Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/November 13, 2021
Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Let’s go on a voyage today…
By the time I got to Budapest it was raining. No, maybe that was Vienna on a Danube River trip a few years ago. Who cares what the weather was when visiting the homeland of notorious actor Bela Lugosi.
Why Bela “Call Me Dracula” Lugosi now? Fully two weeks after Halloween 2021, the year almost everybody wore masks if they had an ounce of sense? But enough politics. Around Halloween I re-watched Bela on TV as Dracula in his first movie playing that blood-sucking vampire and this is my first chance to express some inspiring thoughts on it in print.
I was shocked, shocked in Budapest (cognoscenti like me actually pronounce it Budapescht to demonstrate our erudition) to find how big Lugosi still is in the Hungarian capital. After all, the guy left there before 1920 and died in Hollywood more than 30 years later.
It’d be like Duluth worshiping Bob Dylan in 2087, or thereabouts. They probably will.
But everywhere you go in Budapest (remember, if you read this aloud to your children, pronounce it Budapescht to get them off to a good start in life) there’s some remembrance of Bela Lugosi — statues, museums (well, just one); there’s the Bela Lugosi Day Care Center, the Bela Lugosi Laundromat, the Bela Lugosi Blood Bank (hmmmm), Saint Bela Lugosi Cathedral. Well, maybe I dreamed a few of those up, but Lugosi is big in Budapest. Take my word for it.
Who remembers the famous Austro-Hungarian emperor (I forget his name, but James Mason played him in the movies with huge sideburns)? Hardly anybody remembers who was emperor when all the trouble started over there leading to World War I, but you can’t round a corner in downtown Budapest without running into Bela Lugosi.
Sometimes I worry in writing these columns that as a registered geezer my musings will not be of interest to members of those generations with letters like X, Y and Z and so forth. All of my progeny falls into one of those categories. My generation falls somewhere between “Greatest” and “Boomer,” so we got no credit at all for ending the Great Depression and discovering Elvis.
But we remember Bela Lugosi, by cracky. He scared the living daylights out of me when they re-relased his 1931 classic “Dracula” and it showed up at Duluth’s Lyric Theater on a dark and stormy night when I was about 10 years old. At least I think it was dark and stormy; dark for sure, Daylight Saving Time having lapsed. I’m pretty sure. I like to be decisive.
You couldn’t view that movie at that age without being petrified, and being instilled with a lifelong fear of vampire bats, which are now accused of starting pandemics. Sometimes in the film, Dracula shows up as a bat casing the boudoirs of fair-haired young women before turning back into the black-caped-white-tie-and-tails monster about to suck her blood via her neck. That sort of thing gets your attention as a pre-adolescent.
Sleeping in a coffin placed in a dank catacomb during the day, he’d rise only after dark (you wonder what he thought about Daylight Saving Time) to work his hypnotic magic on his comely victims and also crazed males who have difficulty speaking without seeming to scream in a monotone, eyes wide with terror.
Whew, I’m getting scared just recalling his stuff. Thank heaven (heaven is not actually involved here but thank it anyway) for Dr. Van Helsing, who’s got the goods on the caped, widow’s peaked, slick raven-headed, vampire.
Van Helsing carries a good-sized crucifix in his suit coat breast pocket because he knows that is the one thing Dracula fears and shrinks back from. (Well, I guess heaven IS involved here a bit. What a relief.) Oh, Dracula recoils from garlic too — just like the rest of us.
“You know too much, Van Helsing,” says the Count (oh yes, I forgot to note that Dracula was a tangential royal in his Transylvania homeland — not to be confused with Pennsylvania). Back home in Transylvania he was known as “Vlad the Impaler.” This was several generations before the Hollywood years, although it’s the same guy. Vampires never die as long as they sleep all day. They don’t even fade away, even when a stake is driven through their hearts.
Oh, I can’t go on. I’m getting the shivers just writing about this.
I recall taking the bus home from the Dracula movie that night and my buddy and I ran as fast as we could in the dark from the bus stop to the safety of our homes and hearths.
Meanwhile, back in Budapest, I have a photo of me posing in touristy attire standing in front of the Bela Lugosi Museum, inexplicably painted a cheerful yellow. I didn’t go inside, though. Scared? Maybe. Also cheap.
Finally, remember: If you want to impress your friends, pronounce it Budapesht.