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

Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Raph WilsonRalph Wilson

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

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

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

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

Such generosity from a star particularly impressed Joyce. 

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain 2nd Edition

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

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

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

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Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Related Pages

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

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

When Dracula Invaded England

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

VOL Jacket

A new expanded 2nd edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain by Frank J. Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks has been published by Cult Movies Press. Originally published in 2000, the critically acclaimed biography of Bela Lugosi was the product of over a decade of extensive research by the authors and was the first book to study a particular, and neglected, period of Bela Lugosi’s life and work.

The book traces Lugosi’s final tour of Dracula in Britain in 1951. Shrouded in mystery for half a century, what little had been known about the tour and Lugosi’s time in Britain had been clouded by oft-repeated inaccurate accounts. Dello Stritto and Brooks unearthed many previously unknown facts to tell the full and true story for the first time. In the days before the now ubiquitous Internet made such a task relatively simple, the authors traced and interviewed Lugosi’s co-workers, most of whom had never spoken publicly about their time with him, located scores of people across Britain who saw Lugosi perform in Dracula, and gathered material from archives and individuals across the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, America, and Canada. The product of their research was the compelling tale of a fading Hollywood legend’s last stab at greatness, and of forgotten triumphs.

While Dracula made Bela Lugosi world famous, it forever trapped him in monster & mad doctor roles. In the heyday of Hollywood horror, he reigned as a star, but when horror fell out of fashion, he scarcely worked at all. Late in life, with few job prospects in Hollywood or New York, he searched for one last comeback. In 1951, the 68-year old Lugosi and his wife Lillian staked their fortunes on the stage tour of Dracula in Britain, a project which had almost taken place in 1948 (Bela Lugosi Unrealised Projects). They hoped to take Dracula to London’s West End and reproduce his original success on Broadway in 1927. For six months and in more than 200 performances, Lugosi thrilled audiences in the provinces. The gruelling trek of one week engagements, often with twice-nightly performances, across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, broke his stamina. The West End never beckoned and the tour was ended when Lugosi told producer John Chartres Mather that he could not continue. Lugosi filmed the comedy Mother Riley Meets the Vampire before leaving Britain. Contrary to popular myth, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire was not hastily arranged to help an unpaid and stranded Lugosi buy passage for himself and his wife back to America. The film had been arranged several months before the tour ended. As he sailed back to America, his spirits buoyed by the prospect of being reunited with his son, Lugosi was not to know that he had played his signature role in the famous vampire play for the last time, and that the final comeback which he so desperately desired would never materialized. His months in Britain were soon forgotten, even by his most ardent fans.

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain also tells the behind-the-scenes stories of Lugosi’s three British films,  Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935), Dark Eyes of London (1939), and Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952), for which Dello Stritto and Brook interviewed cast and crew members. The making of these films is intertwined with the controversy in Britain over American horror films, a battle between censors and producers that almost ruined Lugosi’s career.

V.O.L. DUSK JACKET 4.23.15With the first edition described as “exhaustive” and “definitive”, I asked Andi Brooks why he and Frank Dello Stritto decided to write a new edition. “Our interest in Bela Lugosi’s time in Britain didn’t end with the publication of the first edition. We have continued researching it ever since. When we conducted our original research the Internet was in its infancy. We did everything the old-fashioned way – letters, telephone calls and literally knocking on people’s doors. We covered as much ground as we could, which took a lot of time and money, but it was impossible to find every piece of information and to trace every person we wanted to speak to. Now it’s a completely different world. There is so much information available online now which wasn’t accessible back then. Of course, although it may at times seem as if the sum of human knowledge is just a keystroke away, a lot of traditional footwork and plain good luck are still needed. The Internet has also allowed us to connect with other researchers and fans who have generously shared their knowledge and allowed us to delve into their collections. Frank and I also had another reason for wanting to produce a second edition. Although we were very flattered by the praise which the original edition of Vampire Over London received, we simply weren’t satisfied with it. The amount of new material we had collected since 2000, and the fact that we were still receiving requests for the book long after it had sold out, gave us the opportunity to revisit the project and produce a new edition which we feel is superior to the original.”

Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

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

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

Bat Head 3 Reviews for the first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Related Pages

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

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

When Dracula Invaded England

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

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

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

The History of the Trunk

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

Bela in the Broadway production of Dracula

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

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

Bela in Arsenic and Old Lace

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

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

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

1136A Bela Lugosi Steamer Trunk

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

26 inches by 42 inches by 22 inches.

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

The Angels Are in the Details

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

Bela in the 1951 British tour of Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

Bela performing at a 1950s spook show.

Photo courtesy of Jim Knusch/Professor Kinema

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

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

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

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

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

Hope and Bela

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

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

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

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

Mystery of the Gráf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.