By JACK OWEN
Halloween masks depicting Dracula cannot match the real thing - on the fright-scale.
This is not a tall tale but a true story (would I lie?) about a misadventure half a century ago when it seemed like a good idea to play hooky from school.
Today, the prank would probably land me in juvenile court. At the time (1951) my absence from the assigned classroom desk on a Wednesday afternoon, barely raised an eyebrow.
Traditionally shops in Britain closed for a half-day Wednesday.
It was part of the long established retail custom of creating as much confusion and inconvenience to customers as humanly possible. Shops closed at lunchtime to avoid the annoyance of interruptions by the rest of the population, trying to buy food or clothing between the hours of 9 am. and 5 pm.
Sundays, everything was closed all day.
Home Economics classes at the nearby girls’ school concentrated more on plans of attack and ploys to shop for groceries, than actually cooking any food obtained. Which probably created a correlation between classes taught and the quality of meals served at home. Usually “something” on toast!
The poorer plodding relatives in our extended family group were all in the retail sector. Our rich relatives, who had homes with telephones and cars in the driveway, were stage, film and sports personalities.
My retail-working mother, whose brief high-kicking days in the chorus line of “No, No Nanette” were doomed when it was discovered she had two left feet, was totally star-struck.
Routinely I’d be hoiked out of school Wednesday afternoons to meet a “visiting relative”, at a matinee stage or movie performance somewhere. I never knew – to this day – which of the figures in films shown on the big screen were “real” uncles and aunts.
Names like Ida Lupino and Bonar Colleano didn’t sound very English to me, but I was told they were stage-names of relatives. It made sense, at the time. My mother regularly used four created first names of her own - and she only sat in the audience.
One of my ukulele-playing uncles, who appeared on the same bill as a well-known music-hall black-face comic, told me the comedian was traveling to London to meet his first agent but hadn’t settled on a stage name.
It was an inspirational journey. When he got off the train he’d adopted the stage name Nosmo King from the stern British Railway’s notice he’d spotted in his Third Class carriage, “No Smoking”.
Occasionally diminutive copies of the giant faces and physiques I’d seen on the movie screen would appear at my grandmother’s for dinner. The only one’s I was fairly sure were blood relatives would be those I’d seen on-stage and in their dressing rooms.
And, when they were “resting” between engagements at our house. The strain of performing must have been harsh. Some “rested” at my grandmother’s for several months at a time.
The modus operandi established by dear old mum suddenly jelled in my mind’s eye when, instead of trying to solve an algebra problem at school, I developed a ruse to see Bela Lugosi in the flesh performing his classic role as “Dracula”.
Convincing a stuttering friend - who had little ability to express his doubts - it would be an educational excursion, we slipped away from school during lunch break.
Most of the matinee audience at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park Theatre, fortunately, was too stiff of limb to clamber up three flights of concrete steps to the gods. The dark and foreboding stairwell was dimly lit by old-fashioned sputtering gaslights.
We had the section all to ourselves and plunked down in balcony front-row seats just as the house-lights dimmed.
Ages before the Beatles long locks style arrived in the USA, most UK schoolboys either looked like short-sighted sheepdogs peering through a mop of hair, or wore the pudding-basin-cropped model.
During Lugosi’s chilling performance mine, I was assured, looked like I’d put my finger in an electric outlet. It could have been a prototype for an Afro as Dracula, the personification of evil, commanded the stage just an outstretched hand away.
My mate, naturally tongue-tied, sat enthralled and agog throughout the performance. [He was so impressed at seeing a live performance he later took elocution lessons and speech therapy. His on-stage delivery is now powerful enough to blow a fuse in devices used by the hard of hearing.]
Courage flowed back into our veins as Dracula was dispatched with a stake through the heart. An almost visible tension ebbed from the audience as the curtain dropped.
Time was flying if we were to leave the theatre and merge with the school letting-out crowd to successfully complete our escapade without discovery. We inched toward the exit sign, clapping all the way as performers stepped forward to take their bows.
Lugosi moved toward the footlights, bloodied lips curling back on his pale death-mask face acknowledging the ovation. The curtain closed behind him. He held up his hands, silencing the applause.
His heavy Hungarian accented tones, mimicked into mockery in a multitude of movies, echoed throughout the theatre.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” he said pleasantly. ”Just a word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance.”
We hovered at the exit, loath to miss a moment. One foot on the concrete steps, the other on theatre carpet. “When you get home tonight, and the lights have been turned out, and you are afraid to look behind the curtains,” his voice became somber, his face screwed into a snarl. “And you dread to see a face appear at the window...why, just pull yourself together and remember that…”
He pulled his cloak around himself bringing his arms up toward menacing fangs. House-lights dimmed, the spotlight emphasizing his hypnotic eyes.
“… after all there are such things… heh, heh, heh…” he flung his arms wide, displaying the crimson lining of his cape, cackled and…
A blinding light burned into my retinas as he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
The audience shrieked.
But not as loud, or as long, as two terrified schoolboys plunging headlong into wavering shadows cast by flickering gaslights screaming all the way down three flights of stairs and still running way, way, into the parking lot.
Scary Halloween masks?
They’re nothing, compared to Lugosi – in the flesh!
One of many chapters recalled in the forthcoming book
“The Day...The Cat Sneezed Its Nose Off”