train. The Lugosis certainly travelled with the company, though they might have a car from time to time. I sometimes travelled with John Saunders by car—as far as I can remember he was the only car owner in the company. Train calls on a Sunday morning meant assembling at the local station where the manager would assign company members to their respective carriages, which were reserved. We never travelled with the general public. There was a strict order of precedence observed, the leading members of the company travelling together, the supporting featured players—according to salary—then the rest of the actors—small parts and understudies—and the staff wardrobe mistress, carpenter, often a married pair—and the stage management in separate compartments—not with the actors. That was the start of the journey, and discrete mingling took place as the train progressed. All the Sunday papers were bought—sharing took place, of course—and, if the journey happened to be a long one, food and drink had to be bought by individuals on Saturday night as trains in those days, especially on Sunday, rarely had buffet or restaurant cars, and intermediate stops at stations en route couldn’t be relied upon to provide a buffet that would be open. Now in Bela’s case, although he and his wife had their own compartment, they had no wish to travel alone and spent many hours entertaining us. Except, that was, on certain occasions, when Lillian would say, “Now Bela has to have his injection.” That was our cue to leave. At that time Lillian had indicated that Bela had a health problem which necessitated medication, and it wasn’t until much later, after they had returned to America and poor Bela’s drug use became known, that we wondered if his “health problem” had been, in fact, his drug addiction.

AB: He committed himself to cure his addiction, apparently he had been suffering from leg pains for many years.

RB: I can remember that foot problem that he had. I can see him now, but I had to be reminded of it. Perhaps that is why he didn’t walk around? You rarely saw him except during the play. We never met him or Lillian around the town where we happened to be. He just didn’t go out. Wherever we happened to be, in England or Scotland, he knew nothing about the particular city or area, nor did he express any interest in local sights or places of interest. A car picked him up from his hotel and a car collected him from the stage door. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t walk around, he was just afraid of something happening. We didn’t even go out with Lillian, but maybe he was jealous? Maybe she wouldn’t have dreamt of saying, “Come on, boys, take me to the cathedral or take me to the pictures.”

AB: I don’t think he would have liked that.

RB: No, he wouldn’t. But he always welcomed us into his dressing room, there was never any suggestion that we weren’t welcome. From the beginning of the tour Bela’s No. 1 dressing room, wherever we played, was open house to us all, and coffee, beautiful American coffee, seemed to be always on tap, thanks to Lillian.

AB: Did the cast ever go back to his hotel after the show?

RB: No, there was no socializing after the show at all. It was before and during, but not after. Bela and Lillian always stayed in hotels during the tour, the rest of us stayed in “theatrical digs,” which in those days were still plentiful. These digs differed from ordinary lodging houses in that, in most cases, all meals were provided and geared to an actor’ working day—late breakfast and late cooked suppers after the show. Stage door keepers almost always had lists of available digs, and one could write to them in advance for recommendations. But almost all actors had their own digs address books and, as a rule, if one didn’t have an address for a future date, one consulted friends or other members of the company. The aim was to book in advance, seasonal actors often had the tour booked before the first train call—and never, if at all possible, to arrive at a new date with no address fixed. Of course, there were bad digs, too, and actors made careful notes of addresses to avoid and warned other actors about them if at all possible.

AB: Do you recall any particular incidents during the tour?

RB: Bela was always charming to us backstage, and his interest in our somewhat second-rate production never flagged. Needless to say, his own performance was always full throttle and the customers were enthralled. Save, that is, at one theatre—the Golders Green Hippodrome—where to our amazement, we got the bird. Any references to crucifixes, and there are many in the play, were greeted with cries of derision, and our crude special effects called forth hoots of laughter. Perhaps, if Count Dracula had spent longer on the stage the unruly audience would have been more amenable. It was the American version of the play, his part was extremely short. His short scenes amounted to no more than 20 minutes of the total two hours running time, but his appearances were so impressive that no one complained of being short-changed. In one theatre, the Lewisham Hippodrome where we were playing twice nightly, we were given a rough ride. But this was entirely a management error. On the first night of our one-week run our Van Helsing (Arthur Hosking), by far the largest part in the play, was indisposed. His part was taken by a dear old character actor, Alfred Beale. “Bealey”, as we called him, was actually our business manager. I thought he was a saint. He had been an actor, but I don’t think he had exercised his craft for many years. The management error was in expecting this man to go on in a leading part without the benefit of a single rehearsal. Mrs. Beale was very concerned about him, and came down to give him help and support. Bela was most concerned for him. I remember the scene on stage before the curtain went up on Van Helsing’s first appearance. There was Bealey with his script in his hands, the poor man had to read the part, and at his side was Bela with benzedrine in tablet form and a large jug of water. This had an immediate effect on Bealey and after the curtain rose he appeared not to have a care in the world as he read from his script. This was much to the audience’s displeasure and, I’m sorry to say, our hard-to-suppress amusement. I had to make an appearance in the scene, and my entrance coincided with Bealey dropping his script, which was not stapled but loose-leafed. Mrs. Beale was in the fireplace, attempting to bring poor old Bealey back onto the script, and as he skipped about the stage picking up the scattered pages, still not panicked by the laughter and shouts from the auditorium, we had to end the scene as best we could, though we were not nearly as mirthful as we had been at the start. Arthur Hosking rejoined us for the next performance. I’ll tell you one funny thing that happened. We thought that we were going to have a riot in Scotland because the playbill announced, “First Time in England.” Even then the Scottish Nationalists were around, and I thought we were going to have a bomb-attack or something. They never changed it. I laughed like a drake when I saw that, “First Time in England.”

Richard and Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral

AB: Could the play ever have really succeeded in the West End?

RB: No, it would have flopped definitely. It was such a tatty production.

AB: Could more money have turned it into a success?

RB: Not with that management. They obviously didn’t have the right standards. Out of their hands, who knows what might have happened? But by then it was a bit of a freak show. No, it wouldn’t have lasted more than two minutes.

AB: That was Bela’s whole reason for coming to Britain—he thought that he would be playing in the West End.

RB: Yes, maybe. People have lied before. That was a lying management if ever there was one.

AB: Was there any advance warning that the tour was in trouble?

RB: We got a fortnight’s notice. They had to do that or they would have had to pay us two weeks wages, and they wouldn’t have done that. Yes, we had due warning.

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

AB: So you were all paid?

RB: We were paid, the actors. I don’t know about the others.

AB: It has always been claimed that Bela wasn’t paid, that he and Lillian were stranded in Britain, that’s why he appeared in the Mother Riley film.

RB: It could just be another story, an excuse for him appearing in such a poor film. I imagine it was. He never said anything, and Lillian never said to us, “Oh, they haven’t paid Bela.” I think they just slotted Bela into the film. They were just opportunistic. As you said, it was already set up, it just suited everybody, Bela and Lillian. John Saunders, sadly no longer with us, and I were friends on the tour. He played the least rewarding part in the piece, the asylum attendant. He and I were especially friendly with Lillian. We were all interested in food and cooking—what actor isn’t? As the tour was drawing to its end Lillian said, “You must visit us one evening and I’ll cook you an American corned-beef hash.” At this point Bela had already booked to play in the film, and he and Lillian had rented a house near the studio. She was as good as her word. One day, John drove us out to their house, he was the only car owner in the company, and sure enough, in their kitchen we sat down to a delicious meal while Bela and Lillian regaled us with red-hot gossip from the studios. He spoke with a heavy but perfectly understandable accent, with many Americanisms. I particularly remember tulips pronounced “toolips”.

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

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

After Dracula Richard became an in-demand actor for over 40 years. He made his debut television appearance in 1952. In 1959, as Lugosi’s phantom film Lock Up Your Daughters briefly materialized, Richard did a long stint in a play of the same name on the West End. He appeared in many television series and mini-series, such as Coronation Street and Middlemarch, and played the vicar who conducts the fourth wedding in Four Weddings & A Funeral. In October 1982 Richard was guest of honor at the Dracula Society of London’s celebration of the centennial of Bela’s birth and spoke publicly for the first time about working in Dracula. Richard died in early 2004.

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

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