David Bruce: The Coolest People in Comedy — Practical Jokes

Practical Jokes

• Harpo Marx was a great friend of theatrical critic Alexander Woollcott, and when Harpo announced that he had taken up painting, Mr. Woollcott was enthusiastic and wanted to see some of his paintings. Harpo was willing, and one day Mr. Woollcott walked into Harpo’s art studio. A nude female model was posing, and Harpo asked Mr. Woollcott to wait a few minutes as he put a few finishing touches on the paintings. So Harpo looked at the nude model and painted a little more, and then he allowed Mr. Woollcott to see the painting — which depicted not a nude model, but a banana.

• Oscar Levant once became interested in the daughter of a Los Angeles society family, but she declined to date him until he and a member of his family were introduced to her family. Since no members of his family were in LA, Mr. Levant took along Harpo Marx when he visited her family and introduced Harpo as his uncle. Big mistake. Within five minutes, Harpo had insulted the butler, flirted with the maid, and chased the society woman’s mother through the house. Of course, Oscar and Harpo were thrown out of the house as quickly as possible.

• Comedians tend to play practical jokes on each other. While performing in the Ziegfeld Follies, Eddie Cantor was supposed to lift and carry around two empty suitcases, but during one performance they were enormously heavy — W.C. Fields had filled the suitcases with bricks. Mr. Cantor got Mr. Fields back by inviting him to play a game of golf, a game that Mr. Fields took seriously. But when Mr. Cantor took off his coat upon arriving at the gold course, he was wearing his pajamas and slippers and played the entire game in his jammies.

• Occasionally, practical jokes are played during operatic performances. In a performance of La Bohèmein Philadelphia, Frances Alda was surprised when her fellow singers turned toward her on stage with monocles in their eyes. When snow fell on stage, mixed with it were such items as buttons that hit the top of the bonnet she was wearing. A glass of water turned out to be a glass of ink. And when De Segurola put on a hat on stage, he discovered that it was filled with powder that cascaded over his shoulders.

• Phil Silvers once played a joke on Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Mr. Silvers was suffering from insomnia in a hotel and suddenly remembered that the comedy team of Lewis and Martin was performing in the lounge. So he put on slippers and a robe, and walked into the lounge, where Lewis and Martin were in the midst of their wild shenanigans. The famous comedy team saw Mr. Silvers, stopped, and stared. Mr. Silvers said, “Fellas, could you hold it down a little? I’m upstairs trying to sleep.”

• Harpo Marx was always ready to make people laugh on the spur of the moment, and he often poked fun at dignified people. Once a dignified woman (whom Harpo didn’t know) got out of a taxi in front of a hotel, and Harpo picked her up, ran with her to the hotel desk, and told the clerk, “Register us quickly!” (Because of Harpo’s reputation as a comedian, I think the woman would be flattered and not regard this as sexual harassment.)

• Practical joker Hugh Troy once heard the owner of a small general store say that he was due to take inventory soon. So Mr. Troy went to another store, bought $20 worth of items that the small general store carried, then smuggled them into the general store and put them on the shelves. Mr. Troy’s name for his action was “Shop-stuffing. Makes a nice change from shop-lifting, don’t you think?”

• In Act 4 of Puccini’s La Bohème, Mimi lies dying of tuberculosis, and Musetta gives her a muff to keep her hands warm. Frederick Jägel once surprised the singer playing the role of Mimi. When she slipped her hands inside the muff, she discovered a warm Polish sausage.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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THE COOLEST PEOPLE IN COMEDY

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