October 20, 2010
On this day in 1880, Bela Blasko was born in Lugos, Hungary, which sits about 50 miles away from the castle of 15th-century prince Vlad The Impaler. Blasko began a career in stage acting in 1902, and soon after adopted the pseudonym Bela Lugosi and went on to play everything from Jesus Christ to Cyrano de Bergerac. Immigrating to the United States in 1920, he continued working in “legitimate theater” and secured the role of Count Dracula in a 1927 Broadway stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire thriller.
“While Lugosi may not set many hearts aflutter now,” Jim Koch wrote in a 1994 New York Times piece on vampires, “women in the audience at the time responded enthusiastically to his Continental charm, penetrating gaze and slicked-back hair, which gave him the aura of an undead Valentino and turned the play into a big hit. [...] When Lugosi repeated his role in the Universal Pictures’ 1931 screen version of Dracula, he set the mold for screen vampires for the next three decades.”
And Lugosi seemed especially attuned to the vampire’s sexual allure, which he noted in 1932 while chatting with fellow horror movie actor Boris Karloff. “Ah, Boris, to win a woman, take her with you to see Dracula, the movie. As she sees me, the bat-like vampire, swoop through an open casement into some girl’s boudoir, there to sink teeth into neck and drink blood, she will thrill through every nerve and fiber. That is your cue to draw close to her, Boris.”
Typecast as a horror movie villain, Lugosi’s career careened into a rut of B-grade pictures, and acting opportunities waned by the mid-1940s. The latter part of his career was largely spent working with director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a string of riotously awful movies. Although Lugosi died in 1956—and was buried with his Dracula cape—Wood creatively edited stock footage of the deceased actor into his magnum opus of sci-fi schlock, Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Although his career was six feet under at the time of his passing, Lugosi maintained that debonair persona that was his hallmark at the height of his fame. That’s the image captured here in the National Portrait Gallery’s rendering by artist Joseph Grant, who drew caricatures of Hollywood stars for the Los Angeles Record before joining the Walt Disney studio. And it’s still the quintessential vampire aesthetic. Don’t believe me? Thumb through a catalog of Halloween costumes. While I’m sure you’ll see a few heartthrob vampire outfits a la Robert Pattinson, I’d readily wager that you’ll find more that hearken back to the European aristocrat garb donned by Lugosi. And even if you’re not dressing up this year and will be spending the holiday on your couch, make it a date night and watch Bela work his magic in Dracula.
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