Bela Lugosi is Dracula. My father, Bela Lugosi, created his signature portrayal of the sophisticated Count on the Broadway stage, which he later brought to Universal Studios in its classic 1931 horror film Dracula. He thus played a pivotal role in the modern mythology and rich legend of my favorite “monster,” Dracula, the popularity of which continues today.
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, my father was the youngest of four children. He grew up preferring acting to his school work, much to the dismay of his father, a strict businessman. However, his desire to act proved stronger than his family ties or his schooling, and at an early age, he left home to pursue his acting career.
By the early 1900’s, Dad was an established actor in Hungary. By 1913, he became a member of the National Theater of Budapest where he was highly regarded for his versatility. 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, Dad left the theater and volunteered for service when patriotism called. As part of the Forty-third Division of the Hungarian Army Ski Patrol, he was wounded on the Russian front. At the end of World War I, Hungary was embroiled in political problems and Dad participated in the revolution. He had taken an active role on behalf of the actors union, found himself on the wrong side of the ruling party, and in 1919 was forced to flee the country. He went to Vienna and then on to Germany where he continued his acting career. Still pursued, Dad found safe passage to the United States aboard a merchant ship as a crewman. He landed in New Orleans and ventured to New York where he later went through Ellis Island and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Still intent on continuing his career of acting, he found his opportunity in the American theater. Not knowing the English language proved only a small obstacle - he simply formed a Hungarian stock company and surrounded himself with expatriates. His first English-speaking play, The Red Poppy, brought him rave reviews. Unknown to the reviewers at the time, Dad had memorized the entire part phonetically, an amazing task in itself. In the twenties, he worked in both theater and film gaining a reputation for his versatility. He played classic character roles in Europe and America, including everything from Shakespeare to romantic leads. His big break came in 1927 when he landed the lead role in the Broadway production of none other than Dracula. The show ran for 33 weeks on Broadway and was followed by two years of touring. By 1927, Dad had relocated to Hollywood.
Dad’s performance in The Thirteenth Chair brought him to Universal Studios’ attention, and because of the death of Hollywood horror great, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi was chosen for the title role in the 1931 release of Universal’s screen version of Dracula.
My father’s characterization was perfected to the point that, much to the chagrin of Universal Studios’ makeup legend Jack Pierce, he did his own makeup for the film version. For years thereafter, he made personal appearances and played the part on stage. He was billed as “Dracula himself” and “Bela ‘Dracula’ Lugosi.” If ever an actor’s fate was to come full circle, it was Dad’s. His unforgettable performance as Dracula on stage and later in the film was so masterful that it set the standard for all interpretations to come. Spoken in his unforgettable voice and accent, Dad’s lines from the film have become some of the most well known and imitated in movie history: “I am…Dracula. I bid you welcome;” “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make;” “This is very old wine. I hope you will like it;” and most memorable, “I never drink . . . wine.”
In 1931, most people were not aware of vampire lore. It was horrific to think of vampires walking among us, drinking the blood of their victims and turning them into the undead as well. People were just learning about the characteristics of the vampire that have become cliché today - their avoiding sunlight and only coming out at night, their ability to transform into bats and wolves, casting no reflection in a mirror, repulsed by the crucifix and by garlic - and most importantly, that the vampire could be destroyed by putting a wooden stake through its heart. All that changed when in 1931 the unknown nobleman uttered his menacing welcome on film. The pauses and intonation, the graceful and slow hand, the aristocratic bearing, the formal white tie, coat and tails, and raised collar cape now define what everyone sees in his or her mind as Dracula – Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. He was the film personification of dark evil.
With the worldwide success of Dracula, Universal Studios teamed my dad with actor Boris Karloff. They were embraced by the United States as their favorite “Monster Men.” Although Dad longed to break away from the typecast of horror roles, it was not to be. He went on to play many horror roles, including Dr. Mirakle in Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932); Murder Legendre in White Zombie (1932); Sayer of the Law in Island of Lost Souls (1933); and Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In 1943, Dad notably played the Frankenstein Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the role Boris Karloff originated in the 1931 film after my father had turned down the part because it had no speaking lines.
The 1931 Dracula film made Bela Lugosi a horror film star, and one of the most copied characters in cinema history. His face and the character are now indistinguishable. Bela Lugosi sculpted our imagination of how a vampire should look and behave. His influence extends to every subsequent film vampire. His slicked hair and widow’s peak, clean-shaven and handsome face, burning eyes, heavy accent and courtly manner are the appearance of what Dracula will forever be. He is Dracula.
On a personal note, it is difficult for me to believe that Dad has been gone for so many years. 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. People recognized him, even walking on a dark street, just by the sound of his voice.
Even as a young person, I sensed that Dad was anything but an average man. His road was one that few could have traveled. People have often asked me to describe Dad’s real character, but this is impossible because he was such a complicated personality: devil, angel, king, pauper, political activist, humanitarian, wise man, counselor and, above all, 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.
I remember other characteristics about Dad. He usually called me “son” and prefaced his remarks to me with that word. His hands and motions were fascinating to watch because he did everything with such grace, as if it were a ritual. His eyes were all that he needed to use when I was bad. He would just look at me, and it would scare me into behaving. Because I thought of him as my father, I was not frightened of him as a horror man in the theatrical sense (although all my young friends would hide behind the theater seats when we went to see his movies).
I spent time with my dad when I reached my early teens, but by then he was already sixty-eight years old. I realized that he did not have the ability to do the things with me that a younger father would have, but he compensated for this by giving me something only a man his age could offer: a more experienced perspective on life. He was not the type of person to brag about his past, but he would mention bits and pieces when he felt they could help me in my own life. As a young teenager, I remember him telling me, (and by his own actions showing me) that I should set my sights on certain goals and then pursue those goals relentlessly until I had achieved them. We did not really have father-and-son talks, but on one occasion he told me about the time when he was struggling to become a star in Europe. He felt that his lack of education was a handicap in talking to people with more education. He decided he should read everything, from science to religion to music to politics, so that he could speak their language. He wanted to be a generalist who could talk intelligently about a wide variety of topics—and read is what he did every day of his life right up to his death. I could sense that he wanted his son to be an achiever.
My first specific memories go back to the ‘Dracula” house on Whipple Street in North Hollywood where I spent some of my early childhood. That was a perfect house for a small boy. It was surrounded by a tall fence, tall trees, and shrubbery. In the huge enclosed front yard there were paths, ponds, and plenty of places for a boy to get into mischief. Inside, there were large, comfortable leather chairs and a double bed covered with a Persian rug that I loved to jump on. Dad always had people over to the house—Hungarian friends, not very many movie people—for happy parties with gypsy music, often live, that played through the night. He was a captivating entertainer, as I found out when I was older, and always managed to be the center of attention. When I was older, I loved to watch the reactions of people around him because, however clichéd the phrase might be, he was a man with charisma, real personal magnetism. When he entered a room, heads turned.
As soon as I ventured beyond that huge fence on Whipple Street, I found that not everyone’s father was as famous as mine, and I got my first taste of celebrity. Because my parents were on the road doing theater and making personal appearances, I boarded at the Lake Elsinore Naval and Military School from kindergarten through the sixth grade. I cannot say that at the time I liked either military school or celebrity very much. Like most boys, I wanted to blend in, but with a name like Bela Lugosi, Jr., that was not likely.
Dad was just the opposite; he loved the limelight. The military school held a parade every Sunday afternoon for the parents, and Dad would always put on a one-man show. He and my mother would arrive in a large, black limousine or, later, a sporty blue roadster. Everyone would know that Dad had arrived: Bela Lugosi and family were the center of attention.
During the summers while I was in military and junior high school, I lived with my grandparents while Dad and Mom traveled east for Summer Stock. With my grandparents, I got a taste of a more frugal way of life. Whereas my father had taught me very well how to spend (and to distinguish and appreciate the finest), my grandparents went to the other extreme. They taught me practical lessons, instilled moral values, and brought me down to reality after living with a man who believed that tomorrow would always take care of itself.
The summer when I was 13, I went east with my parents for Summer Stock. Even though Dad was busy with rehearsals, performances, and reading scripts continually, he was as interested in teaching me as he himself was interested in learning. He taught me the fundamentals of canoeing on a lake in New Jersey where we stayed because he thought it was important for me. During the drive east, he spent a good part of the time in the car trying to improve my understanding of things around us. He would talk about the local geology, the strata of rocks, the history of towns we passed through, or any one of the many things that came into his mind. As a young boy, I failed to appreciate this wealth of experience my father was offering me, although now I do; and I know what a remarkable man he was. Dad was above all a family man who placed my mother and me at the top of his list. I cannot remember his being in a bad mood around the house, although there were difficult times shortly before the divorce in 1953. The divorce was catastrophic to my father’s spirit, and he never recovered from that trauma.
The things that gave Dad great happiness were being around family and friends, having good conversation, reading a script, and enjoying good food, wine, music, and dancing. He especially loved to listen to Hungarian gypsy music and to discuss current events with his Hungarian friends. He told me (I assume tongue-in-cheek) that although he conversed in English, he still did his important thinking in Hungarian and then translated.
Dad liked to go to the mountains or to his home at Lake Elsinore. There he visited, whenever possible, the nearby Glen Ivy Hot Springs baths.
We did discuss his work, but not often. He showed me how he prepared scripts and practiced his characterizations. A sore point was that his roles were not varied and that this was a waste of his talent.
One of my fondest memories is the time he took me to watch the shooting of the film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. 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 have a vivid memory of the experience of getting refreshments from the commissary cart with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange in full monster makeup.
With the passage of time, I have come to know a much greater part of the man—and respect him all the more because I realize that the things he had taught me were not just idle preaching. He practiced what he preached and was able to overcome obstacles in his life which few men could conquer.
Bela Lugosi, a pioneer in American film and a legend of classic horror roles, died at the age of 73 in the summer of 1956, and was buried most fittingly in one of his Dracula capes.