A favorite memory of Bela Lugosi Jr. (photo above left) was visiting the set of the 1948 “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” where his father, the immortal Bela Lugosi, reprised his famous role as Count Dracula. Lugosi Jr. will be a special guest at the Sept. 22 Moonlight at the Ranch VI: “Creatures of the Night!” to be held at Limoneira Ranch headquarters. (Above right) The ultimate “Creature of the Night” Bela Lugosi, playing the title role as “Dracula” in its 1927 Broadway debut that introduced America to the Count. Bela Lugosi Jr. said his father’s “unforgettable performance… was so masterful that it forever set the standard for decades to come.”

Unforgettable ‘Dracula’ made Lugosi ultimate ‘Creature of the Night’

August 29, 2012
Santa Paula News

There’s no doubt the ultimate Creature of the Night is Count Dracula, an enduring figure of the macabre since his introduction in “Dracula,” the 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker. Since the novel’s publication there have been hit stage productions and probably 220 films where Dracula figured prominently, an appearance of character bested only by Sherlock Holmes.

But to most people, no matter their age or media preference, there is only one “Count Dracula” - the elegant, handsome Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, who first played the role on Broadway before becoming the title character in the groundbreaking horror film directed by Todd Browning. The 1931 film featured breathtaking menacing sets, superb mood lighting and elegant manors, setting the benchmark for horror as art including the incorporation of musical interludes from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” 

Lugosi died in 1956 when his son Bela Lugosi Jr. was a teenager. Even now, “Almost every day people recognize the name and ask me about it; it’s never-ending” recognition of his famous father and questions about what it was like being his son.

Bela Lugosi the actor and his famous portrayal of Count Dracula are being honored at the September 22 Moonlight at the Ranch VI: “Creatures of the Night!” Lugosi’s friend and frequent co-star the late Boris Karloff is also being honored for his career, including his portrayal of the Monster in “Frankenstein.”

Bela Lugosi Jr. and Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff will be special guests at Moonlight at the Ranch, Ventura County’s signature celebration benefiting the Santa Paula Police & Fire Foundation and Chamber of Commerce. 

Held at Limoneira Ranch Headquarters, it is expected that many Moonlight guests will dress in costume to reflect the “Creatures of the Night!” theme. And that probably includes many Draculas in the crowd, although through the decades no one has ever been able to capture the essence of Dracula as portrayed by Lugosi, who introduced the character to American audiences in the 1927 Broadway production.

Lugosi’s own story is fascinating: Lugosi Jr. said, “It is only fitting that the man forever associated with Dracula was actually born near the western border of Transylvania in 1882, not far from the legendary Count’s home in the Carpathian Mountains.” Reared in the town of Lugos, a name he would later adopt as his own, Lugosi grew up preferring acting to his school work, “much to the dismay of his father,” a strict businessman, according to Lugosi Jr. 

So strong was Lugosi’s interest in acting that at age 12 he left home to pursue a career. It was the right move: by the early 1900s, the versatile Lugosi was on his way to becoming the number one ranked actor in the Hungarian theater, touring with the national company. Lugosi Jr. said, “Here the man that would become known for his role as the devil’s disciple was also heralded for playing the role, among others, of Jesus Christ.”

Although actors were exempt from military service, Lugosi abandoned his career for WWI military service, was promoted to captain in the Ski Patrol and was wounded on the Russian front. The end of the war was followed by the Hungarian revolution in 1919. “Dad, who had taken an active role on behalf of the actors union, found himself on the wrong side of the ruling party and was forced to flee the country,” first to Vienna then Germany where he continued his acting career. 

Still pursued, Lugosi found safe passage to the U.S. aboard a merchant ship as a crewman. He landed in New Orleans and ventured to New York, where he later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Still intent on acting, Lugosi said his father found his opportunity in the American theater. “Not knowing the English language proved only a small obstacle,” as he simply formed a Hungarian stock company of expatriates. 

“His first English-speaking play, ‘The Red Poppy’, brought him rave reviews,” although “Unknown to the reviewers at the time, Dad had memorized the entire part phonetically, an amazing task in itself.” In the 1920s, Lugosi worked in both theater and film, gaining a reputation for his versatility and popular for his classic character roles in Europe and America, “including everything from Shakespeare to romantic leads.” 

His big break came in 1927 when Lugosi landed the lead role in the Broadway production of “none other than Dracula,” which ran for 500 performances and led to two years of touring. “By 1927, Dad had relocated to Hollywood,” and due to the death of another Hollywood horror great, Lon Chaney, Lugosi was selected for the title role in the 1931 screen version of “Dracula”. 

The role of Dracula defined Lugosi’s career: “He really developed and crafted that character... but he thought it was a blessing and a curse,” providing steady roles playing the count, but at the same time typecasting him in he eyes of the studios.  

“He never believed in vampires, he didn’t think he was Count Dracula; but now people think of my dad and Dracula as synonymous,” a characterization perfected to the point that the actor, “much to the chagrin of Universal Studios makeup legend Jack Pierce, did his own makeup for the film version.” For years thereafter, he made personal appearances and played the part on stage, billed as “Dracula himself!”

“If ever an actor’s fate was to come full circle, it was Dad’s,” said Lugosi Jr. “His unforgettable performance as ‘Dracula’ on stage and later in the film was so masterful that it forever set the standard for decades to come,” with some of his lines and their delivery - the most memorable “I never drink... wine” - fixed in the minds of those who witnessed his portrayal and those who still imitate him. Vampires were almost unknown in 1931, but that changed from the moment Lugosi said on film, “I am DRAH-COOL-AHHH. I bid you welcome.” 

“The pauses and intonation, the graceful and slow hand, the aristocratic bearing, the formal white tie wear and raised collar cape now define what everyone sees in his or her mind as Dracula - Bela Lugosi’s Dracula,” said his son. “He was the film personification of dark evil.”

But not at home, where he spent quality - and unique - time with his only child, who had been born later in Lugosi’s life. His son’s strongest memory of his father is “the fact he was always trying to impart in me the wisdom he gathered on many things, he was always trying to educate me. And he was an avid reader, particularly current events... he always had something to say about that.”

Lugosi kept his career away from his son except for one time when Jr. became a regular visitor to the set of the 1948 “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” film comedy that featured Lugosi as Dracula. The youngster was already aware that his father - although untrained - was a natural actor who had perfected his craft on stage, “developed techniques to make sure the last person in the last row would hear him, his preparation time showed he was really a hard worker.” 

Of his time on the set of the monster comedy, Lugosi Jr. said, “I couldn’t compare it to anything, it was a once in a lifetime thing, this was the one and only time I was on the set with Dad. He seemed very happy to have me there. Everyone treated Dad with such great deference that he virtually took over the entire set whenever he was present. I saw how he did things in one take while others took 13 takes. I remember how nice Lon Chaney Jr. [Wolf Man] and Glenn Strange [Frankenstein’s Monster] were... it’s a memory that will always stick with me.”

By then Lugosi had played not only Dracula, but also many other monsters in many movies. He enjoyed playing comedy, although he’d had few opportunities: “That was the biggest regret he voiced to me,” that such roles did not come his way.

The role of laboratory assistant Ygor in several Frankenstein films allowed Lugosi to provide some “element of comic relief” to the films, and he was able to do some tongue-in-cheek acting in the 1932 “White Zombie,” a troubled production which he also helped direct by default. Lugosi Jr. said those were favored roles.

When touring the theatrical production throughout the East Coast, there were father and son talks in between the famed actor pointing out sites of interest and sharing his love of nature. 

Lugosi Jr. said he never considered becoming an actor. In fact his father discouraged it, because “He thought actors lacked independence, were too dependent on producers and agents.”

Lugosi’s own career as a lawyer includes a niche he created, court cases involving the intellectual property rights of various Hollywood estates. Although an appeals court later ruled in favor of the studio, Lugosi v. Universal Pictures - Lugosi’s landmark lawsuit - became the basis of the legislature’s creation in 1985 of the California Celebrities Rights Act.

Lugosi said he hopes the act - which establishes that rights of publicity survive the celebrity’s death and descend to heirs by wills, among other means - would please his father. After all, “Bela Lugosi sculpted our imagination of how a vampire should look and behave. His influence extends to every subsequent film vampire. His slicked hair, clean-shaven and handsome face, burning eyes, and courtly manner are the appearance of what Dracula will forever be.”

And what his father was: “My memory is still very clear of the sound of his voice, the look of his eyes, his long stride when he was walking, his interest in me, and the magnitude of his feelings-of elation, depression, joy, and sorrow,” said his son. “People recognized him, even walking on a dark street, just by the sound of his voice.”

Lugosi was a man “who loved everything life had to offer. He put a personal stamp on everything he did - from carving a roast beef to playing a character on the stage. “Funny, you know that saying that some people can fill a room? That’s how Dad was... he walked into a room and everybody knew he was there, especially if he spoke. He had a very distinct mannerism and voice... he had a stage presence, that’s what it was.”

Lugosi also had impeccable taste in wines: the family has created Lugosi Wines, which seeks varietals sourced from superior wine-growing regions. Winemakers are creating exceptional wines from distinct appellations to assemble a portfolio of the Bela Lugosi brand wines that will celebrate the best varietals from around the world, a collection that will exemplify the distinct qualities of Bela Lugosi, the man, in a unique compilation of outstanding wines.

So far, none of the actor’s four grandchildren or six great-grandchildren are interested in acting, although Lugosi Jr. noted, “We have a couple looking at the behind the lens portion of the business, not in front of the lens.”

With the late actor’s love of nature there is no doubt the ultimate “Creature of the Night” would enjoy the Hemerocallis Bela Lugosi, a Daylily named in his honor that features dusky purple petals that arise from lime-green throats whose color bleeds eerily into a greenish gold center. 

Lugosi’s cape from the 1931 film is among the family archives and his son pointed out that this interview fell on the 56th anniversary of the legend’s death. But it is likely Lugosi’s Count Dracula will never be forgotten: Google “Dracula” - 59 million “hits” are listed, most highlighting Lugosi’s contribution to the legend.

How would the Count feel about such fame? “He would be amazed,” said Lugosi Jr. “Dad didn’t think he’d ever be remembered.”

For more information on the September 22 Moonlight at the Ranch VI: “Creatures of the Night!” visit www.moonlightattheranch.com - be sure to “Like” Moonlight on Facebook.

Tickets to the celebration - each year a sell-out - are only $60 each and can be charged by calling 805-525-1890, reserved prepaid on the website, and purchased in Santa Paula at the Santa Paula Times, 944 E. Main St., Chamber of Commerce 200 N. 10th St., and The Best of VC Marketplace, 108 N. 10th Street. In Ventura, visit The Wine Rack, 14 S. California Street. 

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