Actor and Illusionist Eric Lidsay Dies at 91

Eric Lindsay

1929-2021

The actor and illusionist Eric Lindsay peacefully passed away at midday on Friday, June 18 at the Royal Free Hospital in London after a short illness. He was 91. Eric had the distinction of being the last actor to play Renfield opposite Bela Lugosi when they toured the UK in a revival tour of Dracula from from April 30 – October 13, 1951.

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. Making his first tentative steps onto the stage in a Salvation Army production of Aida while still a schoolboy, Eric went onto enjoy a long and varied career in the entertainment industry.

At the height of the Blitz during the Second World War, Eric Joined the Angel Players at the age of 12 before being accepted at the Marion Ross Drama School. He made his professional debut at the age of 17 as Octavious in The Barretts of Wimpole Street with the Barnstable Repertory Company in Devon. In 1949, he got his first big break when he played opposite Ruth Dunning as Dude in the West End production of Tobacco Road. During the play’s run at the Playhouse Theatre, Eric caught the eye of French director Henri Marchal, who invited him to France, where he appeared in the kitchen sink drama Metro Pigalle. On his return to England, Eric found that far from enhancing his reputation, his year in France merely meant that he had lost ground through his absence from the English stage.

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

In 1951, he won the role of Renfield in Dracula. With the prospect of a West End run with a Hollywood star, it seemed the ideal vehicle to get his career back on track. When I interviewed in 1997, he described the part as “the best role apart from his (Lugosi’s) 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.” Throughout the tour, Eric’s performance drew an enthusiastic response from audiences and praise from critics across the country. Of Bela Lugosi, he said, “The man was a star. He was a gentleman in every way. He was great and very funny. He was generous in all ways.”

Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing in Dracula

Through a combination of bad luck and under financing, the production never made it to the West End. It toured the provinces for six months waiting for an opening in a West End theatre, but the rigours of life on the road and twice-daily performances took a heavy toll upon the 68-year-old Bela Lugosi. Exhausted, he told producer John C. Mather, “John, I can’t go on, it’s taking too much out of me. Please finish it quickly.” With his irreplaceable star unable to continue, Mather brought the tour to an end. After a few weeks recuperation, Lugosi filmed the horror spoof Mother Riley Meets the Vampire before returning to America. As for Eric, it was back to the typical life of a jobbing actor. Periods of work were punctuated by non-theatrical jobs to make ends meet while trying to secure a new role. While “resting”, Eric filled in as a salesman for non-slip floor polish at the Ideal Home Exhibition and a ladies hairdresser. His dream had been to break into films, but with little prospect of making progress, he decided to use the money he had earned from Dracula on a new venture.

With his partner, the theatre and film actor Ray Jackson, Eric decided to invest in on the 1950s coffee bar boom. The couple opened the Heaven and Hell coffee bar next door to the famous 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street in the Soho area of London. The 2I’s featured live music in the basement and was a training ground for future successful British skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. Heaven and Hell had a Heaven theme on the ground floor and a Hell theme in the basement. Despite the success of Heaven and Hell and a second coffee bar called The Regency Coffee Bar, Eric continued acting on stage and television. In 1956, he played Antoine in the Antoine and Antoinette episode of The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a television series starring Marius Goring in the title role.

Eric in The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel

In 1958, Eric and Ray took advantage of a new law which allowed striptease to be performed in private members clubs. They opened the Casino de Paris at 5-7 Denman Street, Piccadilly Circus. W.1, one of London’s first strip clubs. The club was a sensational success, prompting Eric to retire from acting to devote himself full-time to the club’s management. When the lease on the building which housed the club expired in 1977, Eric decided that it was time to embark upon the next stage next stage in his colourful career.

During the Dracula tour, Bela Lugosi had told Eric that he had “the eyes of a magician.” Lugosi’s words proved to be prophetic. The shows at the Casino De Paris had often featured magicians, including the first nude male magician, Malcolm Vadell. It was at this time that Eric met the celebrated magician Robert Harbin. Under his guidance, Eric bid farewell to the Casino de Paris and began a career as an illusionist. Under the name of Zee and Co., Eric enjoyed great success in the UK, both on the stage and TV, and in Las Vegas. Eric’s act featured Scorpio, a leopard which he and Ray had raised from a two-week-old cub after it was abandoned by its mother. The magic circle described Zee and Co. as the greatest illusion show in the UK. After appearing at the London Palladium, Eric took the act to America in 1982. He performed at the Sheraton Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami for 6 months, Las Vegas, where he rented Juliet Prowse’s house for a year, and the Reno Hilton as Entertainer of the Month.  The Miami Sun-Tattler reported that he was “as impressive as his American, David Copperfield and Doug Henning.” After America, he toured Europe.

Eric as Zee

While starring in review built around Zee and Co. at the Scala Melia Castilla in Madrid, Eric and Ray decided to move permanently to Spain and build their own villa in Marbella for themselves and their parents. By the time that the lengthy construction was finished, a series of tragedies had change the course of Eric’s life. Both his and Ray’s parents died and on October 25th, 1989, Ray himself died prematurely at the age of 58. While living alone, depressed and drinking heavily, in the large empty villa, one final tragedy unfolded. On October 18th,1991, Scorpio the leopard attacked Eric, seriously damaging his neck and had to be put down. Eric blamed himself. He could no longer live with his memories in Spain and moved back to London, where I met him in 1997 to interview him for Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain. As for his career as an illusionist, Eric said, “After Ray died I never really properly worked again. It was as though all my amazing luck had gone.”

Eric eventually retired to Thailand. During this time he began a popular blog, which recounted the many adventures of his colourful life and indulged in his love of travel. He occasionally emerged from retirement to perform again as Zee and Co. His last public engagement was in a command performance for the Sultan of Dubai in 2001.

I last met Eric when he dropped into Tokyo and spent a few days with my family in 2011. Three years ago, he returned to the UK and spent his contented final years living at the historic Charterhouse in London. Although a very sprightly and active nonagenarian, his penchant for travel was checked by the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in him spending most of his last year in reflection and corresponding with his many friends around the globe.

It would take the average person several lifetimes to pack in the adventures and achievements which Eric chalked up during the course of his remarkable life. But despite all of that, Eric’s greatest achievement was to simply be a wonderful human being. He enriched the lives of so many people, mine included, earning in return their fierce, undying loyalty. He will be truly missed by all who were lucky enough to have known him. (Andi Brooks)

Related articles

From A To Zee: Eric Lindsay, Bela Lugosi’s Last Renfield, Interviewed by Andi Brooks

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Raph WilsonRalph Wilson

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

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

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

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

Such generosity from a star particularly impressed Joyce. 

*

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain 2nd Edition

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

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

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

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Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Related Pages

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

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

When Dracula Invaded England

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

VOL Jacket

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

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

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

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

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

Vampire Over London 2nd Edition

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

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

Bat Head 3 Reviews for the first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Related Pages

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

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

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

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

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

An Encounter With Bela Lugosi by Roy Tomlinson

When Bela Lugosi Came To Britain

When Dracula Invaded England

Vampire Bats And Devil Girls From Mars: John Chartres Mather, Producer of BelaLugosi’s British Tour of Dracula, Interviewed By Frank J. Dello Stritto.

John Chartres MatherJohn Chartres Mather (Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

John Chartres Mather had been in theatre since age 12.  Taking his lead from Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, the young man staged local revues in his native Edinburgh.  After a year as stagehand in Dundee repertory, he took on London.  Through the war years, he launched musical revues to entertain British troops.  John also did tenures as stage director on the road and on the West End.  By the late 1940s, still in his mid-20s, John was producing his own musical revues. John’s tastes in productions tended towards extravaganzas, and he always over-reached a bit, “flying before I could walk” as he described it.  Musicals were expensive undertakings; they lost big when they failed and earned big when they succeeded.  Fine Feathers temporarily made him rich.  His labor of love, Out of This World, folded in previews, a devastating setback financially and personally.  Musicals were John’s first love, but the expense and recent track records of the big productions he favored made them difficult to finance. John needed to get into something new.  With his partners George Routledge and Gordon White, he formed Chartres Productions in early 1951 and produced Bela Lugosi’s British tour of Dracula.

Poster mock-up 2John’s mock-up of a poster for the tour

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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Frank J. Dello Stritto interviewed John Mather at his home in south England on August 8, 1999:

Frank Dello Stritto: How did you decide to produce Dracula?

John C. Mather:  I was having drinks with a few friends in London. Charles Feldman, head of Famous Artists, was there. There were three big talent agencies at the time—William Morris, MCA and Famous Artists.  Charlie had heard that Bela Lugosi’s agent in the US was trying to interest someone in Dracula.  By coincidence, Gordon White had mentioned it to me also a few weeks or months before. So, that was when I first thought about it seriously.

FDS: How did that work—putting together a production?

JCM: First, I had to make sure I could book it.  I took the idea to the theatre agents.  The West End theatres wouldn’t even talk to me until it had toured. There were three big theatre circuits for the tours—the Stoll Circuit, Moss-Empire, Howard & Wyndham.  They each had about 10 or so “Number 1” theatres around the country.  Then there were “Number 2” and “Number 3” theatres in the smaller towns.  You could make money even at the number 3s, since there wasn’t much else to do in those places.  Deals with theatres ranged from 50/50 to 60/40 splits, depending on a lot of things: production, stars, publicity budget.  Booking agents wanted to see my budget for publicity posters in detail: 300 double posters, 150 four-crowns, 6,000 throwaways, placards, etc. The plan was always to get into the West End.  Early in the tour, I had a verbal agreement with the Garrick theatre: the production then playing there was expected to drop below its box office threshold soon. After 3 weeks below the limit, the theatre could give it a two week notice.  Then “Dracula” could come in.  Tour for 6 to 8 weeks and then into the Garrick Theatre—that was the plan.  I had dates lined up for the tour, and would have cancelled them if the call came from the West End.  It never did.  I never intended to tour for 24 weeks.

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Poster mock-up 1John’s mock-up of a poster for the tour

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

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FDS: Why were you interested in Dracula?

JCM: In 1951, Americans-in-the-flesh were in vogue.  Danny Kaye had been coming over regularly, and there was a demand for more. I think that’s when Judy Garland started coming over as well.  Just prior to Dracula, George Routledge did “fronting up” for a Jane Russell revue.  And I knew I could pull Dracula together pretty quickly.

FDS: Fronting up?

JCM: Fronting up—supplying the supporting acts that come on before the star attraction.

FDS: What was your budget like?

JCM: I invested about £2,000. Bill Williams about £1,000, and £2,000 each from other backers.  I don’t remember who they were. I think one of the backers was named “Burton,” in real estate or something like that.  He was dating a “Renee” who was in some of my musical reviews.  I just doesn’t remember their full names.  So, about £7,000.  For that I could get the show started and keep it on the road for as long as I had to.

FDS: What about Routledge & White?

JCM: They were my partners in Chartres Productions, but they never had much to do with Dracula.  George Routledge liked the idea, as I recall, but he wasn’t interested in investing in it or working on it.  Gordon White thought it was a terrible idea—didn’t think it would succeed at all. He thought we were crazy, but he handled the negotiations to contract Bela.

*

Rough for advance publicityJohn’s rough idea for advance publicity for Dracula

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

*

FDS: All the programs for Dracula mention Routledge & White very prominently.

JCM: Well, they were my partners, and we used the same office, so I put their names on the programs.  But they really didn’t have much to do with it. Gordon White quit the business and worked with Jimmy Hanson when he set up the Hanson Trust.  Gordon died a few years ago in California, a very wealthy man.  George Routledge had some legal and money problems and left the business a few years after Dracula. He lives in Denmark now.

FDS: Was Lee Ephraim a backer?

JCM: No, he wasn’t.  I knew Lee well, and his partner Betty Farmar.  I had worked for Lee on Waltz Time and Lee had been a backer on Out Of This World.

FDS: How about Nigel Ballantine?

JCM: Oh, no!  Nigel was in jail by then!

FDS: In jail?

JCM: He ran off with the leading lady and all the money from one of his productions, and got caught.

FDS: What was your impression of Bela?

JCM: I met Bela and Lillian when they landed in Southampton.  Bela looked as if he were going to die.  He always looked that way. Bela was very charming, very humble, not conceited in the least.  For the first 2 or 3 days of rehearsals, he only walked through his part.  I was wondering about cancelling 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.

*Bela & Lillian Arrive in EnglandLillian and Bela Lugosi arrive in England aboard the S.S. Mauretania

*

FDS: Tell me about your first meeting with Bela.

JCM: I think Dickie and me both went to Southampton to meet Bela and Lillian.  I put them into a hired limousine and hurried ahead to London. I had the flat stocked with goodies, and a bottle of champagne waiting.  I had made a reservation at Carlton Towers, a table by the window for 6:00. Lillian said “No, Bela’s tired and he’s going straight to bed.”  We dined there later, several times, and it became a favorite of theirs.

FDS: I have been warned that you and Lillian didn’t always see eye to eye.

JCM: Oh, she was awful! Awful!  She loathed me.  It was mutual loathing from the first day.

FDS: Well, I must say that everyone else on the tour speaks well of her.

JCM: Really?  Well, she was an extraordinary woman, but a pain-in-the-ass. She took notes through the rehearsals, and interfered.  I had it out with her once.  After that, she sat in the back of the stalls; but still kept those notes. Lillian looked tough and was a strong woman, physically.  At dress rehearsal, a hamper was in the way.  Lillian lifted it and set it on the table.  I went and looked inside—it was filled with books and files.  I was curious and nudged it to check its weight, and wondered if I could have lifted it.  Lillian seemed desperately unhappy.  I think she had a terrible inferiority complex.  She had a strident voice, heavy Chicago accent.  Nothing ever pleased her—in restaurants and the theatre, anywhere. She browbeat Bela, who just seemed to tune her out and accept it.  She was bitter about how Bela was treated—Hollywood had once been at his feet, studios phoning constantly, but now they shunned him.

FDS: Again, the company members we’ve talked to have quite different memories of her.  If anything, they think Bela controlled her life.

JCM: I think Lillian bullied Bela, a bit—treated him like a child.  At dinner she did  everything but cut his meat.  She sent food back in restaurants.  I think Bela was used to this, since he just munched away.  She was always at the side of the stage—every night.  Something was always wrong that she’d complain about.

(Authors’ Note: In follow-up interviews, I pressed Dickie Eastham on John Mather’s memories of Lillian.  Dickie stands by his much more favorable memories of Lillian, but strongly confirms that John and Lillian simply never got along. “It was chemical,” Dickie told mes, “it started as soon as they met.”  Lillian undoubtedly could be fiercely protective of Bela.  John, as the producer of a tour that was not quite what she and Bela expected, saw a side of that affection that few others did.)

*

Bela Lugosi in the British Tour of DraculaBela Lugosi in John’s production of Dracula

(Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

*

FDS: I have to ask you something directly.  There has always been a persistent claim that Bela was never paid for the Dracula tour.

JCM: Oh, he was definitely paid. Everyone, every actor in every show I ever produced was paid.  I treated Bela and Lillian well.  I didn’t want them saying anything negative like that about me.  I couldn’t survive long in this business with people saying I didn’t pay them.

FDS: Any special memories of Bela?

JCM: Bela was always marvelous, once you got to know him. At our first meeting in Southampton, I thought he looked so feeble and I really feared for the production, but he never let us down. I dined out with them often, especially during rehearsals in April.  I always watched Bela’s intake of alcohol.  I did that with all the stars of my shows.  He never drank that much in front of me.  Lillian saw that he didn’t.  Before dinner, I would go to their flat on Chesham Road to pick them up.  Once, while Lillian got ready, Bela sat me down on the sofa, and brought out a huge scrapbook of old clippings.  They were from his days in Hungary.  They were all in Hungarian of course, and I couldn’t read anything but Bela’s name in the headline.  They were obvious rave reviews.  Bela went through them one by one.  It was very important to him, I think, for me to know about his days before Dracula.

FDS: Do you have any memories of the rehearsals.

JCM: The rehearsals started in bare rooms above the pub on Pont Street.  For the second week, we moved to the Duke of York Theatre.  It had a one-set play on at the time.  So, we could rehearse during the day, and put the set back in place before the performance.  It was a courtesy that theatres extended to productions in rehearsal. I was at some rehearsals, but only to observe.  Dickie and I would meet afterwards to discuss how it was going.  If there was any problem, I would talk to Bela about it over dinner.  But things went smoothly enough.

FDS: How about the dress rehearsal?

JCM: That’s a different story.  Things didn’t go well.  The effects did not work.  The smoke took seven seconds to get through the pipes.  Too much smoke and the house was filled.  Too little and it had no effect.  Bela had to disappear in the smoke—no smoke and he was left standing there. It took forever to work out. Lighting effects were a bit difficult—but nothing compared to the musicals I had produced.  Those were really complex.  So, I thought Dracula would go pretty smoothly.  But it didn’t.  Strand Electric—that’s where I got the equipment from—was supposed to send a man down to Brighton for the week, but never did.  I was very annoyed.  We kept the cast until two in the morning, working through the lighting effects.  We let the cast go to get some rest.  The rest of the company stayed until eight in the morning.  Dickie and I went to breakfast and commiserated.  But we got them straight, and the opening went well.  The reviews were fine.

*

Brighton Programme CoverDracula opened at the Theatre Royal in Brighton on April 30th, 1951

(Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

*

FDS: You had your own lighting equipment?  Wouldn’t the theatre have that?

JCM: Yes, we had our own.  We had to. On tour, you never know what the theatres have.  So, we had to able to do it ourselves.

FDS: How did the tour do?

JCM: Dracula had too high a weekly expense to make money on the road.  I had to get it into the West End, and didn’t.  So, I lost money.  Not a lot. Some weeks, it made money, some weeks it didn’t.  Dracula was not cheap to produce.  There was Bela’s salary.  There were nurses at every performance; so St. John’s Ambulance had to be paid a contribution.  There were 3 or 4 musicians every week to play at the intermissions.  We had long intermissions, and had to fill them with something.

FDS: How was the company to deal with?

JCM: It was a nice company—not much trouble, not many complaints.  Whenever the tour was near London, I would catch the show to check on things.  I’d circulate around the dressing rooms talking to everyone I could.  It was a good cast.  Most of the problems mentioned to me, I referred to Alfred Beale, so as not to usurp his authority.

FDS: So, Beale was in charge on the road?

JCM: Yes, he would call me every night to report on the box office and the performance.  He was a good man and a good business director. He had a good heart.  He’d be tough with the company when he had to be, but then he’d apologize and undo whatever good he had done.  But he was a good manager and I was glad to have him.

*

Brighton - Bela, Arthur Hosking, Richard Butler and David DawsonBela Lugosi, Arthur Hosking, Richard Butler and David Dawson in John’s production of Dracula (Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

*

FDS: The programs list a Douglas Bodkin as publicity manager.  We’ve been looking for him.  Do you have any memories of him?

JCM: Not really. He was the advance publicity man. He did all his work Mondays and Tuesdays—lining up the publicity, arranging for a few things.  But I didn’t know him well then, and I’ve heard nothing about him since.

FDS: The programs also list a W. H. Williams as your co-producer.  What about him?

JCM: Bill Williams was the head of Merton Park Studios.  He was more of a backer than a producer, but I felt I owed him something, so I billed him as co-producer.  Bill invested in Dracula and has also put money into Out of This World.  He supplied the smoke machine and the bat that you’ve heard so much about.  Honestly, I hadn’t heard any of the stories about them breaking down until I spoke to you.  By the way, I do remember that my sister, Rosemary, attended a theatre garden party with Bela.  For some reason, Lillian couldn’t go, so my sister went with him.

FDS: Theatre garden party?

JCM: There were theatre garden parties and movie garden parties.  They would be held on  large outdoor lawns.  Shepperton Studios lot was a typical place. People would go and meet actors and actresses. Stars would sit at tables and sign autographs.  Sometimes they would be driven to different sites through the day.  For producers, they were a bit of a nuisance, but a good place to show off actors.  Rank studios always paraded out its starlets.  I remember I saw Honor Blackman and Joan Collins at these parties.  You can speak to my sister about her day with Bela.

*

Bela Lugosi at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party.Seeing StarsBela Lugosi at the Sunday Pictorial Film Garden Party at Morden Hall Park in Surrey. (From the British Pathe newsreel Seeing Stars)

*

FDS: How close did you come to getting Dracula into the West End?

JCM: Very close.  The Garrick wanted us after its current play closed, but that play—I forget what it was—hung on and on. I also had discussions with the Duke of York and The Ambassador, and they were very interested. If we could have kept the tour going, I would have gotten it into one of them.

FDS: Why did the tour end?

JCM: Touring is hard work, and I never planned that we would tour for six months.  Late in the tour, I received a call from Alfred Beale, “I’m a bit worried about Bela,” he said, “He came on in Act III, and started with Act I dialogue.”  I went and met with Bela, and realized how tired he was.  You see, he always looked so tired offstage but was always so good on stage.  I had just learned to ignore it, but he was really exhausted. We were discussing some details in his dressing room when Lillian came in.  “It’s late,” she said.  She took out some sort of kit, and gave Bela an injection.  “You know, he’s diabetic.”  I knew that wasn’t true.  I had heard about some kind of injections, but didn’t think much about it, since Bela was always so good onstage.

*

Dracula newspaper advertisement for the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth.The end of the road for Dracula in Britain, the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth (Courtesy of Andi Brooks)

*

FDS: Is that when you decided to end the tour?

JCM: No, but I didn’t quite know what to do.  I still kept looking for bookings for the tour, and had lined up a few dates near Newcastle & Liverpool, but Lillian said, “Oh, don’t put us up there again.” She wanted to keep the travelling to a minimum.  Two or three weeks later I visited Bela backstage in Derby.  Lillian wasn’t there.  I told Bela that we had to play those dates or not play at all.  He looked at me a long time.  “John, I can’t go on,” he said, “It’s taking too much out of me.  Please finish it quickly.”  I put up the closing notices that week.

FDS: But you played Portsmouth two weeks later.

JCM: Yes, I had already signed for that week, and I had to give the company two weeks notice.  Those were the rules.  Portsmouth was a bad week at the box office.

FDS: When was the last time you saw Bela?

JCM: I visited them after the tour ended, before he started filming the movie he made.  He still looked very tired.  I had no second thoughts.  He sat in a chair and we just talked.  He said he was glad the tour was over, but that he had enjoyed it.  He told me some anecdotes from the tour, and we said goodbye. As I was leaving Lillian gave me a hug and thanked me.  I was surprised that she did that.  It was a side of her that I had never seen.

*

Iris Russell and SonnyTufts in Shadow of a ManIris Russell and Sonny Tufts in Shadow of a Man (1952)

(Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

*

*John Mather lost some money on the Dracula tour, but a year later he tried the same formula with a tour of the mystery, Shadow of a Man, starring Sonny Tufts.  The tour did fine until Tufts, battling a drinking problem, came onstage between acts, told the audience who-done-it, and then launched into his own stage act using a piano that was part of the set.  The audience loved the surprise, the theatre management did not. Any performance on a British stage had to be approved by the censors beforehand, and such improvisation exposed to the theatre to legal action, especially if Tufts’ act contained any adult humor.  Word spread quickly throughout the theatre chains, and the tour soon ended.

*

Devil Girl From MarsPatricia Laffan as the Devil Girl From Mars (1954)

*

In London John worked for the Danziger brothers, producing 26 episodes of Mayfair Mysteries for Paramount. In the early days of television, many American shows were made in Britain due to the lower costs.  John had 40 days to produce the entire series. Character actor Paul Douglas flew in for a single day from Los Angeles, filmed all 26 introductions and epilogues, and flew back without staying the night.  Incredibly, filming completed almost two weeks early.  The Danizigers thus had 10 days of paid studio space to use; launching John on his most enduring and infamous achievement.  Devil Girl From Mars was written in a few days, as John telephoned around London for available actors and had the sets prepared.  AtomAge, British suppliers of latex, the latest wonder material, cut him a good deal on the Devil Girl’s costume.  Pat Laffan, in the title role, liked the feel of it and loved how it looked.  John took screenwriting credit for Devil Girl From Mars, but in the chaos of low budget, tight schedule filmmaking, everyone did everything.  A wonderfully awful movie of the type that only the 1950s could sire resulted. Like many early science fiction epics, Devil Girl From Mars’ clumsiness and naiveté gives it a charm that delights its fans and mortifies its detractors.

*

Anthony Newley, John Chartres Mather and Roger Moore, October 1968John with Anthony Newley (left) and Roger Moore (right) in October 1968 (Courtesy of Frank J. Dello Stritto)

*

In 1954, John established a talent agency in Rome, where American movie companies were doing lots of filming due to the low production costs. He ran John C. Mather International, Ltd. for many years, before selling out to the William Morris Agency.  He then ran the London office of the Morris agency.  In 1973, he returned to theatre production.  His extravagant stage version of  The Avengers featured terrific special effects, with a helicopter crashing onstage in the finale. Audiences loved it, but it closed in London after seven weeks—too expensive to turn a profit.  Following his retirement from show business, John took up writing, and has published several novels to date.  His as-yet unpublished autobiography, Hollywood on the Tiber, focuses on his days as a talent agent in Italy.

Bat Head 2

Related Pages

1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

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

Gráf Tisza Istvan

The Gróf Tisza Istvan

Bela Lugosi first arrived in the United States on December 4, 1920, aboard the steamship Gróf Tisza Istvan (“Count Steven Tisza”). The ship sailed from Montefalcone, Italy. Lugosi, then 38 and listed in the ship’s manifest as “apprentice,” worked in the crew. Upon disembarking in New Orleans, he went to New York City. No later than March 1921, he was living at 109 West 93rd Street in Manhattan.

The manifest of the Gróf Tisza Istvan for the voyage is preserved in the U. S. National Archives. Also in the archives is Lugosi’s declaration of March 23, 1921 on Ellis Island in New York City. These terse documents, with shipping news published in New Orleans newspapers, are the hard evidence of Lugosi’s coming to America.

Lugosi rarely reminisced about his time on the Gróf Tisza Istvan. One brief comment occasionally appears in publicity releases for his 1930s and 1940s films:

“It was in December, in 1920 that I left Europe on a cargo-boat. The weather was appalling. In a very heavy sea and storm the cargo of the boat was in a slanting position, which resulted in a delay in our scheduled arrival to New Orleans before Christmas. You can imagine spending, unprepared, a Christmas Eve on a slanting, floating cargo boat. I locked myself in my cabin, and the rest is too personal to me to be given to the public.”

Lugosi embellishes the account, but not much. He left Europe in late October, not December, and spent Christmas Eve safely onshore, perhaps in New York. His ranking in the crew probably did not merit having his own cabin. For most of his life, he did have a touchy stomach; and the Gráf Tisza Istvan indeed was weeks late on a routine voyage. The weather, as Lugosi recalled, is the most likely reason.

In a 1941 interview for Modern Screen, Lugosi elaborated to Gladys Hall:

“Our cargo was steel plates. There was a very heavy storm at sea. Our ship turned over on its side and for three and a half weeks we were that way. Five weeks it took us to go from Trieste to New Orleans. Spend three and a half weeks turned sidewise upon a raging sea and the mind totters and heaves like the seas beneath.”

The Gróf Tisza Istvan arrived in New Orleans about 5 weeks after leaving Trieste, and about three and a half weeks after leaving Gibraltar and entering the open Atlantic. The cargo on arrival in the United States, as reported in the December 7, 1920 Times-Picayune, was not steel plate, but 12,250 boxes of lemons, 185 cases of grapes, 230 cases of preserves, 275 bags of almonds and 125 bags of fillet nuts. The produce was loaded in Palermo about a week after the Gráf Tisza Istvan left Trieste. Quite possibly, steel was loaded at Trieste, an industrial port, and unloaded at Palermo.

For each member of the crew, the ship’s manifest lists name, age, sex, race & nationality, height & weight, ability to read, date & place of signing on, and position in the ship’s company. Average height and weight of the crew are 5’7” and 152 pounds, typical of the time. The average age was 32. Lugosi, at 6’1”, was the tallest man onboard, and at age 38 was six years older than his Captain, Lodovico Szabo. Race of all 39 men aboard voyage is given as “European”, and nationality as “Italian”, though clearly many were not. Only three were illiterate, all of them part of the nine-man team of “firemen” who stoked coal into the engine furnaces.

Gráf Tisza Istvan Manifest

List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew

From the manifest, movements of the Gróf Tisza Istvan prior to the voyage can be discerned. Some of the crew were “old hands”— had been on the ship for months and years — but most positions saw high turnover. The ship’s homeport was Montefalcone, about 20 miles northwest along the coast from Trieste. Groups of men signed-on about every two weeks: around September 25, 1920 (when Captain Szabo took command), then around October 10 and again around October 25. Two weeks is not long enough for a round trip voyage to America, so the Gróf Tisza Istvan probably did charters in the Mediterranean. Lugosi joined the company at Montefalcone on Thursday, October 26. He and 24 year-old Natale Miandielo were the last crewmembers to board before leaving port.

The document in the National Archives is the “List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew” required of any vessel landing in a US port. Captain Szabo prepared the document in English, and sailed for Palermo to load the fruit, nuts and preserves.

The manifest lists Lugosi as apprentice (ie, “Appr.”). Ship’s crews are usually rather young. A 38 year-old apprentice in any field, especially at sea, is quite rare. Lugosi must have been rather persuasive to land the job.

The U.S. Consulate at Palermo notarized the crew manifest when the Gróf Tisza Istvan again set sail on November 3. The vessel stopped briefly at Gibraltar to take on two more crewmen, Romeo Fiume and Mario Leban, and again the local U. S. Consulate notarized the amended manifest. On November 9, the ship sailed into the Atlantic. Coming from land-locked Hungary, Lugosi had never seen an ocean before.

On November 13, The Times-Picayune estimated the Gróf Tisza Istvan arrival as November 22. On the 22nd, the ship was nowhere in sight, and thereafter day-by-day each update of shipping activity pushes the arrival back a day. The crew manifest includes no radio officer, and perhaps the ship had no way to communicate its delay to shore. On the night of December 4, twelve days overdue, the Gráf Tisza Istvan reached New Orleans. It had to wait a day for a berth on St. James Street. In addition to Lugosi, five men disembarked.

No more information can be squeezed from the manifest and shipping news, but they can be measured against the full-blooded account in Robert Cremer’s 1976 biography Lugosi – The Man Behind the Cape. Cremer pieces together the tale Lugosi himself allegedly told in private, and the recollections of a shipmate, Hugo Koepleneck. Both versions came to Cremer via Lugosi’s long-time friend, Willi Szittja.

A brief summary of the Cremer/Szittja/Koepleneck account is: Lugosi arrived in Trieste from Berlin in mid-October 1920. He hoped to hire on a ship bound for the United States. His only credentials were his time almost 20 years before as a riveter and machinist’s apprentice. Luigi Cozzi, the portmaster in charge of issuing seamen’s papers, saw through Lugosi’s claims of experience; but Cozzi was perhaps touched by the refugees’ plight. Lugosi never saw Cozzi again, but as with anyone that helped him, Lugosi never forgot his generosity. Lugosi got his papers, signed on the Gráf Tisza Istvan, and watched the iron beams loaded.

johann-hopkins-iii-21[1]

Lugosi’s only previous seafaring experience was portraying an accordion-playing sailor in Johann Hopkins III, which he made in Germany in 1920.

(Image courtesy of http://www.moviemonstermuseum.com)

That Lugosi is “apprentice” in the ship’s company implies that the job was more due to Cozzi’s kind heart than any shortage of men. Lugosi remembered his position as “assistant engineer.” No such position exists in ships’ companies, and the Gróf Tisza Istvan had a full complement of Chief, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Engineers. With a crew of 36 already onboard at Trieste, the ship was not undermanned. It did stop to take on two more men at Gibraltar, but that was probably a simple economy: they were not needed in the Mediterranean, but would be in the Atlantic.

Cremer’s tale becomes fantastic once the Gróf Tisza Istvan passes Gibraltar. After a few days developing sea legs, Lugosi regained his good spirits and a rather expansive mood. He regaled the crew with tales of his exploits in Hungary, and met with stony silence. In 1919 he had sided with the revolutionaries; the crew almost to a man were royalists. Lugosi might have gleaned a hint of their political leanings from the ship’s namesake. Count István Tisza, one time prime minister of Hungary and frequent target of assassination, died in the fourth attempt on his life on October 31, 1918 (during what is remembered as the “Chrysanthemum Revolution”). The same political upheaval that later drove Lugosi out of Hungary brought to trial Tisza’s killers, all Communist extremists. That trial was just beginning as the Gráf Tisza Istvan entered the open ocean.

The crew’s hostility against Lugosi — so goes Cremer’s account — grew until his very life was in danger. Even Captain Szabo gave his tacit approval of disposing of the “traitor”. Chief Engineer Koepleneck and 2nd Engineer Felix Hartman became Lugosi’s protectors, and literally hid him for weeks in the bowels of the ship. The thirst for Lugosi’s blood did not slacken through the weeks of the voyage, and he constantly changed his hiding place to evade capture. Koepleneck and Hartman smuggled him food when they could. When the Gróf Tisza Istvan at last arrived in New Orleans, an exhausted, starving Lugosi scrambled over the side, and was picked up by the harbor patrol.

Can this incredible story be true? If such hostility did indeed erupt onboard, it had to be after Gibraltar when Lugosi could no longer leave. All the men who left the ship in New Orleans, including Lugosi, have a simple “discharged” stamped above their names in the manifest. No indication of exceptional circumstances for Lugosi. An overriding concern of freighter captains is avoiding delays in entering or leaving ports, particularly those involving port and government authorities. Such delays are expensive, especially with a cargo of ripening fruit already two weeks late in the hold. Would Captain Szabo have encouraged a situation that could only invite inquiries? And why must Lugosi starve with a cargo of grapes, nuts and preserves to feast on?

Declaration, NYC, 1920

Lugosi’s declaration of March 23, 1921 on Ellis Island in New York City

The manifest does not suggest a crew of Hungarian royalists bemoaning the loss of their monarchy. Of the 39 men listed, 17 have Italian surnames; another 13 Italian first names. In the manifest, Koepleneck (spelled “Kaplanek”) is not the Chief Engineer, as related by Cremer and Szittja, but 2nd Officer, a far less senior position. There is no 2nd Engineer Felix Hartman, The closest to that name in the crew is Felice Vukosia, who as 1st Steward would have been most able to smuggle food. Did Kaplanek simply get some names wrong when he told his story to Szittja? Over the years, did Kaplanek shift his most colorful sea tale to his most famous shipmate, and also give himself a promotion? If not — if Kaplanek’s tale is true — could Lugosi have resisted telling his own version of this most incredible adventure? For sailors and actors alike, tall tales get taller over time.

On March 23, 1921 Lugosi reported to Immigration Services on Ellis Island off New York City, and completed an “Inspector’s Interrogation During Primary Alien Inspection,” paid by money order a “head tax,” and passed a physical examination permitting him to stay in America. Lugosi incorrectly states that the Gróf Tisza Istvan sailed from Trieste, about 20 miles along the coast from Montefalcone. Trieste is the larger port, and Lugosi perhaps received his seaman’s papers there. On the declaration, he lists his occupation as “sailor,” reports having $100 in cash, and answers all questions about nationality, race, language and country of birth as “Roumanian.” Lugosi had a legal claim to Rumanian citizenship, since his birthplace Lugoj became part of that country (and still is) after World War I. He himself may not have been sure of which country claimed him — in 1931, on becoming a naturalized American, Lugosi formally relinquished citizenship in both Hungary and Rumania.

With the March 23, 1921 declaration, Lugosi had completed all requirements for his arrival in the United States, and had before him a new life in the New World. In a year he would make his stage debut in English language, and in ten years would be world-famous as the screen’s Count Dracula.

Documents in the National Archives are accessible online, and search engines allow quickly finding. This essay used http://www.ancestry.com/. Ancestry.Com charges a membership subscription, but often free trial periods.

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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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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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When Dracula Did Jersey…

I was contacted last week by Lisa Rose, a feature writer for the Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey. She was working on a feature about Bela Lugosi’s summer stock New Jersey tour stops in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her article, reproduced in full below, featuring quotes from Frank Dello Stritto, Bela Lugosi Jr., and Arthur Lennig, was published in The Star-Ledger on Friday, October 14, 2011. You can view the original article at: http://www.nj.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2011/10/when_dracula_did_jersey.html

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The Star-Ledger, October 14, 2011

When Dracula Did Jersey…

By Lisa Rose

lugosi1.JPG

Bela Lugosi, who won fame in “Dracula” (1931), performed in New Jersey, with shows in Trenton (above) and Newark (below).

Eyeing necks and stretching syllables, Bela Lugosi established himself as a Hollywood horror giant in 1931 with “Dracula.”

The Hungarian actor reveled in the dark romance of the role, delivering a portrayal that continues to influence depictions of lonely immortals, from “Twilight” to “True Blood.”

Lugosi’s monster movies are legend, but lesser known are his travels as a live performer. The star lurked around New Jersey stages during his pre-vampire days and toured the local summer stock circuit after fangs went out of fashion post-WWII.

Between Tinseltown and Transylvania, the Garden State is spattered with Lugosi landmarks.

The classically trained actor joined a Hungarian drama troupe in Newark after immigrating to the United States in 1920. His English-language stage debut was in Atlantic City at the now-closed Apollo Theatre. Lugosi led the cast as a conquistador named Fernando during a test run for a 1922 off-Broadway play, “The Red Poppy.”

When the drama moved to a downtown Manhattan theater, the New York Times noted: “Bela Lugosi is a newcomer of quite splendid mien, romantically handsome and young. Hungarian though he is said to be, he looks every inch the Spanish pirate of romance.”

Later in his career, he returned to the Jersey footlights in traveling productions of the black comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace.” On stages in Trenton, Newark and Landing, he vamped in a role that poked fun at his own murderous movie persona. (Boris Karloff created the character on Broadway).

Film historian Frank Dello Stritto says Jersey audiences of the era saw a different side of the actor, a man who knew little of vampires before first embracing the cape on Broadway in October 1927.

“He would bring nuances into roles that movies couldn’t capture,” says Stritto, co-author of “Vampire over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain.” “There was no time to get a great performance out of him in some of the cheaper movies he made. People like me write about his films as great events, but they would be just a week out of his life sometimes.”

lugosi2.JPG

Writer and film professor Arthur Lennig saw Lugosi onstage in “Arsenic” and in a revival of “Dracula.”

“I fell in love,” says Lennig, author of “The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi.”

Lennig continues, “I’m a heterosexual, but I fell in love. He was aristocratic, aloof, mysterious. He was seemingly more intelligent than other people. He had all those arrogant qualities that are so ingrained in me. He just had that image of a bad guy. If he worked at the local candy store, he would look like he was handing out poisoned chocolates.”

Lugosi’s son, Bela Jr., vividly remembers visiting Lake Hopatcong during an “Arsenic” tour in July 1949. Father and son bonded while boating, sinking paddles into the blue on a perfect summer day.

“It was my first experience canoeing,” says Bela Jr., 73, a lawyer in Los Angeles, who is working on a book with Lugosi scholar Gary D. Rhodes. “I was upsetting my father a bit because I kept rocking the canoe and he thought we were going to tip over.”

The actor’s last Garden State jaunt was considerably less idyllic as his health declined and his marriage fell apart. Film gigs were scarce during the tail end of the Truman years, when aliens and robots eclipsed vampires and zombies on the big screen.

“The industry died in terms of old-time horror films,” says Lennig. “They were making films about giant ants or giant rabbits, atomic bombs. The mad scientist working in his basement, that was gone. It was over. The conventional horror films, even the bad ones, they weren’t making.”

Six years before Lugosi died at age 73, he struggled to win over a new generation of cynics with an ill-fated revue. The “Big Horror & Magic Show” premiered on Dec. 26, 1950, at the RKO Capitol Theatre in Trenton and closed abruptly at the Stanley Theater in Camden on March 15, 1951.

The Gothic spectacle promised chills with 13 vignettes featuring a “carload of scenery.” Advertisements screamed “See vampire maidens and voodoo magic! See the bat man and the monster in death struggle! See a beautiful girl burned alive! See ghosts, goblins and imps of darkness fly through the air!”

Lugosi initially got a hero’s welcome in Trenton. The mayor handed him the key to the city. The actor was a special guest at a Christmas celebration hosted by the Trenton Evening Times, which printed a photo of him in a Santa suit surrounded by paperboys.

For all its promise of eeriness, the “Horror & Magic” presentation was built around a sketch co-starring Lugosi and an actor in a gorilla costume.

“The audience was wise-assed teenagers who wanted to see whether they’d get scared or not,” says Lennig. “A lot of the people who showed up didn’t even know who he was. The teenagers weren’t scared, so they started hooting. Bela wasn’t a quick responder who could play with it. He’d pause until the audience settled down. When the catcalls stopped, he went on with it until there were more catcalls and he’d stop again. It was humiliating.”

 STAR-LEDGER FILE PHOTO
Bela Lugosi Jr., son of the actor that created ‘Dracula’ on the silver screen, displays a picture of his famous dad in his Glendale, Calif., office Thursday, Sept. 25, 1997.

New medium

A preview story for the “Horror & Magic Show” included a Lugosi quote. He declared that the introduction of television was creating new challenges for performers who specialized in ghoulish characters.

“When you walk right into a person’s living room through the medium of his television screen, you have to use the subtle approach,” Lugosi said. “The old-fashioned horror actor would evoke nothing but gales of laughter.”

The tour lurched from Trenton to Paterson to Newark before its final night in Camden, where the crowd was particularly hostile. Lugosi never performed on the East Coast again. He left for England, trying to make a comeback at age 68, dusting off his coffin and cape to revive his signature role on the British stage. The goal was for “Dracula” to play the West End in London, but the road show sputtered in provincial venues.

“For a man his age, touring was tough,” says Stritto. “And this was postwar England. The train system was just starting to get back in shape. The trip really drained him. He wasn’t able to work onstage like that again. He went straight back to the West Coast, and that’s where he spent his remaining five years.”

Back in Hollywood, Lugosi got work from an ambitious fan, Ed Wood, who recruited the aging star to play a doctor in the sex-change tale, “Glen or Glenda.” They teamed up again for a no-budget thriller, “Bride of the Monster.” Footage of Lugosi turned up in the sci-fi flop, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” released three years after he died of a heart attack in 1956.

The making of the misguided films was chronicled in the 1994 biopic “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp as the title character and an Oscar-winning Martin Landau as Lugosi.

Bela Jr. feels his father was inaccurately portrayed in the movie.

“He wasn’t alone,” says Bela. “There were a lot of things in the ‘Ed Wood’ that are not true, and that’s just one of them.”

Lennig says the film inaccurately depicts Lugosi’s sentences with expletives. In real life, the actor did not swear, according to multiple historians.

Still, the picture moved Lennig to tears.

“I wasn’t crying, I was sobbing,” says Lennig. “Bela was very serious about acting, but he had that accent and he was so identifiable as Dracula. To be narrowed down to just being a spooky man is limiting. Somebody said to him, ‘In all of your movies, you’re always dying.’ He said, ‘Well, dying is a living.’ ”

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