When Transylvania Came to the National Cathedral

Becoming PZ: Stories I Never Wrote Down

Mockingbird / 4.26.21

Thankful for this new series of posts from Paul Zahl.

If you had been a visitor to the National Cathedral during the month of July 1964, you might have seen a strange sight. You might have seen three young boys, one costumed to look like an Edwardian lad (but with Bass Weejuns and white socks); one in madras shorts and button-down shirt, carrying around an 8 mm. camera and tall tripod; and one, an odd one, dressed in full tuxedo with an inside-out black cashmere coat over the tuxedo. (The inside-out coat was supposed to be a cape.) This odd boy also had his face covered in white greasepaint, but with his neck and the inside of his ears un-painted and therefore jarringly flesh-colored. (We did all our own makeup.) It was about 95 degrees outside the entire month.

Dracula is triumphant at … the College of Preachers

Those three boys, two of them 14 and the third one 13, were me and my two best friends. We had decided to make a movie of Dracula, and we were giving it everything we had.

Thus, for example, Dracula’s Castle was … the College of Preachers. And Borgo Pass was … the Bishop’s Garden. And the courtyard of Dracula’s Castle was … the North Transept and North Cloister of the Cathedral.

My friends Lloyd Fonvielle and Bill Bowman are both dead now. But back then we had already worked together the summer before, as seventh-graders, on making our own version of Frankenstein. The time was now surely right to do Dracula!

We used the basement of Lloyd’s house, an Episcopal rectory in nearby Cleveland Heights, as Dracula’s day-time resting place (i.e., for his coffin) — and came very close to burning down the house. Turns out we lit way too many candles to get the “dry-ice” effect we wanted. For the Count’s dining room, we used the beautifully furnished Bethesda home of Kitty and Smith Hempstone, relations of Bill Bowman. And for the several sunrises and sunsets, we used … Lloyd’s summer house at Dark Harbor, Maine.

Oh, and I almost forgot:

For the opening “establishing” scene, the scene where Jonathan Harker is warned about Count Dracula by a Transylvanian peasant, we snuck into the forest of Tregaron, across from Lloyd’s house, which was then a part of the top-secret Russian Embassy. We snuck in, shot our (brilliant) sequence, and snuck out. Much of Tregaron, by the way, is still there, and a lot easier to visit.

Well, we finished our movie and even spliced it together by hand.

That was Lloyd and me. Then our attention turned suddenly to the opening of A Hard Day’s Night, which felt almost as exciting as making Dracula.

But wait! We had forgotten the soundtrack.

Once A Hard Day’s Night had opened and we had all satisfied ourselves on that blissful score, we suddenly remembered about the soundtrack. So we took a week to record, on about the most primitive equipment you can imagine, the movie’s musical cues — most of them from records I owned of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Sir William Walton’s incidental music for Richard III — and even the dialogue. Even the dialogue! We got it all on tape.

Then school started again and we kind of forgot about everything.

The audiotape, which Bill’s mother had lovingly helped us with, as she was a professional singer, somehow got put away in the wrong place, and the tape stretched. No kidding. The tape still exists, but almost all the prompts are three to five seconds off. Well, one day, maybe. But I’m the only one left.

Later on I was confirmed at the National Cathedral, ordained by the Bishop of Washington, served four different parishes in that Diocese, and led two residential conferences at the College of Preachers (alias Dracula’s Castle).

But still when I go there, I remember three earnest young boys, clambering on and over every wall and limitation in eager hopes of capturing forever on film what their imaginations were so vividly seeing.


Jonathan Harker enters Dracula’s Castle — I mean, the North Transept of the National Cathedral


The Bishop’s Garden as … Borgo Pass


Dracula turns into a bat in … the courtyard of the National Cathedral


Harker flees the … apse of the National Cathedral