• English entertainer Joyce Grenfell ran into a problem while touring in Australia. There, the custom was to buy a box of chocolates and eat them during the second half of an entertainment. Unfortunately, the chocolates were wrapped in crinkly wrappers that made a lot of noise. Ms. Grenville ignored the distraction for two nights, but on the third night she told the audience that if they ate the chocolates after her performance, they could enjoy both her performance and the chocolates, but that if they ate the chocolates now, she would be obliged to cancel her performance. The audience was shocked for a moment, then put away the chocolates.
• In Olsen and Johnson’s stage show Hellzapoppin’, a gag was that a chorus girl — who had been planted in the audience — would come on stage and “accidentally” step on a blower that would blow her skirt high. During one performance an elderly woman came on stage (Olsen and Johnson used lots of audience participation) and really did accidentally step on the blower. Her reaction to her skirt’s flying in the air was immediate: She used her umbrella to beat everybody in sight. The audience roared with laughter, and Olsen and Johnson kept the bit in the show — but they used a cast member to play the part of the elderly woman.
• James J. Davis was Secretary of Labor early in the 20th century. Previous to going into politics, he worked in an opera house, where he appeared in several Shakespearean plays, including Richard III. In the scene in which Richard III says, “A horse, a horse; my kingdom for a horse,” Mr. James and the other young actors were battling mightily on stage, with many shouts of “Hey! Hey!” A man from the audience shouted, “Don’t order so much hay, boys, until you see whether he gets the horse or not!”
• Harry Houdini performed many of his escapes behind a screen. He would escape from a seemingly diabolical device quickly, then remain behind the screen and read a book as the members of the audience grew more and more worried about his safety. When the members of the audience started to shout for someone to rescue him, Houdini would emerge from behind the screen, pretending to be exhausted, as if he had been struggling to escape the whole time.
• After a show in Kalamazoo, Michigan, lesbian performance artist Holly Hughes thought that she had “totally bombed.” Afterward, a woman who had been in the audience approached her, and Ms. Hughes looked at her hair — her big hair — and again Ms. Hughes thought that she had bombed. But no — the woman had loved her performance and thought that it was the best thing she had seen since The Love Boat had been cancelled.
• In 1948, Henry Fonda starred in Mister Roberts on Broadway. Opening night was a major success, with the audience members cheering and cheering while standing on their seats. Finally, Mr. Fonda told them, “This is all Tom and Josh [Tom Heggen and Joshua Logan, the authors] wrote for us. If you want, we can start all over again.” Later, a critic wrote, “I hung around awhile, hoping they would.”
• Ancient Roman audiences did not mind leaving in the middle of a performance of a play if they felt that better entertainment was available elsewhere. During a performance of Terence’s Mother-in-Law, the audience left to see some performing ropedancers and boxers nearby. When Mother-in-Law was produced a second time, the audience left to watch gladiators fight.
• Al Jolson was a huge star. While appearing in the musical Big Boy, he once asked the audience, “Do you want me, or do you want the show?” The audience shouted, “We want Al! We want Al!” Therefore, Mr. Jolson let the cast have the night off, and he entertained the audience solo.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy