Frances Langford sang with a big-band style, and she was popular on the radio, in movies, and on USO tours with Bob Hope. While performing with Mr. Hope in Salerno, Italy, Ms. Langford found the accommodations very primitive indeed. For example, her dressing room was constructed out in the open. A fence enclosed the dressing area, although it lacked a roof. However, while Ms. Langford was in the dressing room, she happened to look up, and she saw a hill on which were some trees; in every tree were guys. Ms. Langford says, “I think that the biggest audience I ever had.”
In 2007, author Christopher Hitchens had some interesting experiences as he toured to publicize his best-selling book God Is Not Great. In New York, he saw this sign put up by the Second Presbyterian Church: “Christopher Hitchens doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” In Raleigh, North Carolina, he appeared before a huge crowd at a Unitarian church, whose rector whispered to him, “I ought not to say this, but the church has never been this full before.” And in Austin, Texas, an audience member asked him if he knew the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, another anti-Christian author. Mr. Hitchens replied that he did, although he did not always agree with Nietzsche. The audience then asked if Mr. Hitchens was aware that Nietzsche was suffering from terminal syphilis while writing his anti-Christian works. Mr. Hitchens replied that he had heard that, but that he didn’t know whether it was true. Finally, the audience member asked if the same explanation accounted for Mr. Hitchens’ own anti-Christian works. Mr. Hitchens immediately thought, “Should have seen that coming.”
Al Jolson was a huge entertainer in vaudeville, but his fame declined and then was resurrected when the 1946 movie The Jolson Story, which starred Bert Parks and won an Oscar for Best Score, came out. How forgotten was Mr. Jolson? He watched the movie in a theater, feeling very proud. At the end of the movie, which was a huge hit, people cheered, and Mr. Jolson overheard a woman say, “It’s too bad Jolson couldn’t be alive to see this.” When Mr. Jolson was big in show biz, he was huge. He often starred in musicals on Broadway, and when he felt like it, 20 minutes into the musical, he would tell the other members of the cast, “Go home.” Then he would sing and entertain solo for two hours. The audience never complained; after all, they had not come to see and hear the musical—they had come to see and hear Mr. Jolson.
Stand-up comedian Kristen Schaal used to practice her act in front of an unusual audience: the cows on the Colorado farm where she grew up. She says, “I had time on my hands. I would perform in front of the cows. They never mooed. They never heckled. They were very polite. That’s how I learned to not expect anything from an audience.” Despite its being unusual, this kind of audience is good practice for real audiences; as Ms. Schaal points out, “I went back home recently, and I looked at the cows again and thought, ‘God, they have the same expression as audiences.’ Just expectant—they want something but they’re just, like, waiting. And they have no idea what they’re waiting for. After that training, I was set.”
Audience members will applaud vigorously if they know that a big-name vocalist is singing, but if they do not know that a big-name vocalist is singing, they will remain quiet. Albert Reiss was a competent tenor, but he lacked a big name although one evening he did not lack laryngitis. Enrico Caruso, who had perhaps the biggest name among tenors, offered to sing Arlecchino’s arietta for him while he mouthed the words, and Mr. Caruso also bet Mr. Reiss that no one in the audience would know that he was doing so. Mr. Caruso sang for Mr. Reiss and no one went wild, but the next time Mr. Caruso sang and the audience knew that he was singing, the audience went wild.
Anita Berber, known mainly as a controversial dancer in Weimar’s Berlin, performed in many countries. In Fiume, a city now in Croatia, she performed in a very small club where she could hear the comments members of the audience made about her. She overheard one insulting comment and memorized where it had come from. After her dance was over, she walked over to that spot and slapped the man sitting there. Unfortunately, Ms. Berber was nearsighted and did not know that the man who had insulted her had gone and that a man who appreciated her talent had taken his place.
Comedian Larry Storch was doing stand-up comedy in Detroit at a time when Soupy Sales was doing a Detroit children’s show that was widely watched by adults. Mr. Storch heard that a local TV celebrity was in the audience, and he thought that the audience would like to know that, so he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a guy named Soupy Sales in the audience who you might know and he’s sitting right over there. Let’s say hello.” Big mistake. The audience mobbed Soupy Sales, leaving nobody to listen to Mr. Storch’s act. Mr. Storch says, “It was embarrassing. They left the joint empty.”
Not every dance affects the audience the way the dancer/choreographer wants it to. Paul Sanasardo choreographed three solos about death titled collectively Three Dances of Death (1956). The third solo was “The Sentimentalist,” and when he danced it, he was surprised by the audience’s reaction: They laughed. When he finished the solo, the great choreographer Paul Taylor, who was also dancing on the program, told him, “That’s a really funny dance.” Not surprisingly, that was the last time Mr. Sanasardo danced the solo.
George Balanchine choreographed Liebeslieder Walzer in such a way that some members of the audience regarded it as a series of “love-song waltzes,” and some members of early audiences would leave the theater between acts. Lincoln Kirstein once watched the audience between acts, and he moaned to Mr. Balanchine, “Look how many people are leaving.” Unperturbed, Mr. Balanchine replied, “Ah, but look how many are staying!”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved