by Fred Muenz
The suavely dressed Count slowly descended the staircase into the great hall of his ancestral castle. His unblinking eyes fixed on his guests as if staring into their souls. In his softly accented voice he said “I bid you…welcome”.
Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko was born in October, 1882, in Lugos, located in what was then Austria-Hungary (now Romania), a town from which he would later draw his stage name, Bela Lugosi. After leaving school at age 12 to persue an acting career, he found small parts in plays and operettas in provincial theaters. In 1911, he moved to Budapest and began appearing in supporting roles with the National Theater of Hungary. He would later claim that he was the leading player in the Royal National Theater of Hungary, despite a record of small roles. After World War I service as an infantry officer with the Austro-Hungarian army, he returned home only to be forced to flee during the 1919 Hungarian Revolution, in which the Communists came to power. He travelled first to Vienna before settling in Berlin, where he took his stage name, Lugosi, and continued acting. Living conditions were harsh in Germany after the war, and he was unable to survive on the money he made acting. Finally signing on as a crewman aboard a merchant ship, he jumped ship in New Orleans and made his way to New York. Once in New York, he worked as a laborer before finding small roles in locally made silent films and Broadway productions. In 1927, he was offered the lead in the stage version of Dracula. When Universal Pictures acquired the film rights, however, they cast Lon Chaney in the lead. After Chaney’s sudden death, Lugosi was given the role, which made him an overnight star. His career was doomed, however, by typecasting and his penchant to accept virtually any role offered to him. Addicted to morphine due to war wounds, he finally died a pauper in August, 1956, at age 73. It’s said that at the funeral, upon seeing Lugosi laid out in his Dracula costume, Peter Lorre quipped to Vincent Price “do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just in case”.
Lugosi often appeared in “B” movies with another icon of horror films, William Henry Pratt, aka Boris Karloff. Born in November, 1887, and the youngest of nine children, William was raised by his siblings after their parents died and was expected to follow his older brothers into a diplomatic career. He attended King’s College London, where he took courses with the goal of joining the British Government’s Consulor Service. Due to a stammer, however, which he overcame, and a lisp which was noticable throughout his life, he decided to drop out of college without graduating and drifted, eventually finding himself in Canada. Working at a series of odd jobs, he eventually happened into acting by chance. After several years of stage work in Canada, he moved to Los Angeles, where he took minor acting roles while supporting himself by digging ditches, working as a railway baggage handler and driving a cement truck. Although he had already appeared in small parts in 80 silent films and movie serials, his big break came when he was cast as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), in which the opening credits listed him simply as “?”. With the success of FRANKENSTEIN, he quickly became a hot property and was cast in a succession of monster movies, including THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) and THE MUMMY (1932). The part of the crazed killer, Jonathan Brewster, in the Broadway play, Arsenic And Old Lace, was written for him. In the play, the homicidal character becomes enraged whenever he’s mistaken for Boris Karloff. In real life, Boris Karloff was a kind and well read gentlemean who loved children and recorded albums of children’s stories, narrated Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and handed out Christmas gifts to hospitalized children each year. A longtime heavy smoker, he suffered from emphysema which left him with only one half of one lung functioning. He died in February, 1969, at age 81.
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