• Onna White was dancing for Michael Kidd when he suggested a series of steps that she thought was too difficult for the “Take Back Your Mink” number in Guys and Dolls, so she complained, “That’s easy for you to say. You’re not wearing high heels.” Mr. Kidd asked, “What size shoe do you wear?” Hearing the answer — seven and a half — he put on her high heels and danced the steps perfectly. After that, says Ms. White, “I shut my mouth and never doubted him again.”
• These are two truths: 1) Divorce can be hard, and 2) The show must go on. Julie Harris was going through a divorce while acting with Eli Wallach in Jean Anouilh’s Mademoiselle Columbe. For the most part, she did not reveal the stress she was under, but immediately before the curtain went up for a matinee, with tears in her eyes she told Mr. Wallach, “I wish I was dead.” With a matinee for the two of them to perform immediately, Mr. Wallach told her, “Julie, listen, we have a matinee. We’ll talk about your death later.”
• As a young actor, William Gillette appeared in a play in which his performance in the deathbed scene did not satisfy the manager. The manager spoke to Mr. Gillette after the play, saying that Mr. Gillette had laughed although his character was supposed to be dying. Mr. Gillette replied, “At the salary you pay, death is something to be greeted cheerfully.”
• In 1848, while the Drury Lane Theater in London was being renovated, a crew knocked down a wall and discovered a hidden room. In the room was a skeleton with a knife stuck between its ribs. Sightings of a ghost have been made several times, but the theater management is proud of its ghost and declines to have an exorcism.
• The great American scoundrel and playwright Wilson Mizner heard about a man in Reno who was executed by means of poison gas. When the warden asked him for his last request, he replied, “A gas mask.” Mr. Mizner was shocked that a man with a sense of humor like that could be executed.
• Richard Burbage originated such Shakespearian roles as Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. When he died, the clever epitaph on his gravestone stated, “Exit Burbage.”
• Lionel Barrymore, who played many, many different roles as an actor, once said that he wanted his epitaph to say this: “Well, I’ve played everything but a harp.”
• George S. Kaufman once told Edna Ferber that he was going to kill himself. Shocked, Ms. Ferber asked, “How?” Mr. Kaufman replied, “With kindness.”
• Michael Bennett, co-choreographer of A Chorus Line, was so disappointed about not being allowed to attend New York City’s High School of Performing Arts (because he lived outside the city) that he says he turned his own high school — Hutcheson Central High School for Boys — into that kind of high school. Instead of attending classes, he was allowed to direct and choreograph the high school’s productions. According to Mr. Bennett, “They used to send people to the auditorium every morning to see if I was in school.”
• As a youth, actor Robert Morley had a housemaster who as punishment would require schoolboys to write out such sentences as “I must not in future pick my nose in class; I must use a handkerchief and never pause to admire the result, but fold it back neatly in my pocket.” (Although the housemaster would at first tell the schoolboy to write the sentence 500 times, he would later reduce the required number of sentences.)
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy