“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” – When we think of Dracula, it’s this line that comes to mind. So do long capes, heavy eyebrows, and perfectly smooth hair. In fact, what we see when we think of Dracula is not the original book, but the likeness of the Dracula actor, Bela Lugosi.
Bela Lugosi, however, had a life that deserves its own feature film.
From Hungary to Hollywood
There is some shroud of mystery surrounding Bela Lugosi’s early life. In one of his interviews, he said, “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”
What we know about the iconic Dracula actor is that he was born in 1882, in the small town of Lugoj, in the Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Romania) to a Hungarian banker father and a Serbian-born mother. The youngest of four children, his name (before he hit the stage) was Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó.
At the age of 13, a short while after his father’s death, Bela ran away from home and worked in the mines. After several tumultuous years, marked by moving countries to live with his sister, a stint at the school, and other manual labor, Bela found his way to the stage.
By 1903, he found a steady job as a player in traveling theatre companies. There he honed his skills as an actor in stage plays, operas, and operettas. His big break struck him in 1913, when the most prestigious theatrical institution, The National Theatre of Hungary, cast him in 34 shows. He also appeared in multiple Hungarian silent films, all the while using the stage name Arisztid Olt.
But then came the war.
Because Lugosi was a member of the National Theatre, he was exempt from duty. He, nonetheless, decided to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914. During The Great War, Lugosi fought against the Russian forces as a lieutenant and was even wounded on three separate occasions. After a period of recovery, he left the army in 1916 and returned to the theatre.
And then came the exile.
Sometime in 1919, Lugosi left Hungary for Germany after being persecuted for taking part in forming an actor’s union. By 1921, he made his way to the United States of America.
Once he arrived, Lugosi again turned to manual labor, but quickly found his way back to the theatre within the Hungarian-American community. Not long after, in 1922, he was cast as Fernando in a Broadway play.
The only problem was that Bela Lugosi still didn’t quite have a firm grip on the English language.
Still, Lugosi worked with a tutor and managed to memorize his lines. Though he did not fully understand their meaning, he reproduced his lines phonetically and kept his place on the stage.
Bela Lugosi, Dracula
The first time Bela Lugosi sank his teeth in the role, that would never let him go, was in 1927, on Broadway. The show ran for a full year, then spent the next two touring the country. This did not go unnoticed. Universal Studios decided to adapt the play for the silver screen, and though Bela Lugosi was not their first choice, he ultimately reprised his role.
In 1931, we were finally introduced to Bela Lugosi Dracula. Since then, the titular character never left Lugosi’s side, sometimes to his annoyance.
His ever-present Hungarian accent may have been the reason why he was typecast as a villain with a Dracula-ish presence in other movies. While this fact certainly did influence his future roles, it’s also likely that Dracula as a character was simply too large a presence, one too iconic to be simply wiped away by another role. The King of Horror was thus born, and his reign extends to the present.
If you want a taste of the Old Hollywood Bela Lugosi was a part of, drop by George’s and you will feel the atmosphere ooze all over you. Gloria Swanson’s dinner, or Valentino’s spaghetti challenge – you pick a meal, and we’ll take care of the atmosphere!