Talkin’ ’bout Bela in the Edison Municipal Building
By Mark Voger, author, “Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972″
Dr. Shock was my hero, so as a kid, I always dreamed of being a horror-movie host. When I was invited to be a guest on “Classic Movies With Ron MacCloskey” — which airs on Edison TV and, I’m told, in 12 other states — I kind of, sort of, got my wish. The guest gets to pick the movie (as long as it’s in the public domain), so I chose “The Devil Bat,” a 1940 horror cheapie starring Bela Lugosi. Following is Ron’s interview with me from the program, which began airing in September 2016.
Find the program HERE.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself growing up, and how you got introduced to films.
A: That’s an easy one, Ron. I grew up in South Jersey — Cherry Hill, Camden County, suburb of Philadelphia. (Kiddie-show host) Sally Starr — you had Officer Joe Bolton (in New York), I think — Sally Starr showed “The Three Stooges.” They weren’t really that child-friendly. There were a lot of themes of people shooting — well, there was a lot of violence — themes of infidelity. When you look back on it later, you were like, “This was children’s entertainment?” But of course, we fell in love with the Three Stooges.
Without really thinking it through, without really knowing it, I sensed that it was from another time. The cars were different, the clothes were different, the lingo was different. And then, sometimes I’d be looking through an old family photo album, and I’d see a picture of my Uncle Ernie from the ’40s, leaning on a car, and I’m like: “That looks like the car that Moe drove in the episode I just saw.” So I’d ask my mom questions. And one day, I asked her about Curly — you know, the third Stooge, everybody’s favorite, the funniest one. She told me that Curly was dead.
Q: Aww …
A: Well, yeah. It was true. That was traumatic. So from then on — I went to Catholic school. And the nuns used to say, “Don’t goof around. If you have idle time, pray for the souls in Purgatory.” So I was praying for Jerry Howard (who played Curly), saying Hail Marys, hoping that my Hail Mary would put Jerry Howard in Heaven. I mean, he was Jewish, but I was still praying for Jerry Howard.
Q: But you felt that closely to it? You felt a connection?
A: Oh, I had an epiphany. When I was praying — because I was in Catholic school — I could see Curly flying to Heaven, and he was waving at me as he was going up. And then years later, I’m watching a “Three Stooges” rerun, and I realize: Oh, that’s a scene in one of the episodes, where they all get killed and then they fly up. So I didn’t really hallucinate that. I just sort of conflated it.
Q: Well, what happened with me is, I fell in love with these monster films on TV, and then I discovered this magazine called Famous Monsters. You could actually learn about these stars, and find out about their personal lives. And some people actually used to write to them, and they would write back. Now, do you have that at all? Did you do that as a child? Did you write to any of the stars of these horror films?
A: No, I never did, and I really regret it. Because Glenn Strange (who played the Frankenstein monster in three films) was on “Gunsmoke.” He’s my favorite Frankenstein. I know that’s sacrilege. It’s supposed to be Boris Karloff. But Glenn Strange’s face was the one that was on all the marketing. I like Karloff’s performances better, but Glenn Strange’s face. I wish I had written to him. Because, he was writing back to everybody. But I never did that.
Q: It’s great you bring up Strange, because I do think Strange is more responsible for the stiff arms and the stiff legs of the walk of Frankenstein. I really don’t remember Karloff doing it too much, but I remember Strange doing it. And that’s what I think everybody imitates.
A: Lugosi did a little bit of the stiff-arm thing (in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”), but that’s because he was blind in the film. Although, they cut out all the dialogue that referred to that, so you’re watching Frankenstein walk around and stumble and never open his eyes, and wondering, “What’s wrong with Frankenstein?”
Q: I’m glad you brought up Lugosi, because that’s what we’re going to see today. We’re going to see a Lugosi film. It’s called “The Devil Bat.” I don’t think Lugosi gets enough credit for what he did with Ygor (in “Son of Frankenstein”). Wonderful performance. If they had nominations back then, I definitely would have nominated him for Best Supporting Actor in a Monster Film. And I think he should have won.
A: Well, Lugosi got an Oscar through the side door with Martin Landau in 1994 in “Ed Wood.” (Landau won an Oscar for portraying Lugosi in Tim Burton’s film.)
Q: Good point.
A: Like, all of us Lugosi fans were, “Yeah! Bela!”
Q: Tell us a little bit about him. I know you know a little bit about everyone. Tell me a bit about Bela Lugosi and his career.
A: Well, he was Hungarian to the core. He had a distinguished career in film and the stage (in Hungary); came here and became a sensation on the stage in the late ’20s in “Dracula.” His first line in that 1931 film directed by Tod Browning was like a mission statement for his whole career: “I am Dracula.”
He didn’t give as many, like, wonderful performances — I think “The Black Cat,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” certainly “White Zombie,” “Son of Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” I think it’s because the opportunities were more rare for Bela, because he didn’t master the English language. They always say he learned his roles phonetically, but he spoke English. But when he hung out, he always hung out with his Hungarian friends and spoke Hungarian. By the time Bela got to “The Devil Bat,” that was 1940. He looked much older than he did only nine years earlier in “Dracula.” It was the first of its kind. He made a lot of mad scientist movies in the ’40s, and that was the first one.
Q: Well, here’s the difference between Karloff and Lugosi. I know there’s many. So Lugosi makes “Dracula.” He then makes films that deal with vampires and deal with bats. But throughout his whole career, I believe he only played Dracula twice (on film), correct? In “Dracula” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
A: The funny thing is, he only played Dracula twice, and he only played two vampires. Through his whole career. Toward the end of his career, he made a film that we know as “My Son, the Vampire” over in England. In England, it was called “Old Mother Reilly Meets the Vampire” (1952). He’s a criminal called “the Vampire” in that one. In “Mark of the Vampire,” 1935, he’s got the whole Dracula getup, but he’s only an actor pretending to be a vampire because of a sting. And I’m sorry I ruined it for everybody …
Q: That’s okay.
A: I just gave away that film. But the only two vampires he ever played were Dracula — in “Dracula,” 1931, and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” 1948 — and then in a movie he made for Columbia called “Return of the Vampire” (1943), he played a vampire named Armand Tesla. And that was it. Just those two.
Q: And then getting back to Karloff — but Karloff played the Frankenstein monster, then played a relative of Frankenstein, then played Dr. Frankenstein. And yet, his career was so varied. I mean, Karloff went on and did other things. In a way, it’s like he embraced the Frankenstein image and the Frankenstein character, and ran with that in different ways, and Lugosi kind of skirted the edges of the whole Dracula thing. And I thought he was wonderful in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” Because, he’s straight. I mean, that’s a straight performance. There’s no comedy at all. And yet, it’s a comedy.
A: Yeah, and he’s doing all this brilliant stuff, timing-wise. Like the famous scene: the candle on the coffin lid. The timing in that is exquisite. He is playing it straight, as you say. He would open the coffin a little, and Lou Costello was yelling, “Oh, Chic! Oh, Chic!” And he gets out of the coffin. When you watch it, it’s a ballet between Bela Lugosi and Lou Costello.
Q: Let’s talk about this film we’re going to show now: “The Devil Bat.” Who directed it? Who wrote it?
A: Directed by Jean Yarbrough. I don’t know who wrote it. (It was John T. Neville.) But one thing I’d love to point out is the hero is an actor named Dave O’Brien. Dave O’Brien is infamous among cult-cinema aficionados as the guy in “Reefer Madness” (1936), the campy cautionary film, who (pretending to smoke a joint) — I’m in the Edison Municipal Building, so I’d better be careful — but he’s smoking pot and he says, “Faster! Play it faster! Faster! Play it faster!” Everybody remembers that. People my age, we all went to see those midnight movies in the ’70s. He’s the hero in this. And he’s charming. I mean, I don’t know why he didn’t wind up in Warner Brothers films. But he was always in the cheapie Monogram films.
Q: I’m sitting here with Mark Voger. Now, you may not recognize his face or his voice. But you may recognize his name. Tell us a little about your writing career. You started where, writing?
A: I began my career when I was 19 in 1978 as a stringer for the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, New Jersey. I was with the Asbury Park Press for 26 wonderful years. And since 2009, I’ve been cranking out pages for The Star-Ledger. I work right here in Edison, as a matter of fact, right around the corner. We put out seven dailies now. It’s fun still being part of it, Ron.
Q: Well, what Mark has done, which I think is fabulous — he’s not only a wonderful writer, but so creative, so artistic. Because you put your pages together, right? Artistically?
A: From your lips to God’s ears. Yeah, I design the pages as well. And that’s what “Monster Mash” is — I designed the book. So it’s all about the presentation. So, yeah, I perfect all the art, I do the layout, and then, when I see how much space I’ve left myself, then I write to fit. I’ve been doing that all my career.
Q: So if you were ever looking at the newspapers — usually, maybe, on a Friday, sometimes they come out — and you’d see an interview with Pat Priest, who used to be on “The Munsters,” or anybody else from “The Addams Family” and these old-time people that then grew up — these great interviews? More than likely, it was Mark Voger that was writing those interviews and contacting those people.
A: And then online, somebody will comment: “Slow news day. You’re interviewing Brandon Cruise?” Slow news day? No, no, no, this is wonderful!
Q: Now, Brandon Cruise was “Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” right?
Q: We want to make sure the audience knows who we’re talking about. And of course, real quickly before we go: John Zacherle.
A: John Zacherle.
Q: Just a wonderful, wonderful person. Now, again, you were Philly, so you didn’t have him, right?
A: Well, we had him for one year. We had him first.
Q: You had him first, and then it came to New York. He was my guide. I mean, he took me through all these horror films. I’ve since become friends with him. A wonderful man. He’s usually always at conventions. I think he’s in his 90s now. (Zacherle is 97, and recently retired from convention appearances.) Mark, thank you so much for taking the time.
A: Ron, thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun. And seeing “The Devil Bat” again — that’s the best.
More about “The Devil Bat” HERE.
VIDEO: “The Devil Bat” on “Classic Movies With Ron MacCloskey”
Here is my second appearance on “Classic Movies With Ron MacCloskey,” which we taped on April 1, 2019. The featured movie is the underwhelming mystery “The Bat” starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead and Darla Hood. (That’s right, Darla of the Little Rascals!)