Arguments over the recording’s merits aside, the song’s central message remains as true today as it was on the day it was written. Bela Lugosi is indeed dead.
Béla Ferenc Dezso Blaskó, famous to movie audiences as Bela Lugosi, died on August 16th, 1956 at the age of 73. He was found by his fifth wife, Hope, in the apartment the two shared in Los Angeles. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion with myocardial fibrosis.” The funeral was two days later at the Utter-McKinley Mortuary Chapel and he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. His fourth wife, Lillian, and son, Bela Jr., assisted with the funeral arrangements. Hope told biography Arthur Lennig that “The funeral was just as garish, exotic and publicity-filled as his entire life had been with people sobbing loudly, gypsy violin music, wailing and flash bulbs popping.” His death and funeral are the subject of a variety of legend and apocrypha. I love these stories, but let’s see which ones are true.
Lugosi died holding the script for “The Final Curtain”
When Hope discovered his body, Lugosi was in bed in a pair of boxer shorts, and he had nothing in his hands. The story may have come from Ed Wood himself as he was trying to raise money to make the film after Lugosi’s passing.
The horse drawing the carriage that took Lugosi’s coffin from the mortuary to the cemetery was mysteriously compelled to turn off the route and walk a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that Lugosi walked frequently to get cigars.
The coffin was conveyed by car, not horse-drawn carriage, but the driver did make an illegal turn and travel down a route often taken by Lugosi. The driver apparently offered no explanation.
Frank Sinatra paid for the funeral.
Lillian Lugosi paid for the funeral, and Hope paid for the coffin. The story seems to have come from Rat Pack member Joey Bishop incorrectly stating that Sinatra had paid for the funeral on a talk show, when the true story is that Sinatra is said to have quietly given Lugosi money to pay for hospital bills when the actor famously entered rehab for drug addiction, though the two did not know each other.
Lugosi was buried in the cape he’d worn in the 1931 Dracula.
He was indeed buried in full Dracula costume, but it was from a stage production, not the one from the movie. According to Lennig, Hope told the mortician that Lugosi had wanted to be laid out int the cape, and his friend Richard Sheffield said “if that is what he wanted, he should be in the complete costume in order to realize his wish to play the role he immortalized for one last glorious performance.” Bela Jr. has stated in interviews that it was his and Lillian’s decision to have him in costume.
Boris Karloff approached the casket and said, “Come now, Bela, you’re putting us on.”
Karloff was actually in England at the time and did not attend the funeral.
Peter Lorre leaned over to Vincent Price and said “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?”
There were reportedly over 200 people in attendance and 127 signatures in the guest book (including Ed Wood and Tor Johnson), but there isn’t evidence that Lorre and Price were among them. Vincent Price is said to have told the story, though it is unclear where it originated from.
Of course, this was not the first time that Bela Lugosi died. Here is a list of his other deaths. Spoilers abound!
NOTE: This only includes his American films. He surely died many times on stage, and I don’t know much about his Hungarian career.
The Silent Command (1923) – The villainous Hisston (Lugosi) is tossed from a ship and drowns.
Daughters Who Pay (1925) – I haven’t been able to see this movie, nor have I been able to determine whether Lugosi’s communist spy character is captured or killed in the end.
The Veiled Woman (1929) – The main character, Nanon, kills an aggressive suitor (Lugosi).
Wild Company (1930) – Lugosi’s nightclub owner walks in on a robbery and is shot.
Renegades (1930) – Sheik Muhammed Halid – The Marabout (Lugosi) dies in the battle at the end of the film.
Dracula* (1931) – Dracula is destroyed by sunlight.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) – Mad Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is strangled to death by his gorilla.
White Zombie (1932) – Zombie master Murder Legendre (Lugosi) is thrown from a high castle wall to his death.
The Black Cat (1934) – After skinning Boris Karloff alive, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast dies in an explosion.
The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) – The megalomaniacal Chinese criminal Mr. Fu Wong (Lugosi) is shot dead by police when trying to flee his torture chamber.
The Raven (1935) – Lugosi’s Dr. Vollin is pushed into a shrinking room and he is crushed by the walls.
Murder by Television (1935) – Lugosi plays twins, one of whom is stabbed to death and the other of whom solves the murder.
The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935) – Driven mad by a head injury, Anton Lorenzen (Lugosi) jumps off the ship and drowns.
The Invisible Ray (1936) – Karloff kills Lugosi with his radioactive touch of death.
Son of Frankenstein** (1939) – Wolf Frankenstein shoots and kills the mad blacksmith Ygor (Lugosi).
The Dark Eyes of London (1939) – Lugosi’s Dr. Orloff is thrown through a window and sinks into the mud below.
Black Friday (1940) – Gangster Eric Marnay (Lugosi) is trapped in a closet and suffocates.
You’ll Find Out (1940) – Lugosi, along with Karloff and Peter Lorre, is blown up off-screen when a dog chases him with a bundle of lit dynamite.
The Devil Bat (1940) – Lugosi’s Dr. Carruthers is attacked and killed by the titular devil bat.
The Wolf Man (1941) – Gypsy Bela (Lugosi) is the wolf that bites Larry Talbot, just before Talbot bludgeons him to death with his silver walking stick.
Black Dragons (1942) – Lugosi’s mad surgeon dies (of satisfaction?) after succeeding in his revenge plot.
The Ghost of Frankenstein** (1942) – After convincing a Frankenstein to place his brain in the body of the monster, Ygor/Creature is trapped in a burning building.
S.O.S. Coast Guard (1942) – Dr. Boroff (Lugosi) is attacked by his own henchman with a disintegrating gas-bomb that he had invented.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) – Lugosi is stabbed by a servant in revenge for her sons’ deaths.
Bowery at Midnight (1942) – Secret criminal Karl Wagner (Lugosi) is tricked into a basement where his killed by reanimated corpses.
The Ape Man (1943) – Dr. Brewster (Lugosi) is the ape man of the title and is himself killed by an actual ape.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) – Lugosi, as Frankenstein’s monster, is swept away in a flood, along with the Wolf Man.
The Return of the Vampire* (1944) – The vampire Armand Tesla (Lugosi) is exposed to sunlight and dies.
Voodoo Man (1944) – Lugosi is shot and killed in the middle of performing a voodoo ritual.
Return of the Ape Man (1944) – The titular ape man kills Lugosi.
Zombies on Broadway (1945) – Lugosi’s mad Dr. Renault is killed by his own zombie servant.
The Body Snatcher (1945) – Lugosi tries to blackmail Karloff and is strangled to death for his trouble.
Genius at Work (1946) – I haven’t been able to see this one either, but I believe Lugosi’s henchman character dies in a gun fight at the climax.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein*** (1948) – Dracula (Lugosi) turns into a bat and tries to escape, but the Wolf Man grabs him and they both fall into the sea.
Bride of the Monster (1955) – Dr. Eric Vornoff (Lugosi) grapples with a giant octopus and both are destroyed in a nuclear explosion.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) – An old man (Lugosi) dies twice. He is hit by a car and then, after his body is reanimated, the resulting ghoul is killed by an alien ray gun.
** – Though Lugosi’s characters die in these movies, further sequels reveal them to have survived.
*** – It is debatable as to whether Dracula is killed by this.