The city of Derby in the East Midlands of England might not initially ring any Dracula alarm bells. However, it’s home to two former theatres that can claim significant connections to Bram Stoker’s creation. This is where the first theatrical adaptation of Stoker’s novel was staged – the first ever official adaptation in any medium anywhere in the world – and also where Bela Lugosi, the actor who did most to form the popular perception of the Count, decided to call time on the character…
I’ve therefore decided to investigate Derby’s Dracula heritage, as well as the sad, intertwined histories of the two theatres. Both were once vibrant and successful, but now – like a vampire’s victim – both have had the life and soul sucked out of them…
After Bram Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow, Florence, became the guardian of his literary legacy. While most of his novels and short stories were soon forgotten by the general public (rightly so in some cases), his 1897 masterpiece Dracula was big news and there was money to be made. So in 1924, Florence agreed to a proposal for a stage version from an Irish actor/manager called Hamilton Deane. He had long had a fascination with the novel and took just a month to complete his script, writing as he suffered from a heavy cold. Deane vastly restructured the plot and the character relationships, and essentially condensed Bram Stoker’s Gothic epic into a small-scale, drawing-room drama. He also rebooted Count Dracula himself as an urbane, charming aristo in a dinner suit and cape; someone who could mingle in middle-class society and flirt with young women. This is now the popular default image of the character, but it didn’t come from Stoker – his Dracula is a repulsive, unsettling monster.
Deane (above) toyed with playing the Count himself, but then realised his script gave a meatier role to Van Helsing so he took that part and cast an actor called Edmund Burke to play Dracula. Burke, whose real name was Frederick Alkin, had a gold front tooth – which would have been a striking oddity if future Dracula actors had copied this embellishment. Although no one knew it at the time, playing Dracula was the highlight of his career.
The production debuted in Derby at the Grand Theatre with a three-night run beginning on 15 May 1924, with Florence Stoker among the audience. Why Derby? Simply because the town (Derby didn’t become a city until 1977) had a theatre that was available. The local newspaper, reporting on one of the performances, said that ‘thrill succeeded thrill’, which meant that ‘one forgets the absolute twaddle to which one is listening.’ As for the first ever actor to play an officially sanctioned Count Dracula, the reporter noted that Burke was ‘stamped with the hallmark of finish and his disappearance in a puff of smoke at the close of the third scene is a remarkable example of ingenious stagecraft.’
When I arrive for a look at the Grand Theatre in December 2021, to see where the stage incarnation of Dracula was born, I know I won’t be finding a theatre. The building is still here on Babington Lane in the city centre (see above). But more than 70 years have passed since a play was staged here. The driving force behind the theatre’s birth in the 1880s was the impresario and actor Andrew Melville, who commissioned a Birmingham architect called Oliver Essex to create a theatre with a capacity of 2,500. (Melville died in 1896, aged just 43. In a cute Dracula connection, his sons Walter and Frederick later co-owned the Lyceum Theatre in London, where Bram Stoker had worked for 27 years as business manager.)
Oliver Essex designed a striking, boldly confident theatre in the Italian renaissance style, built on land that had been the gardens of a 17th-century mansion called Babington House. The Grand opened on 25 March 1886 with a production of Rip Van Winkle, but tragedy struck just six weeks later when a major fire gutted the building. Two people were killed – actor John Adams and carpenter James Locksley, who predictably were later said to haunt the place – and a partial rebuild was needed. The theatre then reopened on 13 November with a production of the three-act opera Maritana.
As I stand at the north end on Babington Lane, looking uphill, I can see the old Grand building on my left. On the opposite side of the road today is a Post Office and a charity shop, but there used to be another entertainment palace on this spot: the Picture House cinema (1910-1960). This meant there was a period where Derbeians could find movies on both sides of the street: the Grand had a Bioscope projector installed in the 1910s, allowing a programme of short films and newsreels to be instigated. One film to be shown was the DW Griffith epic Birth of a Nation, screened for two weeks from 4 September 1916.
The Grand had many other modifications in its early years. An iron-and-glass canopy was added to the front of the building; a redecoration in 1893 saw the interior splashed with tints of terra cotta, gold and bronze green; while electricity was installed in 1897 (the same year Dracula hit the bookshops). As well as ‘legitimate’ theatre, by the post-war period the Grand was hosting many of the biggest names on the British comedy circuit such as Max Miller, Max Wall, Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley and Gracie Fields. (Another act to play the Grand was Old Mother Riley – aka the cross-dressing comedian Arthur Lucan. In 1952, Lucan’s final Mother Riley movie co-starred Bela Lugosi. He’d been cast specifically because of his associations with Dracula, more of which later…)
But the Grand’s run came to an end after being taken over by the Coliseum Syndicate in 1943. They had recently purchased the nearby Hippodrome Theatre on Green Lane, which was being used as a cinema, and they wished to convert it back to live entertainment. The Grand was to be, essentially, recycled down the road. The final show was a performance by the Ballet Rambert dance company on 9 December 1950. The stage equipment was then transferred to the Hippodrome and the Grand stood empty until 1957, when it was bought by the Mecca organisation. They gutted the interior, installed a dance floor, a revolving stage and a viewing gallery, and the building reopened as the Locarno Ballroom in 1959 (see below).
Much later, the venue was also a nightclub under a variety of tacky names – Tiffany’s, Confettis, Ritzy, Eclipse, McClusky’s – then in 2006 was converted into an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant. The building is now an indoor golf venue called, I kid you not, House of Holes. Perhaps nothing can speak more clearly of cultural vandalism than the facade of the structure today. The Grand Theatre’s ornate architecture, detailing and embossed sign are all still evident – but the ground-floor frontage has been remodelled and ruined.
This was clearly a once-beautiful building, but like so many structures in unfashionable parts of city centres the Grand’s heritage is embarrassingly ignored. If the advertising legend ‘Over 18’s crazy golf, bar and street food’ wasn’t depressing enough, there’s also the fact a remnant from the structure’s days as a Chinese restaurant has not been removed.
After taking my photographs and paying what tribute I can to where Count Dracula was first enjoyed by a live audience, I make the short walk west along Gower Street to Green Lane. Here is another building with a very strong link to Dracula: the aforementioned Hippodrome. But I’m sad to report that Derby has abandoned, neglected and abused this building even more…
The stage-play version of Dracula had been a wild success after its Derby tryout in 1924, touring the country and then going into the West End. The title role was played by various men, including future Upstairs Downstairs actor Raymond Huntley. He stayed with the production as it transferred to the States, where the script was given an overhaul by the playwright John L Balderston, but left after being denied a pay rise for the show’s Broadway booking. The producers needed a new lead actor. And they ended up recasting the role with perhaps the most iconic Dracula of all time: Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in 1882 in what was then Hungary but is now part of Romania. His promising acting career in Budapest was interrupted by the First World War, in which he served on the Russian Front with the Austro-Hungarian Army. He then moved to the US in 1920 and gained some bit-part film roles. But his big break came in 1927 when he was cast as Count Dracula on Broadway. It changed his life. He played the Count for two years, then in 1931 reprised the role when Universal Pictures made their wildly influential movie adaptation of the play. (He’d been far from first choice for the film. But he *had* been cheap.) Lugosi’s performance – the eastern European accent, the languid demeanour, the dinner suit and cape (see below) – became a blueprint for a century of Draculas. But it rather typecast him, and while he declined to be involved with any sequels he spent much of the rest of his career in other horror films.
In 1951 the stage play had a renaissance in the UK, and in hope of securing a West End booking, the play first went out on a provisional tour. The biggest coup for the producers was that they managed to sign Lugosi to play Count Dracula. He had only returned to the role sparingly in the previous 20 years – most notably in the film comedy Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but also in some local theatre productions in California. The initial cast was rounded out by Joan Winmill (Mary), Richard Butler (John Harker), David Dawson (Dr Seward), Arthur Hosking (Van Helsing), Eric Lindsay (Renfield), John Saunders (Butterworth) and Sheila Wynn (Lucy Seward). Winmill had auditioned to play Lucy, but was given the smaller role of a maid. In the 1940s she’d had a relationship with future US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy.
The tour ran for 229 performances from 30 April to 13 October 1951. After rehearsals in London, the production opened at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, then the cast criss-crossed the country, playing in several London boroughs, Dudley, Eastbourne, Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Belfast, Manchester, Norwich, Leicester, Sheffield, Chatham, Luton, Nottingham, Cambridge, Derby and Portsmouth.
The Derby residence was at the Hippodrome and ran for 12 performances on 17-22 September, twice nightly at 6.10pm and 8.15pm. The souvenir programme, which cost three pence and advertised that Walls ice creams would be on sale, tells us that Joan Harding had now taken over the role of maid Mary from Joan Winmill. On 18 September, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that the opening night had been a success. ‘Horror and the macabre were the order at the Hippodrome last night,’ read the review, ‘and very effectively put over, too.’ However, the journalist had a warning: ‘I enjoy these horrific spectacles on occasions and like to take them on face value, but I would not advise anyone emotionally inclined or hysterical to visit the Hippodrome this week. There were moments when even my flesh creeped, and I’m hardened to the game.’ Lugosi, meanwhile, was praised as being outstanding. The run was also a financial triumph, with the six days in Derby being the most profitable period of the tour. The Hippodrome sold 9,564 tickets, earning £1,136 5s 3d.
The tour was not a wholly happy experience for Bela Lugosi, however. He was popular with his co-stars, impressed audiences and journalists, and took the time to give autographs and speak to young fans. But according to co-star Sheila Wynn he was upset by laughter from audiences in places such as Golders Green and Manchester. He told her that ‘Dracula is Hamlet to me’ and was hurt that 1950s houses thought the play funny rather than chilling. Lugosi undoubtedly had a reputation for taking the role seriously. At the start of the tour, he’d told the press, ‘I spend at least an hour completely silent before a Dracula performance, thinking myself into the psychological state needed for such a horror part.’ By 1951, he was in a career lull and suffering with melancholy. He was also on a downslide towards a dependence on morphine. Having his precious, career-defining role mocked was difficult to take.
As well as the hectic Dracula schedule, that summer Lugosi also appeared on British television and radio, attended civic events, was guest of honour at the opening of a factory, filmed his role in Mother Riley Meets the Vampire, attended the premiere of the Alastair Sim film Scrooge, and turned 69 (even though his ‘official’ age as reported in the press was 10 years younger). Partly due to all this activity, the tour of Dracula never reached the West End. Lugosi pulled out, suffering from exhaustion. And he did so while playing at the Hippodrome in Derby. When the tour’s producer John Mather revealed plans for added dates in Newcastle and Liverpool – but no promised West End engagement – Lugosi simply said, ‘John, I can’t go on. It’s taking too much out of me. Please finish it quickly.’ The tour ended the following month.
Bela Lugosi played Count Dracula in Derby – the town where, 27 years earlier, the character was first performed in front of a paying audience. And it was in Derby where he finally decided enough was enough and his time in the cape had to end…
The Hippodrome’s building dates from 1913 and is on the same site as Derby’s first private lunatic asylum (this is a nice bit of synchronicity with Stoker’s novel, which features such an establishment). Opening to the public on 20 July 1914, the 2,000-seater Hippodrome was originally a music hall before being converted into a cinema in 1930. After its owners, J Arthur Rank, sold up to the Coliseum Syndicate, and they salvaged the stage equipment from the nearby Grand, the Hippodrome was relaunched as a live theatre venue on 23 December 1950. The first show was a pantomime, Dick Whittington, and Dracula moved in just 268 days later.
Today the Hippodrome is a dispiriting wreck – another embarrassment for what is mostly a very fine city. How did it end up looking so bad? The theatre didn’t last much longer after Dracula’s 12 performances in 1951. Eight years later it closed down, then three years after that the venue was reformatted as a bingo hall. As I take a wander around the exterior, it’s difficult not to be saddened that this building – which clearly was once magnificent – is now like something from a post-apocalyptic movie. Windows are smashed, paint is peeling, the roof has collapsed and wild flora is everywhere. Just as with the Grand Theatre, there’s even some old signage left over from a previous incarnation: a tatty, faded marquee for the bingo company Walkers. A modern poster has recently been pasted onto the wooden hoarding at the entrance, advertising a gig for the Canadian rapper Tory Lanez. In 2019 he collaborated with Snoop Dogg on a track called Beauty in the Benz. One of the lyrics is, ‘I’ma sink my teeth in it deep, Dracula.’
I must make a confession now: I’ve been here before. I’ve actually been here hundreds of times. Just a short walk further up Green Lane is a building owned by the University of Derby, and that’s where I did my degree. I walked up and down Green Lane, passing the Hippodrome, again and again and again from 1998 until 2001. I know Derby well, used to live here, have socialised here, have friends here. I’m very fond of the place. But I must admit that I never especially paid attention to the Hippodrome before today. Already dilapidated and unloved when Green Lane was my stomping ground, it was just another old building. I didn’t learn about the Dracula connection until many years later.
The closer I look, however, the more I’m able to picture how this place must have been in its pomp. The original architects put so much effort into the design, the detailing, the overall sense of glamour and enjoyment. (Early 20th-century architects were often heroes in this regard.) The Hippodrome was intended as a respite from the real world – whether a music hall, a cinema or a theatre, this place gave joy to people, and its founders knew how to sell the idea of escapism. As I get closer I’m especially charmed by the rows of tiling around the base of the building’s exterior. Now faded, now dirty, these would have once *gleamed*. They’re not here for functional reasons. It’s pure style.
Despite the Hippodrome’s awful appearance, there is hope. The site is now Grade-II Listed and has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006. The last time it was used as a bingo venue was in 2007, since when a catalogue of damages – a fire in 2011, vandalism, Japanese knotweed infestation and, astonishingly, even some cack-handed ‘repairs’ by the owners that caused a partial collapse – have resulting in the hulk I find today. Thankfully, there are now moves to restore the Hippodrome, perhaps as a 1,200-seater theatre. However, another suggestion is to build a 3,500-seat music venue on a semi-derelict site next door and consign the Hippodrome to history. I hope it survives.
Today, Derby’s only major live venue is the prosaically titled Derby Theatre, which is entered via a large and soulless shopping centre. It’s been here since 1975 and has an impressive track record. In my time living in the city, this place was called the Derby Playhouse – I came often – but was rebranded after going into administration in 2008. A few weeks before my visit, I’m glad to report, Derby Theatre staged a play called Dracula: The Untold Story. The legend lives on.
Notes and sources
My trip to Derby was on Friday 3 December 2021. Photos © Ian Farrington 2021.
Different sources cite different dates for the 1924 production of Dracula. I’ve gone with the information in David J Skal’s recent biography of Bram Stoker.
I took information from these books, documentaries and web pages:
Derby: From Old Photographs (2017) by Denis Eardley
Hollywood Gothic (2004 revised edition) by David J Skal
Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2018) by David J Skal
A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: Frankenstein Goes to Hollywood (BBC4, 2010)