Monday, August 16, 2010

54 and 33 Years Ago Today...

Today marks the anniversaries of the deaths of two prominent figures in both popular culture and my own life, who have more in common than one might initially suppose.

On August 16th, 1956, Bela "Dracula" Lugosi passed into the ether. His funeral was attended by a handful of his friends, including the infamously bad director, Edward D. Wood, Jr. As per his request, he was buried in his Dracula costume.

Lugosi had enjoyed a rather successful stage and film career in his native Hungary for quite a while before appearing as Bram Stoker's archetypal monster in the original Broadway production of Dean and Balderston's 1927 play, which in turn was adapted into the famous 1931 film by director Tod Browning. Women swooned and Lugosi became Universal's top star, though his refusal to wear the heavy makeup required to play Frankenstein's Monster would give his greatest rival his own iconic horror role. Lugosi would go on to appear in dozens of films, including White Zombie; The Black Cat; Island of Lost Souls (the first film adaptation of "The Island of Doctor Moreau") and Franz Lubitsch's classic comedy Ninotchka. Sadly, by the mid-to-late 40's, he had been reduced to appearing in self-parodying roles in films like Zombies on Broadway and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein:

By the mid-50's Lugosi was a washed up has-been, addicted to drugs and reduced to appearing in Ed Wood's tragically funny films Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster. Ironically, his last film was made two years after his death, when Wood used silent footage of the star at the start of what many have called "The Worst Movie Ever Made" (though many would argue that point), Plan Nine from Outer Space. Ironically, Martin Landau would go on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton's best film, Ed Wood:

Lugosi was a childhood idol, and I can remember being very upset when Dracula was shown to my 7th grade class (the novel was part of our curriculum) and most of the kids laughed at the, by then, corny movie. Being of Hungarian descent (with a little German and Scotch thrown in on my mother's side), I grew up thinking that if 'Uncle Bela' could be a star, then so could I.

Flash forward 21 years to 1977. I was about to enter my Junior year of High School that August when my mother tearfully informed me of the death of her own personal icon, Elvis Presley.

Dad may have been an aficionado of Classical music (Beethoven and Wagner, in particular -- more on Dad's Nazi-leanings at another time), but Mom was a Rock 'N' Roller, and Elvis was the man she wished she could have married (along with millions of other gals in the '50's).

One of Uncle P's earliest stage memories -- I was maybe 8 or 9 -- was lip-synching to a 45RPM vinyl recording of "Hound Dog" in front of my elementary school classmates. I seem to remember they all had a good time...

Elvis and Bela shared a similar career path - both were Pop Culture icons taken down by their addictions, though Elvis certainly enjoyed a longer and much more lucrative career. Both made some really awful movies:

Whatever happened to Mary Tyler Moore, anyway?

Elvis died of a drug-overdose, found by his daughter on the toilet. I can't imagine a more ignominious ending to the career of 'The King.' And while my mother still pays homage to Presley on the anniversary of his death, I can't help but make mention of how gorgeous and hot he was in that black leather outfit he wore for his 1968 "Comeback Special:"

Damn! I totally understand why women threw their panties on stage... and I have never been so jealous of Priscilla... And I know plenty of 'straight' boys that would have thrown themselves at this version of him.

What does all this mean? I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's just that legendary talent endures. Both Lugosi and Presley will remain icons of Pop Culture, as long as folks like myself continue to talk about them; post their images; view their works and aspire to be just like them - without the death-causing addictions, of course.

More, anon.

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