When Dracula Invaded England

Famous Monsters of Filmland No. 35 – October, 1965

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

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

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For Eager Victims

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

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

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

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

Blood (Orange)-Sucker

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

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

The reporter continued, “And raw steaks?”

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

It had happened before.

Bela & Lillian (Photo by Harold Clements Express)

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

Looking Dracwards

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation drifted from to the origin of his career.

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

Hamlet & Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

Programme for the premiere in Brighton

Horrorwood & Frankenstein

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

We need not elaborate on the outcome of that venture.

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

Dracula Retire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Mood For “Food”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dracula—1951

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Guy Or Bat Guy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Way To Fly

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

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

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

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

Bits & Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, we shall never be able to hear it.

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

Dracula Without His Cape

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

We shall see this thru the eyes of Lillian Lugosi:

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

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

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

What does he read in his spare time?

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

“I love women’s fashions,” he added.

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes

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

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

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

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB: Do you recall where rehearsals took place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB: The article is very critical of the sets.

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

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

RB: Really? That is strange.

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

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

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

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

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

AB: How did you find him as a person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard and Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB: So you were all paid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Related pages and articles

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

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

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.

The Silver Slipper Saloon, Las Vegas, Nevada

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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Related articles

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

A Quaint And Curious Volume Of Forgotten Lore by Frank Dello Stritto

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.

Film Producer Richard Gordon Dies At 85

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

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

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

Dick, Bela and Alex

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

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

Richard Gordon and Bela

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

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

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

Dick’s two films with Boris Karloff

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

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

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

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Related articles

My Favorite Vampire by Alex Gordon

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, Interviewed by Andi Brooks

 

Eric Lindsay as Zee in Las Vegas

“You have the eyes of a magician,” Bela Lugosi prophetically told Eric Lindsay when he played the role of Renfield in Lugosi’s 1951 British tour of Dracula. It was to prove no idle observation. Although Eric was working hard to establish himself as an actor, he would eventually enjoy international success as a critically acclaimed illusionist.

Born within the sound of Bow Bells in London’s City Road Hospital on November 13th, 1929, Eric discovered that he had the theatre in his blood at an early age. From his first tentative steps onto the stage in a Salvation Army production of Aida while a schoolboy, he went on to enjoy a long and varied career. As an actor, he starred in the original West End production of Tobacco Road, made films in France, appeared on British TV and, of course, toured with Bela Lugosi in his last full production of Dracula. In common with his famous predecessors, Eric earned nothing but praise from the critics for his portrayal of Renfield. As an entrepreneur, with his lifetime partner, the actor Ray Jackson, he opened two coffee bars during the great boom in the 1950s, including the fondly remembered Heaven and Hell, which was next door to the 2 I’s, the birthplace of British rock and roll. When Eric and Ray expanded into the nightclub business, their Casino De Paris club was so successful that Eric temporarily retired from the stage. When he returned, he enjoyed the biggest success of his show business career as Zee, one of the greatest British illusionists.

I first met Eric in 1997 while researching the Bela Lugosi biography Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain.  During the interview, we focused on Bela Lugosi and the British tour of Dracula. Interesting as that was, it was only six months out a fascinating life and career, about which I have long wanted to interview Eric. Now enjoying his retirement, but still working towards fulfilling two outstanding ambitions, Eric gracefully submitted to my cross-examination and dug through his archives to make this first retrospective of his life and work possible.

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When were you first attracted to performing?

At a very early age. There was a repertory theatre in Stoke Newington and my mother would take me there to see the plays. How she got the tickets I have no idea, but we used to go regularly.

Was it difficult to get tickets or was it a matter of money?

I really don’t know whether my mother bought the tickets or she was given them by a friend who worked at the theatre.

What is the first play you can remember seeing?  

No idea, but I remember seeing Private Lives. Yes, I think it was Private Lives.

Did your parents or any family members have a theatrical background?

No, not at all,but my mother loved the theatre.

What did your parents do?

My mother was a Court Dressmaker in the West End of London.  My father was a tailor and later a night-time taxi driver, so I never really saw much of my father except on his days off.

What were your first steps into the theatrical world?

 When I was evacuated and the Salvation Army were putting on a production of Aida, and I walked on carrying a palm leaf.I joined an amateur dramatic group called the Angel Players when I was about 12 or 13 and did bits and pieces with them. At first it frightened the life out of me but I loved it. It was the smell of the grease paint, the scenery and everything that went on backstage. Remember, the War was on and I had won a scholarship to go to a grammar school, but there were no grammar schools in London. They were all evacuated to the country. There were only four emergency secondary schools in London,one in each corner,east, west, north and south. I went to Parmiters Emergency Secondary School, which was at Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, East London, as it was the closest to home. Forget about the schooling that I had,it was the time of the major bombing and of the Buzz Bombs and we would only go to school in the mornings, and then we spent most of the time sitting under our desks as it was just useless to keep on going to the shelters. So real schooling I did not have. In the afternoons I would get a bus and take myself off to the West End of London and go to all the theatre matinees or else the cinema. I was very lucky and saw all the great actors in spectacular roles and plays. That I remember, what happened yesterday I forget! School books just did not interest me. It was the theatre. Yes!

Where were the Angel Players based?

Itwas in a school off the Pentenville Road which is between the Angel Islington and Kings Cross.I have no idea what the name of the school was.

Did you have any heroes or role models in the theatre?

Not really. When it came to magic, now that was another thing, but much later in my lifeAlthough when I was 13 my father took me to see Lyle’s Cavalcade of Mystery at, I think it was at the Aldwych Theatre in the Strand. That was something that stayed with me all my life. Cecil Lyle did the most amazing illusions. There was one called “Find the Lady” which I always remember and a levitation which when I became an illusionist, my Robert Harbin version was far better.

Where did you start your professional training?

With Marion Ross, she was my agent and she also had a drama school in London.The school was advertised in the Stage and I went along and auditioned for her and she took me on as a pupil.  She also ran a theatrical agency and I was automatically put on her books

When did you become a full-time professional actor?

When I was 17. My first role was in Barnstaple Rep. in Devon. I played Octavious in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.It was only a short engagement, for about 3 months. From there I worked in various reps for about a year before going into Tobacco Road at the Playhouse Theatre, where I understudied and then played the role of Dude. From the West End I then toured in the same production for about 6 months. I went to France to make two films, Metro Pigalle and Antoine and Antoinette.I then filled in doing odd broadcasts and TVs until I auditioned for Dracula and got the role of Renfield.

Did you have any other jobs while trying to establish yourself in the profession?

Many. My father insisted I learnt a trade as an actor’s life, he thought, was terrible,you are more out of work than in, and he was right. So he sent me to the Morris School of Hairdressing, which was opposite Selfridges in Oxford Street. I was happy because I was in the West End and I could go and see all the shows and also go to my amateur dramatic group three times a week. I also worked at the United Services Supply Company where we sold everything form a handkerchief to a tent. I also worked at the Ideal Homes Exhibition, you name it I did it!

Did you work as a hairdresser after attending the Morris School?

Yes I worked in a shop in Shaftesbury Avenue called Shacks, and hated it. I then got a job in Brewer Street in a basement below a butcher’s, and all I remember about the place was the stains of blood that would seep through from the slaughter house above. I hated that too.

How difficult was it for a young actor to get regular work?

In the theatre regular work doesn’t happen unless you are in a repertory theatre. Unfortunately those reps, which were all around the country, no longer exist.

What happened to them?

They just went out of fashion and TV arrived and people didn’t go out that often. The cost of running those theatres became so astronomical that they just weren’t viable anymore and slowly, one by one, they closed. The Arts Council used to give grants out to various theatres, but that was stopped over a time.

Eric (bottom right) in The Cinema Studio, March, 1951

What was your ambition when you began your career?

Really, I wanted to do films, but that didn’t happen for me. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw and my face didn’t just fit.

What was your experience of trying to break into films in England?

Hard! I was under contract for a short time with the Rank Organisation and was sent to the Charm School that he had. I was there with Diana Dors, Barbara Murray and Anthony Steele. Nothing really came of it. Just doing odd bits in pictures didn’t really further my career

Why did you decide to go to France to get film experience?

It was just the offer that I had from the director Henri Marchal. He saw me playing Dude in Tobacco Road at the Playhouse Theatre in London in 1949. He saw me in a matinée, and came backstage afterwards.

Could you speak French at that time?

No, although I learnt it at school for 4 years, really I hadn’t a clue.

Tell me about the films you made in France.

I played Roland in Metro Pigalle and Antoine in Antoine and Antoinette.

Eric during filming of Metro Pigalle in Paris

 What kind of films were they?

Kitchen sink, made mainly on location, which saved the cost of hiring a studio. They were violent in a way and the type that were in vogue during that period.

What was it like working in the French film industry?

Great, far more easygoing than in England.The main thing that I remember is that I was always cold and very wet from spending most of our time outdoors on location.

How long did you stay in France for?

Almost a year.The Studio that we worked in was a very large warehouse in Pigalle. The other really big studios were on the outskirts of Paris. But these were much grander than ours. I stayed in a very small family hotel off of Place Clichy and when I wasn’t filming I would be out drinking and smoking and doing the usual!

Where you tempted to stay?

I loved France and still do, but I wanted to try to make it back home.

Did your French experience open doors in the British film industry?

Not really. My working in France didn’t mean a thing when I returned. It only meant that I was off the scene for almost a year.

Next came Dracula. Had any of your previous work prepared you for such an offbeat role as Renfield?

Yes, as I said,I played Dude in Tobacco Road, and he was retarded, so I just seemed to fit into these weird parts. Maybe it was because of my large eyes?

Eric and Ruth Dunning in the West End production of Tobacco Road

In terms of your career at that point, was taking on the Dracula tour a good career move?

The role of Renfield was such a great part. It is the second major role in the play, and also whenever they weren’t talking about Count Dracula they were talking about Renfield. What more could one ask for?

Did you do any special preparation for the role?

I’d seen the film, which frightened the life out of me. Then I used to loosen up in the wings before I went on. Like running on the spot and shaking all over.

Had you worked with any of the other cast members previously?

No, but I knew Sheila Wynn who played Lucy Seward from a Coffee Shop that we would go in the afternoons called Taylors in Rupert Street.

Sheila remembered you telling her that you had saved 100 pounds during the tour. That must have been a lot of money in 1951, what were you saving for?

Ray and I had decided that we would open a coffee bar, as espresso coffee was the in thing at the time after just arriving from Italy. It was just a question of when and where.

She also said that you were very serious about your role and could be irritable backstage while waiting for your first entrance. Is that a fair comment?

True. Renfield was a very nervous soul with an hysterical laugh which I really had to work myself up to, to get into the mood. So I didn’t like anyone talking to me just before I made my entrance as it would put me off my concentration. Also I was used to getting a round of applause on every exit that I made and if I didn’t get it I was doing something wrong. The other parts in Dracula are very staid and dreary, they are just feeds for Dracula and Renfield, giving the plot of the play to the audience. So, my getting a round on every exit did not endear me to the rest of the company. Still that was something that I was used to.

Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing in Dracula

Although Bela’s career was practically over in America, he was still viewed as a big Hollywood star in Britain. How did you feel at the prospect of working with him?

I was thrilled, excited and frightened.The man was a star. Whether he was washed up in the States really didn’t matter. He was there in the flesh and blood and I had the best role apart from his in the play. It was a gift, because although the roles of Dracula and Renfield are the smallest in the play, whenever we were not on Stage they are talking about us. The other players may tell you it was a tatty production, and the set was cheap, but with the lighting that they used it became alive in an eerie Victorian House.

Was it intimidating as a young actor to work as closely as you did with someone of Bela’s reputation and experience?

I never thought about that, I was too scared.

Scared of Bela?

Scared, no, in awe maybe?  No, never, Bela was like a big cuddly bear. He was a gentleman in every way.

How did he measure up to your expectations when you met him?

He was exactly the same as he was in films, but not so menacing. He was great and very funny.

It is said that Bela would walk through rehearsals, working for accuracy and not throwing himself into the part until the dress rehearsal, which worried producers and directors who didn’t know his work methods.

I suppose he would just mark his performance at rehearsals, but if he didn’t know the role who should. I cannot understand anyone worrying about him, after all, he was Dracula.

Sheila said that he told her that Dracula was his Macbeth. Did you get that impression?

That is perfectly true. In Hungary, he told me, where he was a big star he was at the equivalent of the Old Vic or National Theatre playing all the major roles. It was only when he went to Broadway to appear in Dracula that he got typecast and nobody saw him in another role. He was wonderful as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein, which was a completely different role. But those parts were few and far between.

Dracula was his play. He was the star. He was the whole reason for the production. How did he behave towards his fellow cast members?

He was generous in all ways.

Six months seems like an awful long time to tour. Was that unusual in those days?

No, some shows would tour for a year or years. Remember, there were so many theatres and there was no television.

How did you keep your motivation and performance fresh as the tour progressed?

It was difficult sometimes. You would get a sort of blockage with a sentence or a line, maybe through lack of real concentration. Also, Bela was inclined to add or change the odd line. So you had to be on your toes.

His interpretation of Dracula wasn’t fixed?

Sometimes he would change slightly, but not a lot. It was always basically in the same format

Both yourself and Bela received excellent reviews, even if the play itself or other cast members were criticised. Did you build a special relationship?

I like to think so. My role was a gift and I used to grab it with both hands.

The nearest the play got to the West End was the second week of rehearsals at the Duke of York’s Theatre. What do you think it would have taken to have got the play into the West End?

Luck! We did play Golders Green and Streatham Hill, both theatres close to the West End. There was always talk about us going to the Comedy Theatre for the Christmas season. It was a toss-up between Dracula and a farce which starred Mishu Auer, a comic film star also from America. The farce won, but I think it only ran for two weeks. But by that time ourDracula production had already finished.

There were some cast changes during the tour. How did they affect the production?

I don’t think it helped, but it didn’t really affect me, when I was on stage I was doing basically a solo performance which did not take in any of the other actors apart from Bela.

What did you do immediately after the tour?

Nothing, I was looking for work.

Bela and Lillian stayed in Britain until December while he made Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Did you see him again before he left?

We had tea together at Fortnum and Masons just before they left for America.They had given me their telephone number when we finished the tour and we arranged to meet for tea before they sailed home. So Fortnum’s it was. I just remember that it was very pleasant and that they were looking forward to seeing Bela Jnr.

Did you stay in touch with him or any of the other cast members?

Only Sheila, who I would see occasionally in Taylors.I was only friendly with Sheila and Joan Winmill during the tour. Really, I had nothing in common with Richard Butler and John Saunders. They would stay in a little clique togetherand Richard Butler would treat John as a taxi service because he was the only one in the cast that had a car. The rest of the cast were old, so they used to do their own thing.

I understand that you spoke to Bela Jnr. and Lillian when you later visited America.

Yes, it was the first time I went to America in 1960. Bela had already died and I rang Bela jnr., who was a lawyer in L.A. and absolutely charming and helpful. I told him who I was and he gave me Lillian’s phone number but when I rang her she could not remember going to England or anything about the tour.

Why do you think Lillian said that? It couldn’t have been easy to forget eight months in Britain?

I think she was suffering from some sort of illness. I seem to recall that Bela Jnr. might have told me that she had been ill. So my phone call could have come at a bad time for her.

What kind of work did you do between Dracula and you and Ray opening your first coffee bar?

You name it I did it. The hundred pounds that I had saved I just kept in the bank and I made up my mind that I would not touch it until we used it for a business of some kind. I sold non-slip floor polish at the Ideal Home Exhibition. From there I decided to work as a hairdresser, although I had forgotten everything that I had learnt.  So I decided that I would start off at the top and work my way down the list of jobs for a junior assistant. The first place I went to was a salon in Davies Street, Mayfair, called Martin & Douglas. This was Lady Docker’s hairdressers and also Princess Margaret’s. The top man there was a French man called Rene who did both Lady Docker and Princess Margaret. He was a tall handsome, charismatic man with a great personality. In fact, he was a young Bela with all the French charm. He had a wicked sense of humour. I was there only two weeks and the assistant to Rene left and I got his job with really not a clue what I was supposed to do. But I coped and fortunately Rene liked me. He found me amusing. His ladies, as they sat there, would touch him up as he would lean over to either set or cut their hair. I used to catch his eye when this occurred and he would give me the odd wink. Who knows maybe he was worth touching up!

What year did you open your first coffee bar?

I think it must have been some time in 1954. Espresso coffee had just arrived in England.

Heaven & Hell, Eric and Ray’s coffee bar, next door to the famous 2 I’s

What prompted you to go into the coffee bar business?

Coffee bars were in vogue and they were full of young people who would sit there for hours at a time. I suppose they were the hip and cool people of the day.  Things then were so much simpler, there wasn’t the pressure and stress that there is today. We didn’t have any live music, we left that to the 2 I’s that was next door. Originally the 2 I’s was called the 3 I’s and it was run by three Iranians. One of them left the business and they renamed it the 2 I’s, and then two Australian wrestlers bought it and the rest is history.

Weren’t there any problems with you opening up next door to another coffee bar?

You must remember that coffee bars were all the rage in the ’50s and it was the more the merrier. So they and we were only too pleased to be next door to one another because people would go from one bar to another, backwards and forwards and that’s the way they spent their evenings.

You named your coffee bar Heaven and Hell.

Ray and I were in Paris together in Pigalle and there was a cabaret of some kind called Heaven and Hell and the name intrigued me.

How did you and Ray meet?

We appeared in a play together called Murderers Child written by Edward Rutherford at the New Lindsey Theatre in Nottinghill Gate and became friends. He was a child star from the age of 13 during the War when he appeared at the Old Vic in Oedipus Rex leading Sir Ralph Richardson onstage as the Blind Muse.

 

A portrait of Ray by Vivian

Did the success of your coffee bar mean that you quit acting at that point?

No, not at all. I worked at the Richmond Theatre, which was very close to East Sheen,and Ray did many TVs and films.I made the TV some time when Ray and I had The Regency Coffee Bar in East Sheen,don’t ask me about the date because I have no idea. The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel was a TV series that ran for about 6 months and I appeared in a couple of the segments of it.The only person I remember in it was the star Marius Goring he played the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Eric in The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel TV series in 1956

Your next venture was to open a nightclub, wasn’t it?

Yes, we opened aclub, which was called the Casino De Paris at 5-7 Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus. W.1.I think it was April 21st, 1958, the same day as Paul Raymond opened his Revue Bar.

You stopped acting at this point, didn’t you?

Yes, at the time we were making too much money.Ray continued filming.

 

Ray (left) with Richard Todd in Yangtse Incident

Were you still running the coffee bars?

Yes, but the manager that we had, slowly ran Heaven and Hell into the ground and we sold it at the same time as the 2 I’s.

What kind of entertainment did the club offer?

It was a striptease theatre.

Why striptease?

Because a new law had come into existence which allowed striptease to be performed in private members clubs. The Windmill Theatre was the only place in London where nude posing was allowed, provided the artist did not move. With this new law, providing it was a members club, artistes were allowed to move naked. We also opened another night club whilst we still had the Casino de Paris. It was called Ricky Renee’s in Covent Garden. We spent a fortune on it, but it was a disaster and we had to close it and lost a great deal of money. But that’s Show Business!

Click on the following link to watch a British Pathe newsreel film shot at Ricky Renee’s on April 20th, 1967

http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=2263)

It was during this time that you got a taste for magic and embarked on the next stage of your career as an illusionist. How did that come about?

I always had it. When I was 13 my father took me to the Aldwych or the Strand Theatre to see the Great Lyle in his Cavalcadeof Mystery, so you see I was into magic at a very early age, but it was only the big illusions that interested me.

Bela Lugosi once told you that you had magician’s eyes. Did you take him seriously at the time?

It was whilst we were on tour. Of course I took him seriously, I used it enough in my publicity.

Didn’t you also receive encouragement from the girls at your club?

I always tried to have a magician in the show at the Casino De Paris and I always produced and choreographed the show, designed the costumes and lighting, and swept the stage. In fact I did everything including the music, which was on click back. So whenever a magician was there I would dress the act with strippers as assistants and include as many illusions as possible. Basically the magicians were only used to doing small magic and that was how I met Robert Harbin, because a magician brought him in to advise him on two of Harbin’s illusions that he was using. So we became friends. I also had the first nude male magician called Malcolm Vadell who would appear nude at the end of his act from the Substitution Trunk. The magic fraternity were in shock ! But that’s Show Business !

When did you begin your career as an illusionist?

I think it was some time in 1977, I’m not quite sure.

Did you give up the club?

Yes,the lease was up, and they were supposed to be rebuilding the area, which later never happened.

How did you pick your new stage name?

I went from A to Z and realised that an illusion act could never be the star turn, or so I thought. Then it would be better if you cannot be at the top of a Bill to be at the bottom. So that’s how I got to a name beginning with Z. I came up with two names, Zarak and Zee. I decided that Zarak was too circus. Zee was much more modern. So, ZEE & Co. The Co. came from a film at the time with Elizabeth Taylor called Zee and Co. I thought the title was very with it and modern, not like Zarack, which was, as I said, a bit circus.

Zee & Co. performing the sword levitation illusion at the Magic Castle at the Cambridge Theatre in London

What was your act like?

Fabulous, if I say it myself. I only performed major illusions. I would open with flaming torches that turned in walking sticks, followed by two large diceboxes that were shown empty and from which I produced, umbrellas, flower bouquets,a chinchilla cat, which promptly vanished and turned into a silk, two enormousflags and a silk that was four metres square, from which, when placed over the dice, my female assistant appeared. She was then hypnotised, ala Bela Lugosi, and laid onto a table by my two boy assistants. She slowly floated up from the table to my fingertips. The table was removed and she floated around the stage as I passed a hoop over her. She floated down into my hands and when I shouted, “Go!” she vanished. Next I got into to a box which was already on stage and showed it empty. I placed a light into the top of the box and did a few hand silhouettes, clapped my handsand the girl reappeared by burstingthrough the paper in the front of the box. I then put her into an empty cage, spun it around, pulled off the silk and, voila, my leopard, Scorpio, was there in her place. That was the fastest change that has ever been done! (See the Zee & Co. Gallery after the interview for photos of Eric’s act.)

Earlier, you mentioned that you became friends with Robert Harbin, the renowned magician.

Robert Harbin was my mentor. He was one of the finest magicians in the world. His mind was exceptional and I was very lucky that we became friends and that I had his guidance and advice to prepare me for the Magic World as one would say. So when I decided to become an illusionist it was he who sat with me for hours as we worked out the finer points of the act. When I told him that I was going to get a leopard for the act, he said that it would “rip my throat open” and fifteen years later that is what happened. It was my fault completely and to go into how it happened would take too long. Suffice to say, he ripped my throat open and I was in hospital in Marbella for a week. He was put down by the vet, and it was all my fault.

Eric’s mentor and friend, the celebrated magician Robert Harbin

Scorpio the Indian leopard was one of the big attractions of your act, wasn’t he?

He was my Baby, I had him from 2-weeks-old. He had been abandoned by his mother and could not be left in the cage with her for fear that she would eat him. He was bottle fed for 3 months on Complan. Then as he grew he had to be weaned onto meat, which was a production in itself. Then he started to grow. As a matter of fact, I kept a diary with his measurements for 6 months, which is somewhere around. He was completely tame. I used to feed him by hand, and how he could tell the difference between my fingers and the chicken bones would amaze me every time I fed him.

I’ve seen a photo of him arriving at a theatre in a Rolls Royce. Was that usual?

No it was a one-off, just a publicity shot at Sandown Pavilion on the Isle of Wight.

Scorpio arriving at the Sandown Pavilion in style

In an interview with the TV Times you said that Scorpio began to speak.

He would make a heavy meow sound that would go into a yawn as though he was trying to shape the words. To me I understood him.

You also used a tiger in your act, didn’t you?

He was rented. I worked with him in Vegas and Reno, but I would not go near him. Far too dangerous!

The magic circle described you as the greatest illusion show in the UK.

They were perfectly right. All the hours of talking and planning with Robert Harbin paid off.

How long did it take to bring your act to that level of perfection?

Within three months of working with Ken Dodd every night, I had it down to perfection. And really, if I say so myself, we went from success to success. When we did the Magician’s Convention in Blackpool we stopped the show. They truly had not seen anything like it for years. It does sound very much as though I’m blowing my own trumpet, but it was true.

You did a “record-breaking” season with Ken Dodd in Scarborough. Was that your big break as an illusionist?

Business wise it was record-breaking and audience wise also. My big break came before that with Ken Dodd when he did his Xmas Laughter Show in Liverpool.

Where else did you perform as an illusionist?

Within 18 months Zee & Co. was appearing at the London Palladium.

After the Palladium you took your act to America. What was that like?

We were in America from the end of 1982 onwards working at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami for about 6 months. We then went on to Las Vegas where I rented Juliet Prowse’s house for about a year. Ray and I loved America until we worked in Reno, which I hated. From the sophistication of Las Vegas to the unsophistication of Reno was like chalk and cheese. The audiences were basically cowboys and they thought I had come from Mars. They would sit in the show room with their cowboy hats on and their feet on the table. It was so different from Miami and Las Vegas and was not my scene at all.

Did you go to America with the act again?

No, never. I had no desire ever to work there again.

You did make a big impact in America. A review in Folie a la Carte said that you were as impressive as David Copperfield and Doug Henning.

I did my best.

Were you able to fulfil the expectations of the critics during your career? Did you continue to develop bigger and bigger illusions like Copperfield?

I didn’t have major corporations backing me. I was the one who had to pay to build all my Illusions, unlike David Copperfield.

Did you take your act to other parts of the world?

Yes. France, Spain and Portugal.

At one point you lived in Spain, didn’t you?

Yes, for ten years. It was after I finished working at the Magic Castle in London that Ray and I decided to move to Spain, mainly because of the climate. We looked around Marbella and finally decided to build a villa close by. Of course, I got carried away and basically built a palace that was enormous and quite beautiful. It took nearly two years to build, during which I was starring in the show at the Scala Melia Castilla in Madrid in a review that was built around Zee & Co. The villa had four master bedrooms – one for Ray’s mother, one for my parents, one for Ray and one for me.  By the time the villa was finished my parents had died, Ray had died, his mother had died, Scorpio had been put down and Suki, my chinchilla cat, was dead, and I was left in a bloody big house alone.

Eventually you moved back to London.

Yes, because I was sick of living in an enormous house all alone. After Ray died I never really properly worked again. It was as though all my amazing luck had gone. The date was October 25th, 1989.

Have you completely retired now?

Yes, I’m forced to………too old

When was your last professional engagement?

In Dubai in 2001 when I did a command performance for the Sultan of Dubai.

Eric (wearing sunglasses) in Dubai for the final show of his career, a command performance for the Sultan

When you look back upon your long career, are you satisfied with it?

 I have to be. I can’t change it. I have been so lucky nearly all my life, but you cannot expect everything to run smoothly all the time. It was just that the shit hit the fan when all my family died.

What was the highlight?

There were many, and also a lot of ups and downs. 

Which gave you greater satisfaction, acting or being an illusionist?

When you are an illusionist you are acting because basically you are a furniture salesman selling boxes and dreams. So you can say I had the best of both worlds.

Do you have any ambitions left?

Yes, to do a lecture tour about Bela Lugosi and Dracula and write a novel…..and stay alive long enough till my money runs out.

What kind of novel do you want to write?

Ah-ha ! ! !  You will have to ask my co-author about that! (Eric and I are currently writing a vampire novel)

*          *          *

If you are interested in hosting Eric’s Bela Lugosi and Dracula lecture, please contact andobi@hotmail.com

Eric now has his own blog, detailing his fantastic adventures in showbiz at:

http://ericlindsay.wordpress.com/

I am indebted to Andrew Jaymes for sharing both his memories of seeing Zee & Co. on stage and his collection of cuttings.

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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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

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Bela Autographed Postcard

  Bela Lugosi in “civvies”

Having been a life-long fan of Bela Lugosi, I was delighted to hear that he would be visiting the Nottingham Theatre Royal in 1951. Two friends and I wrote to him earlier on in his tour, professed our undying devotion and admiration, begged him to provide a photograph and asked whether we might meet him during his Nottingham appearance. To our surprised delight, he replied, enclosing two photographs, signed in “blood”, naturally. One as Dracula and the other in civvies, wearing a black homburg hat, broad herring-bone overcoat and a scarf. Very sophisticated. I was initially disappointed when my friends claimed the ‘Dracula’ photo, but subsequently realised that my own photo was far more unusual. Included with the photos was a brief note indicating that he would be willing to meet us at the Theatre Royal.

In due course, we presented ourselves at the stage door, only to be told that Bela Lugosi had not arrived. The Theatre Royal stage entrance in those long-ago days was at the end of a long, rather steep alley, which was also the approach to the back stage area of the Empire Variety Theatre, now, sadly, long gone. It was a slightly chilly evening and there was a swirl of low-lying mist along the ground, which was not unusual in Nottingham in those days. Suddenly, from around the corner, emerged Bela Lugosi. I realise that I was an impressionable 18-year old at the time, but everything conspired to make his appearance truly electrifying. He was dressed entirely in black, his suit covered by a Victorian style cloak and the whole ensemble completed by a very broad brimmed hat. His clothes at this meeting were identical to those worn in his 1947 film “Scared To Death.” The mist swirled around his feet as he slowly made his way up the alley, leaning heavily upon an ebony cane. From that distance he was an impressive figure and as he came nearer we realised that he was much taller than we had realised – well over six feet. To add further to his rather unearthly appearance, his skin had the texture and colour of old parchment, due, no doubt, to the morphine which he had become addicted whilst using it medically to ease the pain in his afflicted leg. This gave him a pronounced limp and this, along with a stoop of the shoulders and the very lined face, made us realise far from a fearsome apparition he was, in fact, a sick and aging man.

Nottingham poster

We stopped him as he approached us and introduced ourselves, tolittle effect, as he had obviously forgotten his note. This was produced to him, along with the photos, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled as he gave that peculiarly sinister smile of his. “We have waited a long while for the chance to meet you and now you are here,” I said rather lamely. This was the cue for the next shock of disillusionment – he was almost stone deaf! He cupped his hand to his ear. “What? What? You have travelled a long way over land and ocean to see me and now you are here,” he misinterpreted magnificently. “I know you are here, I can see you. From where have you travelled?” After much laborious explaining we finally got the message across. “So,” he said, “you see me! Now talk.”

By now, we had reached a high state of teenage angst, not knowing how to deal with the deafness of our hero nor with his totally overwhelming presence. We stammered out a few questions: “Was he travelling alone?” No, he was accompanied by his nurse (Actually his wife) who looked after him on a general basis and treated his legs. “Did he have any regrets or unfulfilled ambitions?” Yes. All his life he had wanted to make people laugh, but always the studio heads refused, saying that his image was one of a horror actor and the public would not accept him in any deviation from that role. This, he said, caused him great sadness as he knew that there was a good comedy actor within him but no one would give him the chance to prove this. “Now,” he sighed, “it is too late. I am too old to bring laughter.” We reminded him that he had made several comedy films, appearing with alongside the likes of the Bowery Boys, the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. At the mention of these movies, Lugosi smiled. “Yes,” he said, “many of these were very funny, but it was not me that brought the laughter. It was the talents of my co-stars. I still played the heavy or the monster. What I have always wanted was to be the source of the comedy, the comedian himself. I wanted to make the audience laugh.”

Nottingham Advertiser, August 25, 1951

We asked Lugosi to confirm the correct pronunciation of his fore-name. We had (and still do) heard it variously pronounced as “Bella”,Beela” and “Bayla.” Which was correct? “None of these are correct!” he stated, rather surprisingly. With a mysterious smile, he extended his forefinger and wagged it a couple of times, then said, “The correct pronunciation of my name is…” a theatrical pause to increase the tension, “…Baylor.” We all dutifully repeated his name in the correct manner to which he grinned and said, “Yes, that is correct, Baylor is how it is pronounced in Hungary.” Then he spun round, and disappeared through the stage door with a backward wave, to prepare for that evening’s performance.

After this meeting we attended that evening’s performance of Dracula at the theatre Royal. Regrettably, I have lost the programme over the years and have also lost contact with my two friends from those long-gone days, but the memory of that evening is still pretty fresh in my mind. There was a reasonably full house and the atmosphere was high on anticipation but low on reverence. The audience was obviously intending to have a  high old time – a little similar to the average “Rocky Horror Picture Show” attendance.

Nottingham Theatre Royal Programme

 

 The curtain went up to reveal a stark setting with a closed coffin centre-stage. Guffaws of laughter from an audience now in full festive mood. Suddenly, a bat flitted across the stage, along the tracks of very visible wire. Hoots of derision from the very naughty audience. I remember my heart sinking fast. This was not the tense, horrific evening to which I had for so long been looking forward. Suddenly, a creaking noise and the coffin lid slowly began to raise, inch by inch. A hand with a large ring upon the index finger wriggled out of the coffin and raised the lid further, finally pushing the lid completely back. The laughter of the audience mounted as, slowly, Lugosi sat up within the coffin before levering himself out of it. If he craved the laughter of the audience, he was certainly getting it. Having stepped out of the coffin, he then walked in a menacing way towards the audience. The St John’s Ambulance Brigade, in attendance, were now busily repairing the split sides of the audience.

Then a very strange thing happened. He reached the edge of the stage and stood there, his hands holding the cloak around him, eyes glaring balefully at the audience. One of his hands suddenly shot forward, bringing the edge of his cloak with it. A gnarled finger pointed towards the audience. His mouth opened wide, his lips curled back, and he emitted a hissing snarl. As though a switch had been thrown, the laughter of the audience ceased, abruptly. He maintained this pose for several seconds and then made his exit in a stately manner to the side of the stage. The stage remained empty for a few seconds and not a sound was to be heard from the audience as the curtain slowly closed prior to the commencement of the play proper. It was a wonderful example of commanding personality against tittering idiocy. The rest of the play proceeded to the respectful attention of the audience, apart from when the ubiquitous bat, making one of its several “horrific” appearances, suddenly stuck halfway through its flight. It  struggled frantically to free itself for two or three minutes before eventually flitting off stage, never to be seen again. This was obviously more than mortal flesh could stand and the audience erupted with gleeful mirth. That apart, the play proceeded in reasonable manner, the actors doing the best they could with the rather wooded dialogue.

Nottingham Theatre Royal Programme

The end of the play brought reasonably warm applause which increased considerably when Bela Lugosi took his bow. The problem was, of course, that even in 1951 it was becoming rather “old hat”, with little real action and no gore whatsoever. Despite its subject matter, the play was ceasing its grip and thrill. One only has to look at the subsequent Hammer Films treatments of these old horror legends, together with subsequent stage versions, to understand how far the rather static traditional treatment was falling short of the changing taste of the audience.

Bat Head 2

Related pages and articles

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

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