David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Family, Flops


• Comedian Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch, and both of his parents were professional entertainers: His father sang, and his mother played the piano. At age 15, Jerry began working at the Majestic Hotel in the Catskills. To prepare himself for his job as an entertainer, he developed a record pantomime act. Of course, his parents, who were working elsewhere, were dying to know how their son’s act went on opening night, but they didn’t want to embarrass their son if things had gone badly. So father Danny decided to disguise his voice and call his son, figuring he could tell by his son’s voice how the act had gone over. When Jerry came to the telephone, his father (disguising his voice) told him how much he had liked his act. “Gee, thanks a lot, mister,” Jerry replied. “But how can you like my act? I haven’t been on yet.”

• Comedian Joe E. Brown once learned that his mother was coming to see him work in a burlesque show. Mr. Brown always worked clean, but the other acts were pretty dirty. When Mr. Brown’s mother wrote him a letter saying that she would see the show in Detroit, he was ready to collapse because he “knew that two minutes of burlesque would kill her.” So Mr. Brown went to his boss, Frank Murphy, and the whole company worked together to clean up the show — which meant pretty much rewriting it. Their effort worked — Mr. Brown’s mother was “charmed,” and Mr. Brown wrote in his autobiography that “the laughs were just as loud.”

• Actress Judi Dench frequently played Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. During the balcony scene, as Romeo stood hidden beneath Juliet’s balcony, she recited, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” An audience member called out, “Down there, Ducks, underneath yer balcony.” At a performance that was attended by her parents, when Ms. Dench came to the scene where the Nurse tells her that Tybalt is dead, she recited, “Where is my father and my mother, nurse?” From the audience came the answer, “Here we are, darling. Row H.”

• In 1955, Jane Fonda, after finishing her first year at Vassar, performed in a play with her famous father, Henry Fonda. In the play, she was required to enter onto the stage while crying, something that is difficult even for many experienced actors and actresses to do. After performing the scene extremely well, she asked her father, “How’d I do?” Mr. Fonda later said, “She didn’t understand that she’d done what many professionals couldn’t do in a lifetime.”


• Max Beerbohm and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree were half-brothers. One day, some friends invited Max to a play, but he was dismayed when he arrived at the theater and discovered that the play was Hamlet and that his half-brother was starring in the title role. Max disappeared during the play, and his host eventually found him in a corridor, sleeping on a pile of overcoats. Max apologized, saying, “I always enjoy Herbert’s Hamlet this way.”

• When performance artist Nicky Paraiso was in his third year at New York University, he played the part of a homicidal maniac in the play Boy in the Straight-Backed Chair by Ronald Tavel. As his character killed actors on stage, he could hear his father in the audience telling people, “That’s my son! He’s the star!”

• One of Orson Welles’ rare flops occurred in a spectacular fashion in 1946 when he brought to Broadway the extravaganza Around the World, which was based on Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Forty Days. Cole Porter wrote the songs, and the musical featured four mechanical elephants, circus interludes, and a cast of 70. Critics disliked it, and Mr. Welles was aware that they disliked it. When one critic said that it had everything but the kitchen sink, Mr. Welles appeared in the next performance with a kitchen sink.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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