My Favorite Vampire by Alex Gordon

Alex, Bela, Lillian, Richard & William Everson

Alex Gordon, Bela and Lillian Lugosi, Richard Gordon, and film historian William K Evereson in the Tokay restaurant in New York

Born in London on September 8, 1922, Alex Gordon, like his younger brother and fellow film producer Richard, developed a love for films, especially westerns and horror, at an early age. They started fan clubs for their favourite stars, Gene Autry and Buster Crabbe while still at school, and pursued careers in the film business at the end of World War II. While Richard worked in the publicity department of Pathe Pictures, the distribution arm of Associated British, Alex became the one-man publicity department for Renown Pictures, a small film distributor which later moved into film production. They supplemented their earnings by writing film reviews and articles for fan magazines. Both brothers dreamed of becoming film producers, but it soon became apparent that they were unlikely to realise their ambition in the austere economic climate of  post-war Britain. Deciding to try their luck in the American film business, they emigrated to America in November, 1947 . 

Richard and Alex Gordon

Richard and Alex shared a life-long passion for films

Setting up in New York, Alex became a booker for Walter Reade theatres, while his brother worked as an assistant sales manager for Jack Hoffberg’s distribution company while freelancing as a representative for several British film outlets. They continued to indulge their passion for the cinema by interviewing film stars for British film magazines. Learning that one of their idols, Bela Lugosi, was scheduled to star in a summer stock production of Arsenic and Old Lace in nearby Sea Cliff  in August, 1948, they set out 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. Bela, who fostered hopes of  starring in a Broadway or West End revival of Dracula was intrigued when Alex told him that many fans in England had been disappointed at the cancellation of his proposed eight-week English stage tour of Dracula earlier in the year. Contacting them several months later, Bela asked Alex and Richard to take over the management of his business affairs and to try find him film and theatre work in Britain. Having recently started working for his childhood hero, Gene Autry, Alex was too busy to devote his energies to helping Bela, so Richard took on the task of trying to interest West End producers staging a production of Dracula with Bela in the lead. He found it much harder than he had anticipated, and it was not until 1951 that he was able to negotiate a British revival tour of Dracula, followed by Bela’s appearance in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire. 

Alex and Gene Autry

Alex with his childhood hero Gene Autry

When Bela and Lillian returned to America from England in December, 1951, Richard missed the opportunity to see them upon their arrival in New York before they quickly headed for California. He never met them again. Alex, who had relocated to Hollywood, took up the quest to find work for Bela. They developed a script together for a film entitled The Atomic Monster, which was intended to be the first of three Lugosi films Alex would produce and release through Jack Broder’s Realart. Instead of going ahead with the project, Broder stole the title for a Realart re-release of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. film Man Made Monster. Although Alex and Broder reached a financial settlement, Bela was left without work. The script was taken up and rewritten by Edward D. Wood Jr., who filmed it as Bride of the Atom (later retitled Bride of the Monster) with Bela. Alex had introduced Wood to Bela when the two were sharing an apartment. Although Alex went on to produce many films, including genre favourites The Day the World Ended (1955), The She Creature (1956), Voodoo Woman (1957), and The Atomic Submarine (1959), he was unable to get a studio to greenlight a film with Bela. Later in his career, Alex worked at 20th Century Fox, where he was responsible for rediscovering over 30 Fox films that had thought to have been lost and instituting a film restoration project. He left the studio in 1976 to take up the post of vice-president of the Gene Autry Organisation. Alex died in Los Angeles on June 23rd, 2003.  (Andi Brooks)

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In 1963, Alex shared his memories of Bela in an article entitled My Favourite Vampire in issue number 5 of Fantastic Monsters of the Films.

Fantastic Monsters of the Films Vol.2 #5

What Bela Lugosi was really like – as revealed by the Vampire Man’s close friend, Hollywood Personality, Alex Gordon

My Favorite Vampire By Alex Gordon

When I was a boy in England, I was a very frustrated youth. Under the British movie censorship classification, horror pictures cannot be seen by anyone under the age of sixteen. Therefore, it was not until many years later that I was able to see the Bela Lugosi films. The first time I ever saw Bela on the screen was in Postal Inspector, a 1936 picture in which he played a gangster. I was also able to see The Invisible Ray, which he did with Boris Karloff, and which somehow escaped the adult horror classification. And ever since those early days, I had hoped that some day I would have the opportunity to meet Bela in person. This did not happen until 1950(1), after I had come to the United States and was living in New York. At the time, Bela was doing Arsenic and Old Lace on the stage at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, and my brother Richard and I went down to try and meet him. We waited near the theatre for hours and finally Bela – with his wife Lillian – drove up. We went up and introduced ourselves. They were both extremely pleasant and suggested we join them for dinner. They took us to an excellent Hungarian restaurant(2) where Bela was the center of attraction, the owner and other patrons being thrilled to see him. After dinner, we went back to the theatre and saw the show; and afterwards spent more time with the Lugosis and made a date to see them later. Mother Riley Meets The Vampire Richard Gordon, Bela and George Minter

Richard Gordon, Bela and producer George Minter on the set of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire

One of the things Bela wanted most to do was tour England with a new production of Dracula. He had made movies in England –The Mystery of the Marie Celeste(3), Dark Eyes of London – but had never appeared on the stage there. Happily, my brother, who represents British movie producers (such as the makers of the “Carry On” pictures) was able to arrange not only such a tour, but also for Bela to make another movie in England. Soon after that, in 1953, I became an independent producer in Hollywood after years of work in publicity and writing, and of course wanted to make a picture with Bela. We spent much time together, finally evolving a script entitled The Atomic Monster. For various reasons, however, the picture did not get off the ground. Meanwhile, American distributors were reluctant to buy Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire(4) – because of the British humor which they considered unsuitable for American audiences. Therefore, we put a new title on the picture, Vampire Over London(5), but still no one wanted it. I cut out all of Bela’s scenes and tried to make a new movie to be called King Robot, using all the scenes Bela was in and shooting new ones to match for the rest of the story. However, Bela had been very ill for a while and was very thin and haggard looking, and he did not match the original footage anymore. So we had to scrap that idea. While I was trying to set up a new picture, to star Bela and Boris Karloff, an independent producer (Edward D. Wood Jr.) rewrote my “Atomic Monster” script and made a very low budget picture vaguely based on it called Bride of the Monster. Poor Bela looked so very old and ill in it, that a double had to be used for many of his scenes.

Alex with Bob Steele, Warren White, an unknown man, and Edward D. Wood Jr. at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant in 1952.

 Courtesy of http://www.westernclippings.com/treasures/westerntreasures_gallery_3.shtml

One of his great hopes was to make Dracula in color and widescreen, and he thought the resurgence of horror movies in Hollywood after House of Wax in 1953 would mark a comeback for him. But the studios seemed to prefer other actors, like Christopher Lee when they made Horror of Dracula in color in England. The premiere of House of Wax, incidentally, was quite an event. Warner Brothers thought up a publicity stunt to have horror stars attend the premiere at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. They called Bela and asked him if he would go. Bela did not want to, but I persuaded him, as I thought it would be good publicity for our projected new picture with him and Karloff. Warners sent a limousine to pick us up at Bela’s apartment, and Bela was dressed in his Dracula cape. What he did not know was that the publicity boys wanted him to lead a gorilla (a man in a skin) on a chain into the lobby of the theatre – and I was afraid to tell him. The limousine made a stop at a large hotel, and Bela immediately asked what the stop was for. I timidly told him it was to pick up a gorilla. At first it seemed he hadn’t heard right, then he roared, “Gorilla?!” It took all my powers of persuasion to keep him from taking a taxi home.

House Of WaxBela’s arrival at the House of Wax premier with Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit was captured in a Pathe newsreel

Courtesy of http://microbrewreviews.blogspot.com/

When we drove up at the Paramount, there was a mass of photographers, newsmen, TV cameras, and hundreds of people milling around. Bela was, of course, the center of attention when he exited from the car with the gorilla on the chain. The gorilla chased after some girls while Bela shouted to me what we wanted him to do. We manipulated him over to a Red Cross stand where two nurses were selling milk for the Red Cross. The idea was to have a shot of Bela drinking milk instead of blood, but in all the bedlam he thought they wanted him to do a Dracula bit, and he suddenly grabbed the nurses by the necks. They were so surprised and shocked that they threw the milk all over him! Finally I got him inside the lobby, where a female radio-TV interviewer grabbed hold of him. I should explain here that Bela was a little hard of hearing in one ear, and he had asked for a list of questions ahead of time so that he could memorize the answers when they brought him up to the microphone. With all the noise and confusion, he felt he might not be able to hear the questions properly. Needless to say, the interviewer had mislaid her copy of the questions and started asking Bela the questions out of context with his prepared answers. I think I can leave the results to your imagination. By the time I had him seated in the auditorium, we were both completely exhausted, though the photographers had enjoyed an absolute field day. Bela did not want to stay for the film, so we left by a back door after it had started. I did not hear the end of THAT adventure for a long time.

Vampira and Bela

Vampira and Bela on the Red Skelton show

Another incident I remember well was when Bela was to do the Red Skelton Show, on which Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr were to appear in a sketch with him. Bela was worried about the show because he knew that Red Skelton did not stick to the script, but adlibbed most of the show. And Bela was a stage actor who had to learn his lines and was not used to adlibbing. Red treated him well, but he did use adlibs which almost threw Bela. But the comedian managed to fill in so well that the audience never knew. However, it was an unhappy experience for Bela. He always preferred to work from a prepared script.

A publicity shot for Dracula

When the original Dracula was reissued once more, as it was at regular intervals, we went to see it, and Bela enjoyed it again. Actually, he almost lived the part at times. When he was on tour, he could not stand the hard mattresses in most of the hotels as he had trouble with his back. So he would place his beautiful silk-lined coffin from the theatre in the middle of his hotel room and sleep in it. This is absolutely true and no publicity story. It was not done for effect, just plain comfort.

Bela was a delightful companion, gracious and kind and with a good sense of humor. He was also a man of many moods, and sometimes he would sink into deep despair. Bela loved cigars, and he also became interested in religion, hypnosis, and philosophy. He was very particular about many little things. He once asked me to sort out his desk and papers, and I found receipted bills and other statements going back twenty years, which he thought he should keep for tax and book-keeping purposes. He also kept a large collection of stills from his movies in scrapbooks.

Bela in November 1955

When he lived in his small Hollywood apartment, he would call me to walk up to the corner with him at 11pm to pick up the next morning’s LA Times. It had to be the 11pm edition, and he was quite upset if he did not get it. He liked to keep up with all the latest news and was extremely well-informed about world events. But his daily dream was to make a good comeback, and he, like so many other former great stars, found it impossible to realize that Hollywood did not want him anymore. It is so ironic that stars like Bela Lugosi are so fondly remembered by audiences the world over, and yet were unable to get a job right here in Hollywood. It is something I have always found hard to understand. Since I became a movie producer, I have always tried to use as many old-timers in my pictures as possible, despite enormous resistance from distributors, financiers, and exhibitors who consider them “has-beens.”

 At the peak of his stardom with other members of the Universal family. Bela can be seen in the back row along with Boris Karloff and James Whale. Carl Laemmle Jr., Carl Laemmle Sr., and cinematographer Karl Freund are in the front row

In a way, I think Bela regretted having turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster in the original movie that made Boris Karloff famous. Not many remember that Bela was actually a Shakespearean actor and a romantic star before he did Dracula and became typed in horror pictures. He played Hamlet and even Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans(6), among many other roles. I always thought the old Universal film, The Raven, was one of Bela’s best roles, as well as The Invisible Ray, and of course his role of Ygor in the later Frankenstein pictures was unforgettable. It is strange for me now to see and hear Bela on TV in his old movies. It is as though he is still around and as though that friendly, uniquely unforgettable voice is still calling. His friends and fans will never forget him.

Notes: (1) Alex and Richard Gordon first meet Bela in 1948, not 1950. He performed in Arsenic and Old Lace at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre from August 9 – 14, 1948. (2) Richard Gordon later recalled that the restaurant was a seafood restaurant. (3)Although several contemporary sources listed the film’s title as “The Mystery of the Marie Celeste,” it was released as “Mystery of the Mary Celeste.” (4) Pre-release publicity listed the title as “Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire,” but the film was released as “Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.” (5) According to an article printed in The Cinema News And Property Gazette of August 22, 1951, two months before filming began, the title “Vampire Over London” had already been selected for the American release of Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. (6) Bela played Chingachgook.

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1951 British Dracula Tour – Newspaper Articles And Memorabilia

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

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

Bela Lugosi At The House Of Wax Premiere

Actress And Songwriter Dolores Fuller Dies At 88

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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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.

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

Robot refurbished

The costume as offered by Profiles in History on May 15th, 2011

The robot costume from Renown Picture’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952) failed to reach the reserve price of $15,000 (£9,170) when offered for auction by Profiles in History of Calabasas Hills, California. Although the costume is a “remarkable science-fiction artifact” and of great interest to Lugosi enthusiasts, collectors were perhaps deterred by the over-optimistic asking price.

The costume, which had been in a private collection in England for over twenty years, made a surprise return to the spotlight when it was auctioned by Bonhams of London for £1,680 ($2,747) in December, 2010.

Robot 1

The costume as sold by Bonhams in December, 2010

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire was the fifteenth and final film in the Old Mother Riley Series, which began in 1937. A sixteenth film, Mother Riley’s Trip To Mars,  was announced by Renown in December 1951, but the project was shelved.

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire Poster

Original UK poster

The rationale behind including Bela Lugosi in the film was to make it appeal to the American market, but the dated regional humour of Mother Riley was not to the taste of American distributors. Plans to replace the scenes of Old Mother Riley with newly shot footage of Lugosi had to be abandoned because, only a year after filming Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, declining health had changed his appearance too much. Re-edited and re-titled as Vampire Over London, and later My Son, The Vampire, the film finally achieved an American release in 1963. (Andi Brooks)

Mother Riley Meets The Vampire

Old Mother Riley (Artur Lucan) inspects the robot

Bat Head 2

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

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

Robot 1

The robot costume from Mother Riley Meets The Vampire made a surprise and completely unexpected return to the spotlight when it was auctioned at Bonhams of London in December, 2010. Listed as lot No. 18 in sale 17974 of entertainment memorabilia, the costume sold for £1,680 ($2,747) . It had been in the hands of a private collector in the Birmingham area for over twenty years. According to the vendor, it had previously been displayed in the foyer of a Birmingham cinema. Neither the vendor nor Bonhams could confirm that the costume was the original. It was described in the catalogue as:

“Believed to be the original Robot prop/costume, of  plastic, metal and wood construction, with single coloured eye-piece, several dials to chest, interior with part electrical mechanism, the knees and elbows  with rubber joints, with claw hands with internal operating mechanism, head dome  missing, height 71 inches (180cm)”

Perhaps not so surprisingly, the costume has now found its way to America and is up for auction at Profiles in History of Calabasas Hills, California as lot 1013. The missing head dome has been replaced, but not the internal electronics, and the costume is now being described as “the original screen-used Robot costume”. Although it does appear to be the same costume sold at Bonhams, in the photograph below, issued by Profiles in History, the stomach panel seems to be missing the dials seen in the above photograph issued by Bonhams.
Robot refurbished
Profiles of History will conduct an on-line auction on May 15, 2011, at 11:00 (UTC -8: PST) with an opening bid of $15,000 (£9,170). The full catalogue description reads:
“Original screen-used Robot costume from the Bela Lugosi film My Son the Vampire. (1952, Fernwood Productions)  In the time-honored British tradition of crusty, comic spinsters played by men in drag, Arthur Lucan of the long-running “Mother Riley” series falls under great peril from Bela Lugosi’s kidnap plot, sending this full-size walking (with a man inside, that is) and blinking (if one chooses to connect up the wiring again) Robot of metal, rubber, electronic components (most still present) and glass dome, which is the only replaced piece on this remarkable science-fiction artifact. Was later used in an episode of the BBC series, The Avengers.  Stands 84″ tall (to top of glass dome) and 30″ wide at shoulders. Missing internal components of the dome area, rest are more or less intact.”
The episode of The Avengers in which the robot appeared was “The See-Through Man,” which was filmed in November, 1966. The series was produced by ABC Television, not, as stated in the auction blurb, the BBC. The robot is said to have made appearances in other TV programmes. Please contact us if you have any information regarding other sightings of the robot. (Andi Brooks)
Bat Head 3
You can view the auction at
 Bat Head 3
The robot as it appeared in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire
Robot 4
Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan) menaced by the robot.
Bela Lugosi, Judith Furse, Ian Wilson and David Hurst admire the robot.
The robot costume in The Avengers episode The See-Through Man with Roy Kinnear.