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My 24 Weeks with Bela Lugosi in Dracula.

 

On August 3, 1997 Andi Brooks interviewed me for  “Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain” (Cult Movies Press), a biography of Bela Lugosi. This beautiful book, which covers the whole of his time in England, faithfully recounts all the events of the Dracula Tour. Here is my part of Andi’s interview. It was Andi who interviewed me again in July 2011 for the “From Actor To Zee” interview, which has received much interest on the Internet and it was Andi who finally convinced me to have my own website www.ericlindsay.wordpress.com. He has become my adviser and editor and mentor and is now my friend and has helped me considerably in making this blog so successful.

Eric Lindsay 1951

Andi Brooks: How did you get the role of Renfield?

Eric Lindsay: Sometime before Dracula, George Routledge approached me and asked to represent me. Later, he called me and I auditioned for it. Fortunately, I was fairly lucky because it was going through his management production company

AB: Do you recall where the audition was held?

EL: The auditions were held in the office of John Mather, which was in Knightsbridge.

AB: How long after the audition did you begin rehearsals?

EL: Two or three weeks.

AB: Where did they take place?

EL: We rehearsed in a place which is a block of flats on Pont Street, just off Kensington and Chelsea. It was a big block of flats with a restaurant to the side. We rehearsed in a large restaurant which they took over. I think we were there for about two or three weeks.

AB: Was that a normal rehearsal period?

EL: Yes.

AB: Do you recall your first meeting with Bela?

EL: I had only seen Bela Lugosi in films so I was, like, scared to meet him. I was really petrified. I had to have two stiff drinks before I went in to meet him. I was frightened because he frightened me, but he was absolutely charming, he was lovely. Before we started rehearsals Richard Eastham threw a party at his flat off Tottenham Court Road, and there I met Bela. Rehearsals started on the Monday after his arrival and the party was on the Sunday night before. On the night before the party, on Saturday, I heard Bela interviewed on a programme called In Town Tonight on the radio. They interviewed him and he did this wonderful thing. They asked him if it took him long to get ready to prepare for the role of Dracula. He said that he would get to the theatre about at least an hour before the performance and he would just concentrate on Dracula, never speaking to anyone. He would just stand in the wings and never talk. Opening night, I went on before him as Renfield, the mad man. I was standing there waiting for my cue, and all he did was talk. All he was doing was talking to me while I went: “Sush! Sush! I can’t hear my cue!” He was talking away, jabbering, and I thought: “What’s all this fallacy about you not talking to anyone?” “It sounds good for my image.” he said. It was part of his mystique.

Bela and Lillian arrive at Waterloo Station on April 10, 1951

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

EL: It was wonderful, I was thrilled out of my mind. But apart from that the role was so good. After Dracula, that’s the next best role. It’s a gift. It was a wonderful part. Before going on, I would twirl my arms to get in character, and let out a yell before every entrance. All my entrances were through the window.

AB: Were you already familiar with Bram Stoker’s novel or Bela’s film?

EL: I’d seen the film; I hadn’t read the book. All I did read was the play.

AB: Did you have any particular inspiration for your portrayal of Renfield?

EL: He was crazy—he was crazy—and I perfectly capable of being crazy. The only thing I didn’t like was that he ate flies and spiders. I wasn’t really keen about that. People would send them to me, and a dead mouse. It frightened the life out of me. After every show I treated myself to a long, relaxed hot bath. One night, my dressing gown slipped off its hook and made a “whoosh” sound—I thought it was a bat. It frightened me half to death.

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

EL: No, but Sheila I knew very well before hand. We were friends, but I haven’t seen her in donkey’s years. Joan Winmill was a great girl, a fun girl, but then she got religion and went with Billy Graham. Arthur Hosking and David Dawson were not sociable, and I never got to know them that well. I later worked with Ralph Wilson on Hay Fever.

AB: How much were you paid for the tour?

EL: I got the princely sum of about…I think it was £12 per week, which was great money in those days.

AB: It has been claimed that Bela was unhappy with the production and delayed the premiere while last-minute changes were made.

EL: We never did that, there was no delay. We opened at the Theatre Royal on the Monday. We did the dress rehearsal on the Sunday and opened on the Monday.

AB: I understand that Megs Jenkins attended the dress rehearsal?

EL: George Routledge was married to Megs Jenkins, so she was there at the dress rehearsal. The rehearsals were wonderful, but the dress rehearsal was a wee-bit fraught. Megs Jenkins was very helpful because there was a big trauma going on about the negligee that Sheila had to wear. She helped to alter it. It was lovely. But I mean, the dress rehearsal was a dress rehearsal with all the problems that it entails, when we did the show it was brilliant.

AB: Did she attend the premiere?

EL: Yes, she was there from dress rehearsal to all the way through the show—the first three days of performance.

AB: Did she offer any professional advice to the cast?

EL: She didn’t need to offer me any advice, I took off straight away. I would get a round every time I came on, and at the exit. If I didn’t get a round I would get very annoyed.

Brighton Programme Cover

Brighton Programme 2

Brighton Programme 3

AB:What was the atmosphere like among the cast on that first night?

EL: Well, on a first night, it’s electric. Everybody’s a bit…like that (Eric holds up a shaking hand).

AB: The reviews were encouraging?

EL: Everywhere, they were very good everywhere.

AB: You were often singled out for praise.

EL: Because it was a wonderful part and I did it very well.

AB: A recent magazine article tells a different story. (Andi reads) “Sets, costumes and the supporting cast smacked of “poverty row”. The disappointment of finding himself surrounded by such amateurish elements crushed Bela’s hopes and reduced him to desperation…The rest of the cast, too inexperienced to do otherwise, had not mastered their lines.”

EL: Whoever wrote that doesn’t know what the production was like. It was excellent, it really was. The set was unbelievable—condensed, only one set for all: bedroom and sitting room in one set. It was great, it was the most wonderful set and the cast was good. Bela was quite happy. He was just concerned about going into London, you know what I mean?

AB: The article also states “{The play} was a disaster…the long provincial tour never materialized.”

EL: We toured for 24 weeks, would you say that was a flop? Shows in London don’t even run 3 months.

AB: It has been said the management company had difficulty raising finance for the tour.

EL: Well, we did meet a lot of strange people, like farmers, etc. who were supposed to be backers of the show.

AB: Variety announced that 10 out of a maximum of 26 weeks had already been booked upon Bela’s arrival in England. Were dates being added as the tour progressed?

EL: Oh yes

DRACULA POSTER.

AB: It certainly seemed to zigzag wildly across the country.

EL: Oh god, we went from, like, Middlesbrough to Belfast which took us all day and night on the Sunday. We arrived in Belfast on Monday morning. We went from Stranrær to Belfast, so we had to go all the way up to Scotland.

Glasgow Newspaper, 1951
LUGOSI’S DRACULA CHILLS THE SPINE

Bela Lugosi brings the screen version of Dracula to life at the King’s , Glasgow, this week.In production and presentation the play is almost perfect.

Lugosi’s Count Dracula creates an atmosphere of evil and dark secrets. It is almost a relief to hear comic asides from John Saunders as Butterworth.

Eric Lindsay as the mental patient is outstanding in a capable cast.

Richard Eastham is to be congratulated for production and impressive lighting arrangements which come as near as possible to the Hollywood presentations.

A spine-chilling, but enjoyable experience. M.

AB: Travelling must have been such an ordeal in those days, how did you find the energy to go on and perform?

EL: We were at that age when we could do anything. But they did do some strange things. We played all the best theatres, all the number one dates, but if they had a gap in between we would do it twice nightly in variety theatres, which I couldn’t understand. We would go down like a bomb—I mean, it didn’t bomb, it would go wonderful when we did it in variety. They screamed their heads off, it was great.

 

eric-in-dracula-print-this-is-the-right-one

Eric as Renfield and Arthur Hosking as Van Helsing

AB: What do you recall of your director?

EL: I remember Richard Eastham, he was brilliant. he would chastise me sometimes for playing to the audience, which was true but I thought he was wonderful and veryt alented.

AB: He didn’t stay with the tour?

EL: He went off to do other things, but he would pop in now and then.

AB: Did Bela need much direction?

EL: No, he knew the part so well, but Bela liked to change things. He was forever changing things. He’d call a rehearsal and change things. We put in a prologue which was very effective. There was a voice over: “The hour is midnight,” you’d hear these chimes, “which is the time for the undead to come out.” Just me lying by this coffin, leaning on it, guarding it. At the stroke of midnight I would laugh hysterically and run off. Slowly the coffin lid would open. He had the most beautiful hands you’ve ever seen, with long tapering fingers. His hands were exquisite. The coffin lid would lift up slowly and his hand would come out onto the side of the coffin. You just saw this white hand and of course everyone would scream at the sight of the hand. He would push the lid up and sit bolt upright and then get out of the coffin and open his cloak and look as if he was about to fly off. All the smoke would appear up his cloak and envelope him, and then we would go into the play. So while we were on tour he decided that this was going in. I don’t think we had a lot of rehearsals, it was thrown together. On the first night we were there early. They called the five, and he got into the coffin. I leaned on the coffin and we did the thing. When we came off he said to me, gasping for air: “Eric, Eric,” he said, “for God’s sake, keep the lid of the coffin open, have your thumb in there. I thought I was going to suffocate.” That prologue with Bela emerging from his coffin was used through the rest of the whole tour. He always got a scream or two and a round of applause. He had a great sense of the dramatic and humour.

A publicity photo used during the tour

AB: What were your impressions of Bela as an actor?

EL: He was excellent. He knew what he was doing. It’s the most wonderful role. It’s a very short role, a tiny role, but they talk about him all through the play. All they do is talk about Dracula. So, when he’s not on they’re all mentioning him. He did a wonderful thing. I would be in the wings because I was on and off all the time. The maid would announce “Count Dracula” and would open both doors. He would stand in the wings and count to ten: “1…2…3…4…” So, by the time he came on the whole audience  were holding their breath in anticipation, and when he made his entrance they applauded him like crazy. A wonderful entrance. Wonderful timing. He was terrific!

AB: Did he ever offer advice to the cast?

EL: Oh, he was offering me advice all the time. He would rehearse with me all the time. We were forever rehearsing. He loved it. Bela often approached cast members about their scenes, and he’d rehearse them. As late as Leicester, Bela asked me about changes he wanted to make.

AB: Do you have any anecdotes about working with him.

EL: Bela was captured completely by Martin Landau in Ed Wood in fact I should say Martin Landau was Bela Lugosi to perfection, but I don’t remember any foul language. He had an eye for the girls, always had an eye for the girls. We had a girl who was our effects manager, Joan Harding. She would deal with the smoke. In those days it was an electrical machine, an old-fashioned sort of thing that produced the smoke. It was like a gun. She came in one day, I think between shows, while I was talking to him. She said: “Oh, Bela, please, there are some people at the stage door who would like their programmes signed.” Of course, he signed them all and then took her hand and said: “What are you going for?” She knew he had that look in his eyes. She knew he was after her. She said: “I can’t stop, my gun is getting hot.” He said: “So is mine!” I’ll always remember that, “So is mine!”

AB: What was Lillian like?

EL: Lillian was lovely she was like Mother Earth. She took great care of Bela and all the company. He had this very bad sciatica, and he would be in pain. He would say to me that he took the drink to take the pain away. She gave him painkillers. She told me she was a trained nurse. Lillian talked a lot about Bela, Jr. She was dissatisfied with the tour—“conned into coming” is what she would say. She saw the posters. “Is that all?” After Dracula, I met Bela and Lillian once more before they went home. In Piccadilly, at Fortnum & Mason we had tea together. I gave them a box of matchbooks with their names on them. I called Lillian when I was in Los Angeles years later, about 1965. Lillian claimed she had no memory at all of 1951. I got her phone number from Bela, Jr., when I called his law office. He was a very friendly, charming man.

AB: Was there any indication that Bela, Sr. had a drug problem?

EL: I didn’t even know he was on drugs. If he was, I never knew it. He told me Lillian gave him injections for his sciatica, which is true. He would strangle me in the play and then throw me on the floor. Now, he told me he had sciatica so he had injections for it which Lillian gave him. One night he was strangling me and he had an attack. He really strangled me. I tried to pull his hand away and I was really screaming, which I used to do any way in the play. When I came off I said, “Please,don’t do it again!” He said: “It’s my sciatica, it was playing me up.” But he was great, great. He was a lovely man. He told me once that “you have the eyes of a magician,” and that’s just what I later became.

AB: What did you do to fill in time between performances?

EL: What do you do when you’re on tour…you just stroll around the shops. I was very friendly with Sheila and Joan Winmill, we would stay together. Richard was friendly with John Saunders who had a car so he could get him to give him lifts everywhere I never socialized with them. There was not a great deal of socializing, though maybe some of the cast would meet for coffee. John Saunders was my understudy. I swore that even if I was dying I would go on. No way was he going to get a chance to play it. It got to such a stage that he was petrified to do it anyway. I was ill at one time. I had terrible flu. He would bring me medicine and say: “You’ll be alright. You can go on?”. You must go on! He even drove me to the Theatre.

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

EL: It was the kind of company that if we did a matinée Lillian would invite all the cast in. She made tea and avocado sandwiches and, of course, it was delicious. It was the first time I ever had avocado. It shows you that it was a fairly friendly company for us all to go in and have tea with them. We were in the Copper Kettle in Norwich, I’ll always remember, it was the only time I shared digs with him. His room was next to mine, and I could never understand it, he was up all night.

AB: What was he doing?

EL: I don’t know. I could hear them talking, talking, talking but I don’t know what he was doing. When Bela came down for breakfast, he moaned “I’m ill. My head! My head!” He had me searching around the whole of Norwich for Fernet-Branca, because he would drink at night. He did drink. He woke me up one day and said: “My head! I can’t move. Go out and buy me some Fernet-Branca,” which I’d never heard of. I only know it because of Bela. It’s good for a hangover. It’s a sort of alcohol, a drink. It’s supposed to be good for curing a hangover, but it tastes vile—he gave me some.

AB: Bela stayed in?

EL: Yes. He was getting over his hangover. Bela drank, so what? Lots of people drink. He’s entitled to drink after he finished a show. It was just one of those things. I can’t remember what he drank.

AB: What about during performances?

EL: No, he didn’t drink during the show. He was a professional. I mean, he’d played Hamlet in Hungary, he’d done the roles. He was a leading actor in the Hungarian State Theatre. He was a real stage actor; he wasn’t just a film star. He did Dracula on stage in America and got typecast. He was amazing. He had very pallid skin, but maybe that was through what he was on, I don’t know. He had the most sensational make-up. It consisted of a black liner and lipstick. All he did was put black around his eyes, do his eyebrows and just put those lips on, blood-red lips, and that was it. I’m not sure if he powdered his hands. I wore a make-up from Max Factor on whatever would show, because I had these rags on from the lunatic asylum. It was kind of body make-up which had a strong tinge of green so I looked quite sick. I remember the Theatre Royal Nottingham, because it was wonderful. The Theatre Royal backed onto the Empire variety theatre. There was an alley where the stage door was. I always remember that Renee Houston, who was a famous Scotish comedienne, she was hanging out of the window, pissed out of her mind, talking to us and I was in this greenish make-up.

AB: Did Bela and Lillian usually stay in digs with the rest of the cast?

EL: No, they usually stayed in a hotel. This time the hotels must have been full. We stayed in this wonderful guest house which was also a restaurant called the Cooper Kettle. You could get digs for £5 a week.

AB: Did you have to pay for that yourself?

EL: Oh, yes.

AB: And your food?

EL: Oh, yes and it usually included breakfast and a late night cold snack after the show.

AB: What do you remember about the special effects?

EL: The special effects were very good. The death scene was bad because they didn’t tilt the coffin enough. It should have been like that, and also they didn’t use it right.

AB: Did the cast make any public appearances to promote the tour?

EL: No, nothing was arranged. We never did anything, no publicity at all. George Harrison Marks did take some production photographs, but he has lost the negatives.

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

EL: Ray Jackson would come along and see Bela all the time.  We played the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne. Ray waited inside by the stage door. He didn’t bother coming to my dressing room. Bela walked past, I was following him, and Ray flattened himself up against the wall, terrified., it was hysterical.  Ray must have seen it about 30 times and he was still terrified. Once Bela and I were talking so intently in the wings, I missed my cue. David Dawson had to fetch me. Through the window, can you believe it!

AB: The tour was supposed to culminate in a run in the West End?

EL: We all thought it was going into town. We were supposed to go to the Comedy Theatre, but at the last minute the Theatre booked Mischa Auer (an Anerican  film comic) in a farce. That was a disaster, it came off in about 2 weeks.

AB: Couldn’t it have been rescheduled?

EL: I don’t think so. Bela was signed up to do the film. He did the film straight after we finished. It was impossible.

AB: Were any dates left unfulfilled when the tour ended?

EL: We played all the dates that were booked. I do think we had a week off.

AB: Would you have been paid for any weeks out?

EL: No. I think there was some trauma about Bela being paid his full salary. I think they paid money up front. No one works, without being paid.

*          *          *

You can read more about Eric’s tour of Dracula with Bela Lugosi on Vampire Over London, Andi’s Bela Lugosi blog, at: http://beladraculalugosi.wordpress.com/

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2 responses to “My 24 Weeks with Bela Lugosi in Dracula.

  1. Peter H. Brothers

    June 16, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Very nice interview! Thank you for posting it.
    -Peter H. Brothers, author of “Devil Bat Diary.”

     

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