Friday, June 14, 2013

Bela Lugosi's "lost" 1928 Dracula Performance

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Not a week goes by that someone is not asking me via e-mail for information about some radio broadcast that has yet to be documented. I feel bad about not having the time to answer every request, but the enclosed story reveals how a Holy Grail for old-time radio fans was unearthed as a result -- not from a request -- but from of a wager. And a prime example of how much effort can go into one search... and hopefully a few ideas for researchers to apply. 

About a year ago I was shaking hands with a friendly fellow, Jerry Robbins, who introduced himself as an authority on all things Bela Lugosi. I was an attendee at the annual Monster Bash convention in Butler, Pennsylvania, and Jerry brought a copy of a magazine article I wrote a few years back about Lugosi's 200+ radio appearances (also citing the sources of where those radio appearances were referenced). What peaked his interest was a notation I made referring to as "the earliest known radio appearance" of Bela Lugosi. 

News Flash: I phrased "earliest known" because there is no possible way anyone can generate a list of a Hollywood actor's radio career and claim the earliest known is their "radio premiere." A number of newspapers and magazines of the twenties and thirties publicly hailed Hollywood and Broadway celebrities making their "radio debut" -- but that was always for publicity and newspaper editors rarely questioned what was reported in press releases. I find that when you dig far enough you will often find an appearance that pre-dates any such proclamation.

Anyway, the entry in question was in the spring of 1928, when Bela Lugosi supposedly appeared before a radio microphone to act out the role of Dracula, the title character of a stage play adapted from the Bram Stoker novel of the same name. The Broadway play premiered in 1927 and exists today only through playbills, photographs, newspaper articles, tabloid briefs and Lugosi's reprisal on the silver screen in 1931. As is often the case in Hollywood, Lugosi found himself typecast and played the role of a vampire many times (or suspected of being a vampire as in the case of the 1935 motion-picture, Mark of the Vampire).

Anyway, two months ago, Jerry called me on the phone to ask if I was planning to attend Monster Bash in a few weeks, now held in Mars, Pennsylvania. After reminding me of our discussion about the 1928 radio broadcast, Jerry asked if a recording of that broadcast was ever found. Again, my answer had not changed from last year. No, it had not and probably will not. Why? In 1928, radio broadcasts were not even considered a viable commercial property. Rarely was a broadcast sponsored because companies both local and national questioned just how many people had a radio in their living room. 1928 was the same year Amos and Andy premiered in Chicago, radio station WOL in Washington, D.C. opened for business, and it was not until December 23 that NBC was set up to broadcast as a coast-to-coast network. This means most radio stations (depending on the wattage) offered programming on a local/regional basis. Ten years later, in 1938, the cost of a half-hour transcription disc was $90 (yeah, that was a lot of money back then) and while the reasons why radio broadcasts of the thirties, forties and fifties exist today vary, depending on the program, someone had to foot the bill. If the Lugosi broadcast of 1928 was ever recorded, what would be the reason and who would have paid the bill? Per statistics (via Hickerson), only four (general) radio broadcasts exist in recorded form that pre-date 1928, so the chances of the long-rumored radio broadcast Jerry asked about remains almost improbable.

Jerry, being determined, asked me if a copy of the radio script exists. "It might," I told him, explaining that there was no industry standard for radio scripts in 1928. At that time, many radio program were broadcast without the use of scripts. The few that were scripted were molded from the format of stage plays. And dramas were few and far between in 1928. Radio provided mostly news and music... especially music. Singers who knew the lyrics didn't need anything but a finger to cue their vocal chords.

Since I completed that "Lugosi on Radio" article a few years back, I amassed over 70 radio scripts with Lugosi featured in the cast, verifying what his role was on those particular programs. Of amusement was the Dr. Heggi role on Quick as a Flash where the script was found in an archive. (Click the link to see that radio script.) Because of this, Jerry offered me a proposition. He wagered me a box of Krispy Kreme donuts that I couldn't find a copy of the 1928 radio script within 30 days.

[pause behind the phone for a moment...]

"Sixty days," I told him. "I will be attending Cinevent and the Cincinnati Nostalgia Expo and among my duties will be introducing a film short, and I need to prepare for a slide show presentation... among other things. Give me sixty days." Jerry accepted the terms and as King Henry IV (Shakespeare) remarked, "the game's afoot." Before our phone conversation concluded, I did ask Jerry who else he approached, in case someone else has been working on the same and might have a few leads I could start with. No, the only person who could solve the mystery and find a script to the 1928 broadcast would be me, Jerry insisted.

Radio News in 1928
So how do you go about finding a radio script from 1928, with nothing but the information described above? I started by narrowing down the possibilities. The Dracula stage play went on tour across the country but it was still rooted in New York City at the time of the broadcast. It was an educated guess that the broadcast originated from New York City and would have been a local broadcast, not a coast-to-coast presentation. That narrowed down the number of radio stations. The broadcast more than likely would have been between 1927 and 1929, with a focus to publicize the stage drama and encourage listeners to visit the theater.

Newspaper listings are rarely consulted because it has been proven that one out of every eight listings is inaccurate (refer to the article Unreliable Newspaper Logs from 2011). Remember, newspapers should not be used as reference, but as a tool for reference. My listing of Lugosi's radio credits in a magazine article a few years ago cited which of his "known" appearances were featured in specific newspapers across the country but proven to be inaccurate, while 12 still remain questionable. In this case, I used a number of New York newspaper archives (especially the valuable Nothing came up referring to Dracula or Lugosi. Most likely the Dracula production was a dramatic highlight of a radio program. Using key words such as "Broadway" and "Stage," and consulting Jay Hickerson's Ultimate Guide book (recommended for anyone who plans to do research on old-time radio), I narrowed down the possibilities to 98 programs (might be 97 or 99, I did a loose count here). Scratching off anything originating from Buffalo or Syracuse, the number came down to 93.

For each and every program, I dug into the series history and scratched off anything that aired in the evening. The actors could not have performed the drama during the evening since they had a play to perform. That narrowed down to morning or afternoon. Down to 23. Looking over the list, one program caught my eye. Fifteen Minutes of Drama remained a strong possibility. No one said the cast of the stage play had to perform the entire drama (why give away the entire story?) so a sample or teaser was a likely theory. Photographed below is a snapshot taken on my new iPhone5 which provided both the time and the network.

Screen capture of the potential and elusive Bela Lugosi.

Finding the exact program and air date would be trial and error. As you can see above (click to enlarge), Mary Margaret Chester was a temporary substitute for the series regular, Aileen Berry. This offers two additional leads: the names of the female hosts. But two days of digging only suggested I was walking down an empty alley. Everything referring to the two women helped document Fifteen Minutes of Drama but nothing referring to Dracula. For anyone curious, WJZ was one of two stations representing NBC (NBC Red and NBC Blue) and originated from Newark, New Jersey. Located about 30 minutes outside of New York City, it remained possible that the stage actors, Lugosi included, made the trek down to Newark and their performance might have originated from New Jersey. Following this lead my next course of action was to contact The New Jersey Historical Society. Located on Park Place, for anyone who is not familiar with Newark, New Jersey, I recommend you make the trip only if necessary. Remember the joke in New Year's Eve (2011) about how bad an area Newark is? Yeah, I was afraid my car might be stolen after I parked and locked it.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 movie.
The Historical Society, however, turned up negative regarding anything I was seeking. (Found good radio material but nothing leading to Dracula.) The next phase was to start scanning through old periodicals like Broadcasting and Variety. I scanned every page of Broadcasting at College Park in searchable pdf format but in this case it did not help. Broadcasting didn't start until 1931. Variety was a crap-shoot. Then I made the trek into New York City and went to the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Using their card files on the second floor, I found a number of newspaper clippings for radio programs that featured the words "Broadway" and "Stage." That is when one item came across my attention...

A radio program known as Stardom of Broadway which, on the afternoon of March 2, 1928, featured an adaptation of "The Racket" with Williard Robertson, Hugh O'Connell and Harry English reprising their stage roles. The clipping made mention of the play at the Ambassador Theatre and how screen options were recently purchased by a major film studio. The same clipping also stated that "The Racket" would be the first of many Stardom of Broadway radio broadcasts to highlight scenes from popular and "highly-acclaimed melodramas." The director of the radio program was Mortimer Stewart. The sponsor was Barbour, Crimmins & Bryant, a theatrical firm based out of New York City. Obviously the producers bought radio air time to promote a number of stage plays including "Excess Baggage," presently playing at The Ritz Theatre, which they were producing on Broadway. (Special thanks to Jo Bagwell for her assistance with the sponsor.)

Looking through Variety for an obituary for Mortimer Stewart, I was able to discover who the next of kin was "survived by son and daughter..." From there I was able to use and track down a family relative, but no one even knew Stewart did radio. They thought he did stage plays. Dead end again.

I put in a plea on Craig's List for tracking down a family relative of a radio script writer responsible for the Dracula radio program. I did receive one response but afterwards discovered it was for a different Dracula script.

Makes you wonder what she is listening to?
So I began digging into the history of Stardom of Broadway. Here was what I was able to dig up about the program: Mortimer Stewart was a member of the WJZ staff so his duties served as director and writer for dozens of radio programs over a short time, in many cases he managed as many as three programs a day! Stardom of Broadway lasted a mere five weeks -- five broadcasts. The series aired from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. Eastern. The presentation of March 9 remains unknown. On the afternoon of March 16, "Our Betters" was dramatized, based on the stage play by W. Somerset Maugham. On the afternoon of March 23, "Excess Baggage" was presented, a comedy by John McGowan. On the afternoon of March 30, "Dracula" was presented. I have not been able to verify a Stardom of Broadway broadcast on April 6 and I suspect March 30 was the fifth and final broadcast of the series.

Now that I had a broadcast date, finding the script would be easier. The WJZ Radio Station archives might have something. So off I went to the microfilm division and keeping in mind that finding something there is like searching for a needle in a haystack without knowing the broadcast date, time and name of program, I find WJZ's accounting of radio broadcasts on March 30, 1928. News bulletins, titles of programs and... BINGO! I found the radio script.

Keep in mind that in 1928 radio scripts were not necessary when the stage actors could recite their lines forwards and backwards. Week by week the stage actors were expected to know their lines and deliver them flawlessly. And there does not appear to be any rehearsals. Exactly what scene or scenes from Dracula were acted out before the radio microphone still remains a mystery. But what you see pictured below is a copy of the radio script for the benefit of the radio announcer and, yes, it is hand-written! The first two pages opened the drama and introduced the principal actors. The third page was the closing announcements after the drama concluded. I also verified that the program did not end on time. Scheduled to end at 4:00 p.m., the drama ran over eight minutes and concluded at 4:08 p.m. Note the name of the drama is the same as the stage play, with no variation. 

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

I consider this a major find for what is possibly a Holy Grail for old-time radio and horror buffs, despite the fact some have since come out of the woodwork and claimed they knew all of this beforehand and that this was something old, not a new discovery. 

I e-mailed Jerry Robbins this past Wednesday night and told him to check out my blog entry this coming Friday.

Jerry,  it appears you owe me a box of Krispy Kremes.

For a copy of the radio script for Lugosi's radio appearance on The Vitalis Program, CLICK HERE.