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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When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

BBC ARTS magazine

I was contacted last month by John O’Rourke, an assistant producer at the BBC. John had discovered Vampire Over London: The Bela Lugosi Blog and thought that the story of Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British revival tour of Dracula would be an “incredible subject” for the BBC to mark Halloween with.

He originally envisioned producing a four-minute film for BBC One’s flagship daily magazine series The One Show, but was ultimately unable to get the green-light from his commissioners.

However, when he mentioned the story of the tour in passing to one of his colleagues at BBC Online, he was asked to write a feature. Myself and Frank J. Dello Stritto were asked to help with background information and to provide illustrations for the article. 

“A Dracula Disaster: When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain” has now been published on the BBC’s online ARTS page at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1m2G6Z1GL8hkycnkhn0bnfM/a-dracula-disaster-when-bela-lugosi-came-to-britain

Bela and leading lady Sheila Wynn at the Lewisham Hippodrome

Bela Lugosi and Sheila Wynn at the Lewisham Hippodrome in 1951

The page also features Mark Gatiss’ interview with Sheila Wynn, Bela Lugosi’s  leading lady on the 1951 tour, from his excellent 2010 “A History of Horror” series. You can read Frank J. Dello Stritto’s 1998 interview with Sheila on our 1951 British Dracula Tour – Exclusive Interviews With The Cast & Company page.

Sheila Wynn

Sheila Wynn interviewed by Mark Gatiss at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne in 2010.

Bat Head 2

Related Posts and Pages

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

Bela Lugosi’s British Films 3: Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

When Dracula Invaded England

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

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