Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Photo Odyssey, Part One by Greg Dziawer

Bela Lugosi, Dolores Fuller, and Ed Wood on New Year's Eve, 1953.

The famous photo from 1953.
It was just a few days ago when Milton Knight, a fellow Woodologist, posted a historic photograph to a private Ed Wood forum. I had doubtless seen it before, but I'd never thought twice about it. Photos of Ed have generally remained an area of research that I now realize I've seriously neglected. This particular black-and-white snapshot depicts Bela Lugosi, Dolores Fuller, and Ed Wood dressed to the proverbial nines. Ed looks sharp in a light-colored tie against a light-colored shirt. Dolores has something wonderfully fuzzy draped over her arm, and her signature is visible in the lower left-hand corner.

I initially replied that it could be from 1953 or '54, maybe from Bela's Silver Slipper Revue in Las Vegas. I was close.

Soon after this image was posted, another Woodologist who owns a copy of the photo purchased from Dolores at a convention appearance, posted a version with a caption: 
Bela Lugosi, Dolores Fuller and Ed Wood
San Bernardino, California, New Year's Eve, 1953
The year is handwritten, unlike the previous caption text. (A correction, perhaps?) While this image had been posted many times online, both with and without the caption, there had to have been an actual source. The Woodologist who had purchased a copy subsequently told me that Dolores "sold many copies" of it. Dolores' penchant for marketing herself and her work in later years is a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that she excelled at it, and it's likely thanks to her that this image survived at all. 

What is the backstory of this photo, you are likely wondering? I had somehow forgotten that this incident was recorded in previous Lugosi biographies that I'd already read, as well as Ed Wood's own posthumously published Hollywood Rat Race.

In Arthur Lennig's The Immortal Count: The Films of Bela Lugosi (1974), we suffer the painful details of this fallow period of Bela's life. Lillian Arch, his wife of 20 years and mother of his only child, left him in the spring of 1953. Ed was acting as Bela's agent at this time. The Hungarian actor made a guest appearance on the July 27, 1953 edition of You Wanted To See It, a live TV series in which host Art Baker fulfilled various mailed-in requests from viewers. After appearing in a six-minute sketch as—what else?—a vampire, Lugosi told Baker that he was working on "a few things," including a film called The Phantom Ghoul and a TV series called Dr. Acula. As most Wood fans know, these were both projects that Eddie initiated but sadly never completed. By October, unfortunately, Bela struggled to find work, selling possessions at public auction and moving to a more modest apartment in Los Angeles.

After Lillian's departure, Bela became depressed, drank, ate poorly, and lost weight. These changes are evident in his gaunt features and skeletal hands in the New Year's Eve photo. It was then, as Lennig tells it, that Bela "was roused from his misery by the indefatigable Ed Wood, who booked Lugosi into a New Year's show in San Bernardino, California, to usher in 1954." The tone of this statement confirms Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic, reinforcing the theme that Ed rose above his challenging reality.

Robert Cremer's Bela bio Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape (1976) likewise notes that, at the New Year's Eve show, "sandwiched between films, Lugosi gave a well-received speech, after which he remained to shake hands and sign autographs."

Article about the West Coast Theatre.
By far, the most thorough account of the night was included in Ed Wood's Hollywood Rat Race. Wood used the New Year's Eve show as a parable about redemption and determination. It is up to the reader to decide how much of Wood's story is true and how much is wishful thinking.

In any event, as part of a chapter called "Hate," Wood describes a 71-year-old Bela Lugosi as being "despondent" and "outwardly ready to quit" due to his dire financial circumstances in late 1953. His older films had started playing on television by then, but young viewers watching these classics didn't know whether Lugosi was alive or dead. Wood specifically mentions Maila "Vampira" Nurmi hosting a broadcast of White Zombie (1932) on Los Angeles' KHJ-TV. This incident seems to have been the basis for a memorable scene in Burton's film, with Bela (Martin Landau) and Ed (Johnny Depp) watching Vampira's show from a lumpy couch in Bela's cluttered home.

Desperate to find work for Lugosi, who by then was too frail to appear in stage plays, Wood hit upon the idea of having the legendary actor make a personal appearance where he would interact with his fans directly. The elderly actor, Wood reports, was enthusiastic about this plan. But Lugosi had no real act, in the traditional vaudeville sense, so it was difficult at first to find a proper venue for him. Luckily, Wood had previously done business with a gentlemanly exhibitor named Albert Stetson, who owned several movie theaters in or near Los Angeles at the time. It was Stetson, Wood says, who devised the New Year's Eve program at his San Bernardino location, about 61 miles outside of L.A.

Wood goes on to describe the hoopla preceding the big night, with Lugosi giving numerous interviews, attending various club functions, and even meeting George Blair, the mayor of San Bernardino. The day of the show, Ed and Bela drove out to the theater, braving cold, misty weather along the way. They were accompanied by Dolores Fuller, described by Wood as Lugosi's "lovely assistant." Once he arrived in San Bernardino, Lugosi was immediately corralled into doing yet another radio interview instead of being allowed to relax.

After that ordeal, Bela, Dolores, and Ed all attended a "final cocktail party for the press" held at a nearby hotel. Wood makes a point of saying that Lugosi diligently refrained from drinking that day, even though the actor "had always enjoyed his scotch and room temperature beer." But the party dragged on and on, Wood says, and Lugosi was getting tired. Finally, the actor was allowed to go to his hotel room to put on his "full dress suit" and prepare for the evening. Wood tells us that Bela "demanded solitude even from his friends" before a show.

An ad for Bela Lugosi's New Years show.
According to Hollywood Rat Race, the bill of fare that memorable evening consisted of "five features, several cartoons, and a hundred-dollar bank night drawing." The program, Wood alleges, began at 9:00 that night with a screening of Arabian Nights (1942) with Jon Hall. Bela had not yet arrived. Dolores had been dispatched to retrieve him from the hotel. Attendance was initially sparse to nil but picked up substantially within the first hour until the box office had to display a "Standing Room Only" sign. Wood says that the local police and fire departments were brought in to handle the crowds and traffic generated by the show.

After Arabian Nights and an obscure Terrytoons short called Runaway Mouse (1953) had ended, Lugosi finally pulled up in a limousine, only to be mobbed by autograph seekers. There was no longer any doubt, Wood says, that the audience was there specifically to see the aged actor. "A rerun movie and a gross of cartoons hadn't attracted people from parties on New Year's Eve," Wood writes. "It was the great Lugosi who had come out of hiding after all those years." Finally, at 10:58, Lugosi took the stage and tearfully delivered the following short speech:
My dear friends: I greet you here tonight on a new, great, New Year. May the coming year bring the joy and success deserved. I wish, with all my heart, that I might meet each of you on the mezzanine in a few minutes where I might personally shake your hand and say ... God bless you.
Lugosi's "performance" that night lasted less than a minute by Wood's reckoning. Bela had disregarded the three-minute speech Eddie had written and instead "designed his own speech." The Dracula star then ascended to the mezzanine, where he and Dolores distributed autographed photographs to waiting fans.

This show business fairy tale ends with Albert Stetson sending Ed Wood a letter thanking him for breaking box office records at the venue. The letter, as quoted in Hollywood Rat Race, is effusive in its praise: "Mr. Bela Lugosi's personal appearance at the West Coast Theater [sic] has truly given our theater a wonderful evening."

The now-demolished West Coast Theatre (later the Crest) was an ornate house hailing from the height of the silent era. Despite its auspicious beginnings in 1925, the place was no longer showing first-run features by 1954. The ad for the New Year's show in The San Bernardino Sun (December 30, 1953) lists only two of the five promised features. It was one of the smaller ads on the page, dwarfed by promotions for New Year's floor shows elsewhere as well as for John Wayne's Hondo, admittance to which would cost you $1.25. The West Coast, meanwhile, advertised 50 cents for an entire show. And the ad tells us that the show—with Bela present and presenting "speeches" that could very well have been penned by Ed, alongside an assortment of B and second-run features—ran for an incredible four days.

  • Special thanks this week to artist and illustrator Milton Knight for instigating, unwittingly or not, both a whole new Wood Odyssey and a brand new space in my head. Make sure to check out his incredible blog, The World of Knight.