Three Tales – One Story by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Bela photographed by Florance Vandamm in the December  1927 issue of Vanity Fair

Some of the most interesting stories about famous people—and not just movie stars—are based on the recollections of a single person. Truly impartial eyewitnesses are rare, and human memory is never to be fully trusted. As often as not, when new corroborating facts are discovered, old legends fall apart. But sometimes, the great little stories indeed seem true.

Robert Cremer’s 1976 biography, Lugosi The Man Behind The Cape, includes an anecdote (on pages 102-103) about the first American production of Dracula, which opened on Broadway in October 1927. Bela Lugosi, so the story goes, did not impress producer Horace Liveright and director Ira Hards in the first days of rehearsal:

{Liveright} was greatly disturbed that the weak link in the play appeared to be none other than Bela Lugosi…The cast grew edgy at Lugosi’s nonchalance on stage…Just a week before the dress rehearsal, Hards suggested that Liveright have a long talk with Lugosi.

Behind closed doors with his boss, Lugosi slipped into character as he explained his approach to his acting. “For the first time Liveright sensed the power and sheer terror Lugosi could produce even in an innocuous line.” Cremer cites no source for his anecdote. The tale almost certainly came to him indirectly from Lugosi himself, who would have told it to one of his many friends and relatives that the author interviewed years later for the biography. Lugosi died in 1956: so at least 20 years separate the actor telling the story first-hand and Cremer hearing it second-hand. And an almost 50-year gap between the actual event and its first printed account. Plenty of reason to question its accuracy.

Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, Horace Liveright, and Dudley Murphy pose for a publicity shot in a break during the filming of Dracula

In the many interviews that Lugosi gave later, he sometimes claimed that he was fired from the production for a few days, and then brought back. In his interviews on the West Coast in 1928, where Dracula created the sensation it never did on Broadway, Lugosi had harsh criticisms for the American style of acting: too much emphasis on flash and not enough on the basics. Lugosi’s recorded interviews do not directly support the Cremer anecdote, but they are certainly consistent with it.

A tale later in Cremer, based on better evidence, is quite similar to the Liveright anecdote. In early 1954, Lugosi was rehearsing for his opening at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. Again, he was unimpressive in his first go-throughs, and again the producer had grave doubts. Cremer interviewed Ed Wood at length for Lugosi The Man Behind The Cape; and Lugosi’s sometime agent relates his confrontation with the night club’s publicity director, Eddie Fox (page 222):

Sipping a scotch, Fox watched the rehearsal the afternoon before the premiere and motioned for Ed to come over to his table…“I’m going to cut Lugosi’s contract. The man just doesn’t have it for a comedy scene. His lines are flat and unimaginative. Why, he’ll put everyone to sleep. Pack your bags and I’ll have the cashier make out a check for your severance pay.

A very rare photo of the Silver Slipper sign advertising the Bela Lugosi Revue

Wood begged for patience, and when the show opened the next night, Lugosi set the house aroar with laughter. Ed Wood, the infamously bad movie director, is also an infamously unreliable source. But quite believable is the simple fact that in early rehearsals, Lugosi strove to get the basics right, and saved the charisma for later.

In 1999, while researching AndiBrooks’ and my book, Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain, I interviewed John Mather. Mather produced the 1951 stage tour of Dracula, where Lugosi gave his last performances in his great role. During the interview, the last thing on my mind was 1927, and with no provocation from me, John said:

I met Bela and Lillian when they landed in Southampton. Bela looked as if he were going to die. He always looked that way…For the first 2 or 3 days of rehearsals, he only walked through his part. I was wondering about canceling the whole thing. On the third day, Dickie Eastham asked the cast to do their read-throughs in character. Bela stood straight and awed everyone. Bela had always looked like a tired old man, very gray, very old and bent, years older than his actual age. He spoke very slowly, softly and mumbled a bit. This all changed when he was onstage. The transformation was complete: he looked 40 again, erect and towering. When he was Dracula, he had this twinkle in his eye. He was so charming, and then so evil. It was magnificent.

Here, quite unexpectedly, came a first-hand story almost identical to Cremer’s Liveright and Silver Slipper anecdotes.

Joan Harding and Bela Lugosi on stage in Britain in 1951

My personal opinion is that Lugosi’s almost being fired from Dracula in 1927 is true. What cannot be verified is whether, after Liveright closed his office door, Lugosi stared him down and crooned in a menacing tone (according to Cremer, page 103):

I understand your concern, but the performance is not until a week from tomorrow ev-e-nink. Now, we work for position. Our lines must be perfect. Yes, we save the atmosphere for a week from tomorrow ev-e-nink.

In the 1931 film version, when Dracula tells Renfield, “we will be leaving tomorrow evening,” Lugosi draws out the last two words with particular relish. Perhaps he was remembering the moment that he bested Liveright—but I can’t prove it.

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

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