“Vampire to Retire to Dude Ranch”

Newspaper headline writers are a clever bunch, and whoever wrote the one printed below in July of 1935 deserves a prize. I discovered this headline and its accompanying article in the research for my book, American Dude Ranch.

Actor Bela Lugosi had finished filming something called Murder by Television that summer (an intriguing movie title if there ever was one), and the Cameo Pictures Corporation was in charge of publicity. They asked him to fill out a questionnaire about himself, which included a request for information about his “Present Ambition.” His answer was: “Dude Ranch.”

Reporters picked this up and went to town. One article, in the July 21, 1935 issue of the Brooklyn Times managed to track down a few more details about Lugosi’s “ambition.”

While the second leading fiend in the United States does not find his lot an unhappy one, he would rather be a cowboy…he has no intention of retiring to a haunted castle in the mountains of his native Hungary when his days of screen acting are over. His desires are for a home on the range, preferably a dude ranch, where all the midnight shrieks, if any, will be from guests whose digestive systems have disagreed with the ranch fodder.

The article goes on to say that Lugosi planned to build his place near the ranch owned by his friend, cowboy movie star Buck Jones, who had a spread in the area around “Hangtown,” California. That’s the old name for Placerville, in the Gold Rush country. Jones even helped him plan the ranch house. Allegedly.

The whole thing sounded fishy to me. I began to investigate, and my suspicions were confirmed.

For example, Buck Jones did have a California ranch, but it was near Susanville, which is over 200 miles northeast of Placerville. Some reporters also said that “Hangtown” was abandoned, and therefore “…even in his attempt to escape the uncanny, its atmosphere follows Lugosi in the form of a Ghost Town.”

Nope. Placerville was a thriving city in 1935 (and still is).

I needed to go further with this story, so I got in touch with Lugosi’s granddaughter, Lynne Lugosi Sparks. She was very gracious, and said she would talk to her father, Bela Lugosi, Jr. about this intriguing bit of history. Within a few days I heard back from Lynne, who said, “My grandfather was an interesting person and I believe he could have thought a dude ranch was a good idea. He really loved the outdoors and especially enjoyed hiking and taking walks.”

He apparently also had a great sense of humor. I think he was having fun with the PR people and filled out his questionnaire in a way that would really make them scratch their heads.

This says something about how popular dude ranches had become by the 1930s. Celebrities such as Errol Flynn and Joel McCrea claimed they planned to open ranches of their own. This never happened, though Gary Cooper had a dude ranch for a couple of years on the property where he grew up in Helena, Montana. (It didn’t last long, probably because people expected to see the movie star when they got off the train, and he was rarely if ever there.)

When Lugosi told the folks at the Cameo Pictures Corporation that he wanted to own a dude ranch, he chose something that was deeply embedded in American culture, thanks in large part to Hollywood movies. A dude ranch was also the opposite of his public persona. And he knew it.

I was already a Bela Lugosi fan before I wrote my book. Now that I know more about his character, I’m a bigger fan than ever.

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