In her autobiography, I’m Not Making This Up, You Know, Anna Russell writes that sometimes during performances she used to wear a gown that had “a big pouffe of tulle at the back of the skirt, making a little train.” During an appearance in San Francisco, her accompanist accidentally stepped on the train, pulling out the long length of tulle. Much later, during an appearance in London, Ms. Russell was wearing the same dress, but she had a new accompanist, whom she forgot to warn about her train. Once again, her accompanist accidentally stepped on her train, pulling out the long length of tulle. After the performance, an American sailor came backstage and said that he enjoyed her work, but he especially enjoyed the part at the end, when her accompanist stepped on her train. Ms. Russell explained that that had been an accident, not part of the show, but the sailor replied, “The hell it was an accident. I saw you do it in San Francisco.”
Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár was very leary of child actors because of an experience that happened during a play staged by Max Reinhardt’s Vienna Repertory. The play called for a five-year-old boy who had no lines. Because the part was so easy, the nephew of the stage manager was called into action. Unfortunately, it was a dramatic scene in which one of the characters shouted, and this scared the boy so much that he wet himself on stage. Also unfortunately, the stage was raked (that is, slanted), and the stream of urine began to flow downstage — directly toward the prompter’s box, where the prompter was sitting. Of course, the audience members in the higher seats were watching the stream of urine, which was clearly visible, and they were wondering what the prompter would do. Just before the stream of urine reached the prompter’s box, the prompter’s hand reached out and diverted the urine away from his box.
Jackie Gleason’s TV series The Honeymooners was shown live, and mistakes did happen. Once, Mr. Gleason, famous for his character Ralph Kramden, missed his entrance. Art Carney, who played sewer worker Ed Norton, simply went to the Kramdens’ icebox, took out an orange, and began peeling it until Ralph Kramden arrived. Whenever you see Jackie Gleason patting his stomach on the show, it’s a sign to the cast that they’re in trouble, and somebody better think of something to get them out of the jam. Audrey Meadows, in her character of Alice, Ralph’s wife, once snarled, “If you get any bigger, Gasbag, you’ll float away.” The line was an ad-lib, rendered necessary by circumstances.
In 1964, Marti Stevens played Elvira in High Spirits, the musical version of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Her first scene had her speak “Good evening, Charles” through a microphone, then fly onto stage with the aid of a cable. Unfortunately, the microphone had a short circuit, and the electrical shock she received knocked her off a 12-foot platform and she swung back and forth in front of the audience before falling on her butt. After the performance, Mr. Coward went backstage and congratulated her on her performance: “I’m very proud of you. You managed to play the first act of my little comedy tonight with all the Chinese flair and light-hearted brilliance of Lady Macbeth.”
In a scene from Camilla, Lillie Langtry’s character was supposed to give a white camellia to Armand. Noticing that the camellia was not in its regular place, she told a stagehand, who with no time to spare gave her something to take its place. On stage, Ms. Langtry recited, “Take this flower, Armand. It is rare, pale, senseless, cold but sensitive as purity itself. Cherish it, and its beauty will excel the loveliest flower that grows, but wound it with a single touch and you shall never recall its bloom or wipe away the stain.” She then handed him half a stick of celery — which the stagehand had been eating when she told him about the missing camellia.
Sir Peter Ustinov once saw four very interesting windmills at a production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quixote at the Paris Opera. The first windmill, which was propelled by a small man, turned at the proper speed. The second windmill, which was propelled by a very heavy man, turned much slower. The third windmill was turned by two men who disliked and would not cooperate with each other, so its speed varied. The fourth windmill was powered by a malfunctioning electric motor that went into reverse so that the fourth windmill was turning in a different direction than the other windmills.
During a production of Cinderella at the Booth Theater in New York, the production featured two dogs, one of which mounted the other on stage. In the audience was Richard Olivier, the small son of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright. Young Richard asked Noël Coward what the dogs were doing. Mr. Coward replied, “It’s like this, dear boy: the one is front is blind and the kind one behind is pushing him all the way to St. Dunstans.”
Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, and Beatrice Kaufman (Mrs. George Kaufman) once attended a cocktail party. Mrs. Kaufman had the misfortune to sit on a poorly made cane-bottom chair. The cane-bottom broke, Mrs. Kaufman’s bottom fell, and she was stuck in the chair’s frame. Mr. Adams merely looked at her and said, “I’ve told you a hundred times, Beatrice — that’s not funny.”
Interesting mishaps occur on stage. While dancing the lead in Giselle, ballerina Alicia Markova attempted to pluck a flower from the stage. However, the flower would not be plucked. Looking at the stage flowers, Ms. Markova discovered that they had all been nailed down by the stagehands. By giving the flower a mighty wrench, she was able to pluck it and continue with her dance.
During the opera Norma, soprano Thérèse Tietjens — playing the title role — was required to strike a gong forcefully with a stick. In drawing back the stick to strike the gong, she accidentally belted tenor Antonio Giuglini in the nose. After suffering a severe nosebleed, Mr. Giuglini swore never again to sing in Norma.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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