By Doug Gibson
Above is a fantastic treat for horror film fans, a recording of the late, great Bela Lugosi reciting Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart." It's brought courtesy of YouTube, posted by a cool-sounding person named "thezombiecheerleader," who provided great graphics to go along with Lugosi's recitation. Only several hundred people have surfed to this page; it deserves far more viewers.
The poster put together a great picture to add color to the story. According to Lugosi biographer Arthur Lennig in "The Immortal Count," the above tape was discovered in the past generation by cult film historian Lee Harris, who passed it onto former Cult Movies magazine editor Buddy Barnett, who now edits Mondo Cult. Anyway, Barnett shared it with Lennig.
Probably recorded in 1947 or by Lugosi with his then-agent Don Marlowe, it's not a professional recording, although conducted at WCAX in Burlington, Vt.. There is no background music or end pieces. My guess is that Lugosi was practicing for his spook show that would include his storytelling of the Poe tale. He does a great job, never losing a sinister edge and slowly, just like Poe's tale, losing his sanity and composure as the tale unfolds. The final 30 seconds of The Tell Tale Heart (and please watch it) are a marvelous as Lugosi exudes passion and fear as his voice breaks with emotion.
Lennig downplays the history of Lugosi's "The Tell Tale Heart" bookings, writing that the show appeared "in such obscure places that the dates it played remain lost and it quickly folded because of its meager drawing power."
That's not quite true. Further research, revealed in the new book, "No Traveler Returns: The Lost Years of Bela Lugosi," by Gary Don Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger, confirm that "The Tell Tale Heart" show didn't last very long but it had significant performances, was accompanied with press coverage and media ads. The show opened in Rockford, Ill., in late 1947 to a large crowd -- 1,500 -- at The Coronado theater in Rockford. Lugosi was interviewed by the Rockford Morning Star. The Poe play, which was accompanied by a Lugosi film ("Dracula" was the co-feature in Wisconsin) eventually planned a moves to Minnesota and Michigan. "There are graphics of vintage newspaper ads about Lugosi "Tell Tale Heart" play.
Unfortunately, despite the great start, the play's success declined rapidly. Marlowe, who was notorious for flashy starts and low future cash, had booked obscure theaters and lesser Lugosi co-features, such as "Spooks Run Wild" and "The Return of the Ape Man". Profits disappeared -- it's reported that Marlowe had promised Bela $2,000 a week -- and by early December future showings were cancelled. "No Traveler Returns" writes that on Dec. 10, Lugosi had signed for $1,250 a week to do vaudeville.
In all, it appears that Lugosi performed his "The Tell Tale Heart" show at most 8 times, perhaps a few more. History is murky. As the the above recitation shows, preserved on the Net, he was more than up to the task.