A Portrait of the Struggles of the Man Who Was Dracula in No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi
The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi Revealed
I first was introduced to Bela Lugosi circa early 1978 when the original DRACULA aired on television. I was shocked to see an actual actor using the legendary voice that my six year old ears only previously heard via cartoons, commercials, and parodies. Channel 17, The Great Entertainer and never-to-be-forgotten UHF Valhalla, was bringing the "real deal vampire" into my grandparents' living room.
At the time, serious study of Bela and the history of horror movies was virtually nonexistent. The truth is, the bulk of the research was inaccurate and based on a lot of hearsay. That's not research. Sadly, inaccuracies about Lugosi's life abounded and it was not until many who were introduced to the great horror icon through television viewings during their youth expounded upon their affinity for the man through excellent critical and historical works presenting a more accurate image of the former Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó.
The newest entry is a great, great book entitled NO TRAVELER RETURNS: THE LOST YEARS OF BELA LUGOSI.
IN SEARCH OF....ACCURACY
There are a few half-truths about Bela Lugosi's life still circulating. It is commonly believed that once the 1930s and 1940s horror cycle ended, Lugosi was typecast, unable to find work in anything other than Z Grade horror films, and suffered a debilitating drug problem leading to his death in his early 70's. Had he lived a few more years, he would have experienced great joy to see his horror films immensely celebrated by a new generation of fans thanks to the huge success of the Shock Theater syndicated television package. He would have also reaped huge financial benefits from the career resurgence this might have given him.
While there is truth to these historical notes, Bela Lugosi's life in the 1940s and into the 1950s had far more positive points to it than many realize. Thanks to the brilliant work of Gary D. Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger, the book NO TRAVELER RETURNS covers much of the lost years of Bela Lugosi's life. What we discover is, while his movie roles were very slim and his television appearances very limited, Lugosi did a lot of stage work. A LOT of stage work. The two theatrical productions he frequently was a cast member of were DRACULA, of course, and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. There were other plays he was involved with and the title of the book refers to a failed (disastrously so) play that bombed in all the few cities it appeared.
Not all of Lugosi's theatrical performances were failures. The truth is Bela worked consistently in the theater and to a fair amount of success.
MYTHS AND HALF-TRUTHS DE BUNKED
Myths exist that Lugosi's theatrical endeavors were failures. Not true at all. About 15 years ago, Frank J. Dello Stritto wrote a brilliant work entitled VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, which chronicled Lugosi's ''failed'' Dracula stage play tour that sought to bring the work to the West End. Historical documents noted the theatrical tour was a failure. Not so. The tour was a huge hit with audience, but failed to make money because of the costs of production. The packed houses were loss leaders. The idea was to make all money lost back if the project reached the West End. It did not.
Now, Rhodes, a brilliant Lugosi scholar, along with Bill Kaffenberger shed some light on the life of the great Bela Lugosi when he was invested mostly in theater during the years 1945-1951.
RESEARCH AND FACTS UNCOVERED
One reason so many myths and inaccuracies about Lugosi's life abound is because a large number of his theatrical outings were performed in small towns. Unless someone had access to the newspaper review or advertisements, the performance became a forgotten one. Just because no one has kept logs of Lugosi's work does not mean it never happened. Just as I was surprised to learn, when reading VAMPIRE OVER LONDON, that Lugosi performed as Dracula in my hometown of Philadelphia at the Forest Theater, I learned in NO TRAVELER RETURNS Lugosi was the star in a performance of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in suburban New Hope, PA.
Where does all this new info come from? The internet has led to many old newspaper archives to be more easily accessible. The authors of the book were able to use the newfound research as a means of logging a more accurate picture and also doing their own research to discover more facts.
This is not to suggest that NO TRAVELER RETURNS is merely a logging of all Lugosi's theatrical work. What truly makes the work stand out is we are drawn an image of the man's difficult personal life and his struggles to remain employed when work in Hollywood dried up.
SUMMERSTOCK: CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Bela Lugosi's career in the late 1940s involved performing in summer stock or at engagements at small theaters at other times during the year. To understand what his professional life was like, one has to look at the bookings he was offered.
After ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1947), Universal would all but cease its horror output. In truth, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN was considered a comedy vehicle and not really a horror film. Universal would go on to make the very successful CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON series in the 1950s, but their success was based on the 3D film craze. (Well, the first two films in the series were successful) CREATURE was more of a science-fiction film than a horror film, but some may disagree with this assessment.
What no one can really disagree with is the fact audiences did remember Bela Lugosi from his legendary appearance as Dracula in the classic Universal film. He was also remembered for his various other film appearances. The problem Lugosi faced was he was considered a B Movie actor and yesterday's news. Appearances in major cities with long runs in major plays was not going to be an option. Trading in on his fame to play in 700 seat venues in small towns all throughout the United States was an option available to him. While far from the most luxurious life, it was a way to make a living.
In 1949, Lugosi often commandeered $750 a week for his summer stock performances in Dracula and Arsenic and Old Lace. He may have done some shots for $500 and there were shows where he made $1,000. Using the $750 figure, we have to adjust this for the cost of inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that $750 in 1949 had the same buying power as $7,446. Obviously, this is a huge sum of money but do not automatically assume that Lugosi pocketed all of it. For one, he had to cover his own costs to get to the venue and, in some cases, this meant traveling 3,000+ miles from his home in Los Angeles to places such as Rhode Island. He did not have the conveniences of being able to fly from coast to coast and often had to drive to the new location. Once there, he had to cover his own hotel and meals, just as he had to on the road. If there was another booking for a one week engagement 800 miles north of where he was and there was a two week gap between performances, he would have to continue to pay his travel expenses until the actual event.
In modern dollars, if it took him a week to get somewhere, four weeks invested in the performing in two plays, and then another week to return home, he was doing fine provided he watches his money. (He, sadly, did not) Overall, the six week endeavor may have cost him $1,000 a week in modern funds and his earnings were $15,000 leaving him with $9,000. Not a bad figure but, remember, work of this nature was seasonal. There were long gaps between when he worked on the stage and did not. He had income tax to pay and personal expenses on his home in Los Angeles.
At best, Lugosi earned a decent yearly income and earned it the (very) hard way.
FINAL VERDICT: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF BELA LUGOSI MOVIES
Anyone who has a fond affinity for Bela Lugosi, his movie career, and his life should invest in this great book. NO TRAVELER RETURNS definitely is one of the best historical and character sketches of a horror icon you will ever read.