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

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My Favorite Vampire by Alex Gordon

Alex, Bela, Lillian, Richard & William Everson

Alex Gordon, Bela and Lillian Lugosi, Richard Gordon, and film historian William K Evereson in the Tokay restaurant in New York

Born in London on September 8, 1922, Alex Gordon, like his younger brother and fellow film producer Richard, developed a love for films, especially westerns and horror, at an early age. They started fan clubs for their favourite stars, Gene Autry and Buster Crabbe while still at school, and pursued careers in the film business at the end of World War II. While Richard worked in the publicity department of Pathe Pictures, the distribution arm of Associated British, Alex became the one-man publicity department for Renown Pictures, a small film distributor which later moved into film production. They supplemented their earnings by writing film reviews and articles for fan magazines. Both brothers dreamed of becoming film producers, but it soon became apparent that they were unlikely to realise their ambition in the austere economic climate of  post-war Britain. Deciding to try their luck in the American film business, they emigrated to America in November, 1947 . 

Richard and Alex Gordon

Richard and Alex shared a life-long passion for films

Setting up in New York, Alex became a booker for Walter Reade theatres, while his brother worked as an assistant sales manager for Jack Hoffberg’s distribution company while freelancing as a representative for several British film outlets. They continued to indulge their passion for the cinema by interviewing film stars for British film magazines. Learning that one of their idols, Bela Lugosi, was scheduled to star in a summer stock production of Arsenic and Old Lace in nearby Sea Cliff  in August, 1948, they set out to meet and interview him. Lugosi not only consented to the interview, but also invited the brothers to dine with him and his wife at a local restaurant. Bela, who fostered hopes of  starring in a Broadway or West End revival of Dracula was intrigued when Alex told him that many fans in England had been disappointed at the cancellation of his proposed eight-week English stage tour of Dracula earlier in the year. Contacting them several months later, Bela asked Alex and Richard to take over the management of his business affairs and to try find him film and theatre work in Britain. Having recently started working for his childhood hero, Gene Autry, Alex was too busy to devote his energies to helping Bela, so Richard took on the task of trying to interest West End producers staging a production of Dracula with Bela in the lead. He found it much harder than he had anticipated, and it was not until 1951 that he was able to negotiate a British revival tour of Dracula, followed by Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire. 

Alex and Gene Autry

Alex with his childhood hero Gene Autry

When Bela and Lillian returned to America from England in December, 1951, Richard missed the opportunity to see them upon their arrival in New York before they quickly headed for California. He never met them again. Alex, who had relocated to Hollywood, took up the quest to find work for Bela. They developed a script together for a film entitled The Atomic Monster, which was intended to be the first of three Lugosi films Alex would produce and release through Jack Broder’s Realart. Instead of going ahead with the project, Broder stole the title for a Realart re-release of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. film Man Made Monster. Although Alex and Broder reached a financial settlement, Bela was left without work. The script was taken up and rewritten by Edward D. Wood Jr., who filmed it as Bride of the Atom (later retitled Bride of the Monster) with Bela. Alex had introduced Wood to Bela when the two were sharing an apartment. Although Alex went on to produce many films, including genre favourites The Day the World Ended (1955), The She Creature (1956), Voodoo Woman (1957), and The Atomic Submarine (1959), he was unable to get a studio to greenlight a film with Bela. Later in his career, Alex worked at 20th Century Fox, where he was responsible for rediscovering over 30 Fox films that had thought to have been lost and instituting a film restoration project. He left the studio in 1976 to take up the post of vice-president of the Gene Autry Organisation. Alex died in Los Angeles on June 23rd, 2003.  (Andi Brooks)

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In 1963, Alex shared his memories of Bela in an article entitled My Favourite Vampire in issue number 5 of Fantastic Monsters of the Films.

Fantastic Monsters of the Films Vol.2 #5

What Bela Lugosi was really like – as revealed by the Vampire Man’s close friend, Hollywood Personality, Alex Gordon

My Favorite Vampire By Alex Gordon

When I was a boy in England, I was a very frustrated youth. Under the British movie censorship classification, horror pictures cannot be seen by anyone under the age of sixteen. Therefore, it was not until many years later that I was able to see the Bela Lugosi films. The first time I ever saw Bela on the screen was in Postal Inspector, a 1936 picture in which he played a gangster. I was also able to see The Invisible Ray, which he did with Boris Karloff, and which somehow escaped the adult horror classification. And ever since those early days, I had hoped that some day I would have the opportunity to meet Bela in person. This did not happen until 1950(1), after I had come to the United States and was living in New York. At the time, Bela was doing Arsenic and Old Lace on the stage at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, and my brother Richard and I went down to try and meet him. We waited near the theatre for hours and finally Bela – with his wife Lillian – drove up. We went up and introduced ourselves. They were both extremely pleasant and suggested we join them for dinner. They took us to an excellent Hungarian restaurant(2) where Bela was the center of attraction, the owner and other patrons being thrilled to see him. After dinner, we went back to the theatre and saw the show; and afterwards spent more time with the Lugosis and made a date to see them later. Mother Riley Meets The Vampire Richard Gordon, Bela and George Minter

Richard Gordon, Bela and producer George Minter on the set of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire

One of the things Bela wanted most to do was tour England with a new production of Dracula. He had made movies in England –The Mystery of the Marie Celeste(3), Dark Eyes of London – but had never appeared on the stage there. Happily, my brother, who represents British movie producers (such as the makers of the “Carry On” pictures) was able to arrange not only such a tour, but also for Bela to make another movie in England. Soon after that, in 1953, I became an independent producer in Hollywood after years of work in publicity and writing, and of course wanted to make a picture with Bela. We spent much time together, finally evolving a script entitled The Atomic Monster. For various reasons, however, the picture did not get off the ground. Meanwhile, American distributors were reluctant to buy Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire(4) – because of the British humor which they considered unsuitable for American audiences. Therefore, we put a new title on the picture, Vampire Over London(5), but still no one wanted it. I cut out all of Bela’s scenes and tried to make a new movie to be called King Robot, using all the scenes Bela was in and shooting new ones to match for the rest of the story. However, Bela had been very ill for a while and was very thin and haggard looking, and he did not match the original footage anymore. So we had to scrap that idea. While I was trying to set up a new picture, to star Bela and Boris Karloff, an independent producer (Edward D. Wood Jr.) rewrote my “Atomic Monster” script and made a very low budget picture vaguely based on it called Bride of the Monster. Poor Bela looked so very old and ill in it, that a double had to be used for many of his scenes.

Alex with Bob Steele, Warren White, an unknown man, and Edward D. Wood Jr. at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant in 1952.

 Courtesy of http://www.westernclippings.com/treasures/westerntreasures_gallery_3.shtml

One of his great hopes was to make Dracula in color and widescreen, and he thought the resurgence of horror movies in Hollywood after House of Wax in 1953 would mark a comeback for him. But the studios seemed to prefer other actors, like Christopher Lee when they made Horror of Dracula in color in England. The premiere of House of Wax, incidentally, was quite an event. Warner Brothers thought up a publicity stunt to have horror stars attend the premiere at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. They called Bela and asked him if he would go. Bela did not want to, but I persuaded him, as I thought it would be good publicity for our projected new picture with him and Karloff. Warners sent a limousine to pick us up at Bela’s apartment, and Bela was dressed in his Dracula cape. What he did not know was that the publicity boys wanted him to lead a gorilla (a man in a skin) on a chain into the lobby of the theatre – and I was afraid to tell him. The limousine made a stop at a large hotel, and Bela immediately asked what the stop was for. I timidly told him it was to pick up a gorilla. At first it seemed he hadn’t heard right, then he roared, “Gorilla?!” It took all my powers of persuasion to keep him from taking a taxi home.

House Of WaxBela’s arrival at the House of Wax premier with Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit was captured in a Pathe newsreel

Courtesy of http://microbrewreviews.blogspot.com/

When we drove up at the Paramount, there was a mass of photographers, newsmen, TV cameras, and hundreds of people milling around. Bela was, of course, the center of attention when he exited from the car with the gorilla on the chain. The gorilla chased after some girls while Bela shouted to me what we wanted him to do. We manipulated him over to a Red Cross stand where two nurses were selling milk for the Red Cross. The idea was to have a shot of Bela drinking milk instead of blood, but in all the bedlam he thought they wanted him to do a Dracula bit, and he suddenly grabbed the nurses by the necks. They were so surprised and shocked that they threw the milk all over him! Finally I got him inside the lobby, where a female radio-TV interviewer grabbed hold of him. I should explain here that Bela was a little hard of hearing in one ear, and he had asked for a list of questions ahead of time so that he could memorize the answers when they brought him up to the microphone. With all the noise and confusion, he felt he might not be able to hear the questions properly. Needless to say, the interviewer had mislaid her copy of the questions and started asking Bela the questions out of context with his prepared answers. I think I can leave the results to your imagination. By the time I had him seated in the auditorium, we were both completely exhausted, though the photographers had enjoyed an absolute field day. Bela did not want to stay for the film, so we left by a back door after it had started. I did not hear the end of THAT adventure for a long time.

Vampira and Bela

Vampira and Bela on the Red Skelton show

Another incident I remember well was when Bela was to do the Red Skelton Show, on which Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr were to appear in a sketch with him. Bela was worried about the show because he knew that Red Skelton did not stick to the script, but adlibbed most of the show. And Bela was a stage actor who had to learn his lines and was not used to adlibbing. Red treated him well, but he did use adlibs which almost threw Bela. But the comedian managed to fill in so well that the audience never knew. However, it was an unhappy experience for Bela. He always preferred to work from a prepared script.

A publicity shot for Dracula

When the original Dracula was reissued once more, as it was at regular intervals, we went to see it, and Bela enjoyed it again. Actually, he almost lived the part at times. When he was on tour, he could not stand the hard mattresses in most of the hotels as he had trouble with his back. So he would place his beautiful silk-lined coffin from the theatre in the middle of his hotel room and sleep in it. This is absolutely true and no publicity story. It was not done for effect, just plain comfort.

Bela was a delightful companion, gracious and kind and with a good sense of humor. He was also a man of many moods, and sometimes he would sink into deep despair. Bela loved cigars, and he also became interested in religion, hypnosis, and philosophy. He was very particular about many little things. He once asked me to sort out his desk and papers, and I found receipted bills and other statements going back twenty years, which he thought he should keep for tax and book-keeping purposes. He also kept a large collection of stills from his movies in scrapbooks.

Bela in November 1955

When he lived in his small Hollywood apartment, he would call me to walk up to the corner with him at 11pm to pick up the next morning’s LA Times. It had to be the 11pm edition, and he was quite upset if he did not get it. He liked to keep up with all the latest news and was extremely well-informed about world events. But his daily dream was to make a good comeback, and he, like so many other former great stars, found it impossible to realize that Hollywood did not want him anymore. It is so ironic that stars like Bela Lugosi are so fondly remembered by audiences the world over, and yet were unable to get a job right here in Hollywood. It is something I have always found hard to understand. Since I became a movie producer, I have always tried to use as many old-timers in my pictures as possible, despite enormous resistance from distributors, financiers, and exhibitors who consider them “has-beens.”

 At the peak of his stardom with other members of the Universal family. Bela can be seen in the back row along with Boris Karloff and James Whale. Carl Laemmle Jr., Carl Laemmle Sr., and cinematographer Karl Freund are in the front row

In a way, I think Bela regretted having turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster in the original movie that made Boris Karloff famous. Not many remember that Bela was actually a Shakespearean actor and a romantic star before he did Dracula and became typed in horror pictures. He played Hamlet and even Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans(6), among many other roles. I always thought the old Universal film, The Raven, was one of Bela’s best roles, as well as The Invisible Ray, and of course his role of Ygor in the later Frankenstein pictures was unforgettable. It is strange for me now to see and hear Bela on TV in his old movies. It is as though he is still around and as though that friendly, uniquely unforgettable voice is still calling. His friends and fans will never forget him.

Notes: (1) Alex and Richard Gordon first meet Bela in 1948, not 1950. He performed in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre from August 9 – 14, 1948. (2) Richard Gordon later recalled that the restaurant was a seafood restaurant. (3)Although several contemporary sources listed the film’s title as “The Mystery of the Marie Celeste,” it was released as “Mystery of the Mary Celeste.” (4) Pre-release publicity listed the title as “Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,” but the film was released as “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.” (5) According to an article printed in The Cinema News And Property Gazette of August 22, 1951, two months before filming began, the title “Vampire Over London” had already been selected for the American release of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (6) Bela played Chingachgook.

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Film Producer Richard Gordon Dies At 85

Richard Gordon – December 31, 1925 – November 1, 2011

Film producer Richard Gordon died on November 1st at New York Presbyterian Hospital after suffering from heart problems over the last six months. He was 85.

Born in London on December 31st, 1925, Richard, “Dick” to all who knew him, shared a life-long love of films with his elder brother, and fellow producer, Alex, who died aged 80 in 2003. While schoolboys, the brothers started fan clubs for their favourite stars, Gene Autry and Buster Crabbe. During World War II, Dick joined the Royal Navy. His knowledge of German, acquired at school, led to him heading a translation and interrogation unit. During his war service, he was still able to indulge his passion by organising film programmes for enlisted men. His particular affection for horror films earned him the nickname “Dracula.”

Dick, Bela and Alex

Courtesy of http://www.moviemonstermuseum.com/

After being demobbed in 1946, the brothers pursued careers in the film industry. While Alex handled publicity at Renown Pictures, a small film distributor which would later move into film production, Dick worked in the publicity department of Pathe Pictures, the distribution arm of Associated British. They supplemented their earnings by writing film reviews and articles, but their opportunities were hampered due to post-war paper shortages, which limited print runs of the fan magazines they were targeting. Realising that their ambition to become film producers were unlikely to be realised in their homeland, they pooled their savings and emigrated to America in November, 1947. Setting up in New York, Dick found work as an assistant sales manager for Jack Hoffberg’s distribution company and freelanced as a representative for several British film outlets, while Alex became a booker for Walter Reade theatres.

Richard Gordon and Bela

Bela and Dick on the set of Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1951)

They also interviewed film stars for British film magazines. When they learned that Bela Lugosi would appear in a summer stock production of Arsenic and Old Lace in Sea Cliff, twenty miles outside of New York, in August, 1948, they determined to meet and interview him. Lugosi not only consented to the interview, but also invited the brothers to dine with him and his wife at a local restaurant, where he regaled them with stories of his glory days and confided his current career woes. 

Bela, intrigued by the brothers’ talk of his continued popularity in Britain and their contacts within the British film industry, contacted them several months later and asked them to try find him film and theatre work in Britain. He also offered them the opportunity to take over management of his affairs. Alex, having recently started working for his childhood hero, Gene Autry, was too busy to devote his energies to helping Bela, so Dick set to trying to generate interest in Bela in a production of Dracula among West End producers. Despite his growing network of contacts within both the film and theatre industries, Dick found selling Bela and Dracula to British producers to be an almost impossible task. It would not be until 1951 that he was able to negotiate a British revival tour of Dracula and Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire. Much to Dick’s consternation, the production of Dracula proved to be fraught with difficulties and failed to secure a planned run in the West End. Whenever he recalled the tour in later life, he would lament his lack of experience at the time and express his frustration at getting Bela involved in what Dick viewed as a disastrous venture.

Dick’s two films with Boris Karloff

Dick had more success with his other enterprises. In 1949 he set up Gordon Films Inc., which imported and distributed British and other foreign films. After moving into setting up co-production deals, Dick decided that “If I was going to do it for somebody else, I could do it myself!” From 1958 he produced a string of films now regarded as cult classics, including Boris Karloff’s The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, both made in 1958. In the same year he produced Fiend Without a Face, followed in 1959 by First Man Into Space. His last credit as a producer was for Inseminoid in 1981. He continued to run Gordon Films until his death. Dick always remained at heart a film fan who, as his friend, the writer Tom Weaver said, “lived and breathed movies.” In his later years, he became a popular guest at film conventions in America and Britain.

Tom Weaver’s book-length interview with Dick (BearManor Media, 2011)

Despite his feelings about the British tour of Dracula, when Frank Dello Stritto and I wrote the story of 1951 in “Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain,” almost 50 years later, he was an enthusiastic collaborator. His memories and his insights were invaluable to our research. Without him, the book would have been much different. Frank last met him in June at this year’s Monster Bash. “He’d had some recent health issues and was using a cane, but he was as alert and witty as ever. It never occurred to me that it would be the last time that I would see him. I wish that I had spent more time with him then.” Summing up his personal feelings, Frank said, “Dick could be mercurial and opinionated, but also caring and funny and generous. All were part of his charm. ‘Charm’ is a carefully chosen word; I saw it in many ways as I came to know him. I was always captivated by him, and I shall miss him.” (Andi Brooks)

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

Robot refurbished

The costume as offered by Profiles in History on May 15th, 2011

The robot costume from Renown Picture’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952) failed to reach the reserve price of $15,000 (£9,170) when offered for auction by Profiles in History of Calabasas Hills, California. Although the costume is a “remarkable science-fiction artifact” and of great interest to Lugosi enthusiasts, collectors were perhaps deterred by the over-optimistic asking price.

The costume, which had been in a private collection in England for over twenty years, made a surprise return to the spotlight when it was auctioned by Bonhams of London for £1,680 ($2,747) in December, 2010.

Robot 1

The costume as sold by Bonhams in December, 2010

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire was the fifteenth and final film in the Old Mother Riley Series, which began in 1937. A sixteenth film, Mother Riley’s Trip To Mars,  was announced by Renown in December 1951, but the project was shelved.

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire Poster

Original UK poster

The rationale behind including Bela Lugosi in the film was to make it appeal to the American market, but the dated regional humour of Mother Riley was not to the taste of American distributors. Plans to replace the scenes of Old Mother Riley with newly shot footage of Lugosi had to be abandoned because, only a year after filming Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, declining health had changed his appearance too much. Re-edited and re-titled as Vampire Over London, and later My Son, The Vampire, the film finally achieved an American release in 1963. (Andi Brooks)

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

Old Mother Riley (Artur Lucan) inspects the robot

Bat Head 2

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

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

Robot 1

The robot costume from Mother Riley Meets The Vampire made a surprise and completely unexpected return to the spotlight when it was auctioned at Bonhams of London in December, 2010. Listed as lot No. 18 in sale 17974 of entertainment memorabilia, the costume sold for £1,680 ($2,747) . It had been in the hands of a private collector in the Birmingham area for over twenty years. According to the vendor, it had previously been displayed in the foyer of a Birmingham cinema. Neither the vendor nor Bonhams could confirm that the costume was the original. It was described in the catalogue as:

“Believed to be the original Robot prop/costume, of  plastic, metal and wood construction, with single coloured eye-piece, several dials to chest, interior with part electrical mechanism, the knees and elbows  with rubber joints, with claw hands with internal operating mechanism, head dome  missing, height 71 inches (180cm)”

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the costume has now found its way to America and is up for auction at Profiles in History of Calabasas Hills, California as lot 1013. The missing head dome has been replaced, but not the internal electronics, and the costume is now being described as “the original screen-used Robot costume”. Although it does appear to be the same costume sold at Bonhams, in the photograph below, issued by Profiles in History, the stomach panel seems to be missing the dials seen in the above photograph issued by Bonhams.
Robot refurbished
Profiles of History will conduct an on-line auction on May 15, 2011, at 11:00 (UTC -8: PST) with an opening bid of $15,000 (£9,170). The full catalogue description reads:
“Original screen-used Robot costume from the Bela Lugosi film My Son the Vampire. (1952, Fernwood Productions)  In the time-honored British tradition of crusty, comic spinsters played by men in drag, Arthur Lucan of the long-running “Mother Riley” series falls under great peril from Bela Lugosi’s kidnap plot, sending this full-size walking (with a man inside, that is) and blinking (if one chooses to connect up the wiring again) Robot of metal, rubber, electronic components (most still present) and glass dome, which is the only replaced piece on this remarkable science-fiction artifact. Was later used in an episode of the BBC series, The Avengers.  Stands 84″ tall (to top of glass dome) and 30″ wide at shoulders. Missing internal components of the dome area, rest are more or less intact.”
The episode of The Avengers in which the robot appeared was “The See-Through Man,” which was filmed in November, 1966. The series was produced by ABC Television, not, as stated in the auction blurb, the BBC. The robot is said to have made appearances in other TV programmes. Please contact us if you have any information regarding other sightings of the robot. (Andi Brooks)
Bat Head 3
You can view the auction at
 Bat Head 3
The robot as it appeared in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire
Robot 4
Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan) menaced by the robot.
Bela Lugosi, Judith Furse, Ian Wilson and David Hurst admire the robot.
The robot costume in The Avengers episode The See-Through Man with Roy Kinnear.