David Bruce: Plagiarism Anecdotes

• When Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano de Bergeracwas presented by the Metropolitan Opera, many opera-knowledgeable people discerned passages that seemed more than reminiscent of passages written by other composers. At a rehearsal, Frances Alda finished singing an aria, then asked, “Where do we go from here?” The assistant conductor, who was named Hageman, replied, “From Gounod to Meyerbeer.” (Charles-Françoise Gounod and Giacomo Meyerbeer each had composed operas.) At another rehearsal, Ms. Alda saw another singer listening to the score of Cyrano de Bergeracand frequently bowing to the air. Curious, she asked him, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I am saluting the spirits of the dead masters.” (The opera was not a success.)

• Oldtime Church of Christ preachers felt no compunction about borrowing sermons from other preachers — and were often encouraged to do so. A young preacher, Cornelius Abbott, once borrowed a sermon from an older preacher, H. Leo Boles, and used it as needed. One Sunday, the young preacher was giving the sermon when he noticed preacher Boles sitting in the congregation. He broke off giving the sermon, and said to preacher Boles, I did not see you in the audience, and if I had I would not be here delivering your sermon.” Preacher Boles stood up and said, “That’s all right. The fellow I got it from said you could preach it, too.”

• Stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield writes much of his own material, but he also buys material from writers. Once, he bought some jokes from stand-up comedian John DeBellis. Shortly afterward, Mr. DeBellis heard Mr. Dangerfield doing some jokes that Mr. DeBellis used in his own act but had not sold to Mr. Dangerfield. Mr. Dangerfield explained that he had bought the jokes, and then he called up the man from whom he had bought them and asked where the jokes had come from. The man explained, “I was at the Improv the other night and I got a lot of them there.”

• Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936) was the editor of the Hebrew daily Ha-Zifirah. Once a young man saw him and submitted a poem for publication. Sokolow read the poem, and then he asked, “Did you write this poem yourself?” The young man said he had written it. Sokolow then said, “In that case, I am delighted and surprised to see you, because I was under the impression that Judah L. Gordon, the author of this poem, had been dead for 10 years.”

• English entertainer Joyce Grenfell had a problem with amateurs stealing her material. Frequently, she received letters from people asking for her sketches so that they could perform them before other people. Of course, as an entertainer, she made her living by performing that material, and so she used to write back, suggesting as kindly as possible that the amateur ought to write her own original material.

• John Grant did a lot of comedy writing for Abbott and Costello, furnishing some of the best comic routines for their movies. Once, he turned in an excellent comic routine after having only one day to work on it. The routine seemed familiar to Abbott and Costello movie producer Alex Gottlieb, so he started through the books in his library. In the 1870 book A Compendium of Humor for All Occasions, he found the routine.

• Comedy writer Goodman Ace once wrote down several jokes, and then he looked in a 100-year-old book of jokes to see if it would inspire some new ideas. However, he found in the book a joke that he had thought he had just written. Because of this experience, Mr. Ace believes that no matter what comedic idea you have “somewhere, somebody must’ve thought of it before.”

• A man once plagiarized the work of R’ Shmuel Shmelkis, taking the good Rabbi’s interpretations and saying they were his. R’ Shmuel was unconcerned, saying, “As long as he quotes my interpretations and says they are his, I don’t mind at all. I would be concerned if he gave his own interpretations and called them mine.”

• Henry Rowley Bishop wrote the opera Aladdinin competition with Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon. Unfortunately, his “Hunting Chorus” was very similar to Weber’s “Hunter’s Chorus.” When the audience heard Bishop’s “Hunting Chorus” at the premiere of Aladdin, they derisively whistled Weber’s “Hunter’s Chorus.”

• Ben Hecht, co-author of the comic play The Front Page, was once a starving writer in New York City. He read a book by noted eccentric Charles Fort titled Book of the Damned. The book suggested a plot for a short story when Mr. Hecht immediately wrote and sold. Because of that, he always felt kindly toward Mr. Fort.

• Mark Twain once listened to a sermon, and then he told the preacher that he had at home a book that contained every word of the preacher’s sermon. This astonished the preacher — and worried him, too, because he did not want to be guilty of even unintentional plagiarism. Mr. Twain later sent the preacher the book — it was a dictionary.

• Jacques Offenbach once spent an evening playing the music of Bach for a colleague who was also a composer. The colleague said, “That’s grand, but you ought not to make this music known to the public. There is much in it that we might utilize in our own works.”

• Two plays were written about Dorothy Parker: one by George Oppenheimer and one by Ruth Gordon. Thinking about this, Mrs. Parker said, “Now, I suppose, if I ever wrote a play about myself I’d be sued for plagiarism.”

• Lou Costello was reading a script for the radio show The Abbott and Costello Programwhen he said that a certain line wasn’t funny. One of Abbott and Costello’s writers said, “It got a big laugh on Fred Allen’s show last week.” Mr. Costello replied, “OK, we’ll use it.”

• George Frideric Handel occasionally “borrowed” from other composers. After being told that something he had supposedly composed was actually written by Bononcini, Handel merely remarked, “It was much too good for Bononcini.”

• “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.” — Wilson Mizner.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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