David Bruce: Old Age Anecdotes

• When Ruth St. Denis was very old, she asked dance critic Walter Terry why a certain publication was always so kind in covering her activities. He investigated and discovered that an executive on the publication had had a romance with Miss Ruth long ago — a romance that Miss Ruth had totally forgotten but which the executive had never forgotten. Once, the executive approached Miss Ruth and Mr. Terry, and Mr. Terry just had time to whisper the name of the executive’s publication and the reminding phrase “night in moonlight California.” Miss Ruth looked into the executive’s eyes and said, “It has been so long ….” The favorable publicity continued.

• Near the end of Ted Shawn’s life, Norbert Vesak visited him. Mr. Shawn told him, “Remember, I always said that my heart always beats in 3/4 time? Well, now I even walk in 3/4 time.” Mr. Shawn then used the furniture to help support himself as he walked across the room, saying, “You see? Chair, two, three / Table, two, three / Doorway, two, three / Banister, two, three.” Years later, Mr. Vesak saw Katherine Hepburn in the play West Side Waltz. At the end of the play, Ms. Hepburn’s character used a walker to get across a room — Walker, two, three / Walker, two, three — and saying, “You see! Now I even walk in waltz time!”

• The famed dance team of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn almost never happened because Ms. Fonteyn, who was older than Mr. Nureyev, worried about “mutton dancing with lamb.” Fortunately for ballet, she overcame her hesitation. While rehearsing Swan Lakewith Mr. Nureyev, they discussed some changes that he wanted to make to the choreography. At one point, objecting to a change, she said, “Rudolf, I have been doing this ballet since 1938.” He began to giggle, so she said, “I suppose that was before you were born.” He replied, “No — just exact year.” Once, a woman fan who had been talking in Russian with Mr. Nureyev in a restaurant suddenly noticed Ms. Fonteyn and asked Mr. Nureyev in English, “Who is that? Your mother?”

• Catherine Shipley was both a Quaker and a character. When she was old and living alone, her children became worried about her, so they hired a companion for her. Knowing that Kate didn’t want a companion, they told the companion not to leave Kate’s home, even when requested to do so. The companion arrived at Kate’s home and was entertained, and she did not leave even when Kate requested her to once, twice, and three times. However, Kate was master of her own home, and she called the police, who carried the companion off to jail.

• Ellen Terry (1848-1928) was a much beloved Shakespearian actress. Once, close to 80 years old, she was playing Portia, but forgot the words to the “quality of mercy” speech. She struggled to remember, could not, and then said to the audience, “I am a very silly old lady, and I cannot remember what I have to say.” The audience cheerfully shouted out the words to the speech, and Ms. Terry continued with her performance.

• In 1997, Phyllis Diller, who is famous in part for her jokes about plastic surgery, celebrated her 80th birthday. She told her guests, “More men have worked on my face than on the Egyptian pyramids.” To back up her statement, she gave each guest a list of the plastic surgery procedures she had undergone — the list included 18 improvements to her face and figure.

• Sam Mendes was very young — 23 years old — when he directed Judi Dench in three plays. During a conversation, they talked about some plays that Ms. Dench had starred in during the mid-1970s. Ms. Dench asked Mr. Mendes if he seen the plays, and he replied, “Well, no. I was 10 years old.” Ms. Dench screamed, then pretended to choke him.

• When George Burns got old, he used to say that his memory was getting bad, so bad that he hired a secretary with a good memory so she could nudge him when someone was approaching and remind him who the person was. One day, the secretary nudged him and said, “The fellow coming your way is your brother Willie.”

• While traveling in the Orient, American dance pioneer Ted Shawn watched Madame Katayama perform a geisha dance, in which she kneeled on the floor, then bent backward until her head touched the floor between her feet. When she performed the dance for Mr. Shawn, Madame Katayama was 88 years old.

• When Pierre Monteux was in his eighties, he signed a contract that made him principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra for the next 25 years — but he insisted that the contract include an option allowing him to conduct for an additional 25 years.

• Olga Preobrajenska was a very strong ballerina and teacher of ballet. As an old lady, she lived in a nursing home, but whenever she was fed up with the nurses, she stacked all the bedroom furniture against the door so that they couldn’t come in and bother her.

• A wealthy old man was interested in a young, beautiful gold digger. He asked his friends, “How old should I tell her I am? My real age of 70? Or a younger age of 60?” His friends advised, “Tell her you’re 90.”

• A woman objected to buying a Renaissance painting of a young girl because it had been restored. Lord Duveen told her, “My dear Madam, if you were as old as this young girl, you would have to be restored, too.”

• Ethel Barrymore was once told that a woman who had been at school with her wished to see her. Ms. Barrymore replied, “Wheel her in.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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