David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Mishaps

Mishaps

• Problems sometimes arose during Anna Pavlova’s tours through the United States. One theater manager proudly displayed a shiny floor that he had specially polished for her performance. Unfortunately, the floor was much too slippery to dance on, so Ms. Pavlova had it roughed up with sandpaper before her performance. On another occasion, it was too late to sandpaper a floor, so the dancers attempted to perform on it despite its slipperiness. Her dancers wet their shoes, hoping for traction, while Ms. Pavlova in desperation poured honey on her shoes in an attempt to make them stick to the floor. Nothing worked. According to dancer H. Algeranoff, “We went down like ninepins ….”

• While performing in the play Angel Street in New York, Vincent Price had the misfortune to bite into a well-frozen ice cream treat during intermission, dislodging a cap on a front tooth. Determined that the show must go on, Mr. Price lodged a wad of adhesive tape into the gap in his front teeth, then continued his performance. Unfortunately, the gap of adhesive tape came loose, flying out of his mouth during an impassioned speech and hitting his co-starring actress on her cheek. For the rest of what was supposed to be a stirring scene, Mr. Price lisped his lines.

• When the Cotton Club needed a new house band in 1927, Duke Ellington decided to audition his band for the job. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the number of musicians that the Cotton Club required, so he scrambled to add more musicians to his band. This slowed him down, and he and his band arrived for the audition two hours late. No problem. The managing owner of the Cotton Club, Harry Block, also arrived two hours late. Because all of the other bands had already auditioned, the only band Mr. Block heard was Duke Ellington’s, and he hired it.

• Ruth St. Denis was accustomed to improvise on stage, and frequently did not memorize the steps of her dances. During her duet with husband Ted Shawn in Josephine and Hippolyte, they smiled at each other and talked together throughout the dance. The audience thought they were making love talk at each other; instead, she was saying things such as “Teddy, what do I do next?” Mr. Shawn was saying things such as, “Ruthie, take six steps stage right, turn, look, hold out your arm and I’ll come back to tell you what’s after that.”

• At Stratford, Connecticut, the American Shakespeare Festival participants decided to give previews to high school students. Unfortunately, its staging of Romeo and Juliet still had a few kinks to be worked out. For example, when Romeo poisoned himself, he was standing over Juliet, who was lying on a narrow raised bier, and so when Romeo died, he fell over directly on top of Juliet because there was nowhere else to fall. Of course, the audience laughed when Juliet woke up and asked, “Where is my Romeo?”

• Zero Mostel was occasionally forced to deal with mishaps on stage. For example, in a performance of Fiddler on the Roof, the house moved every way but the one way it was supposed to move. So Mr. Mostel said in one of Tevye’s conversations with God, “Just because I didn’t pay the rent to the landlord, you don’t have to punish me.” And as the stagehands worked to fix the house, he added, “If you were a decent God, you’d put my house in order.”

• When Richard Burton was starring at the old Vic in Hamlet, John Gielgud stopped by his dressing room after a performance so that they could go out and have supper together. However, Mr. Burton took a long time changing out of his costume so Mr. Gielgud said, “I’ll go on ahead. Come when you’re better — I mean, when you’re ready!” In his book Acting Shakespeare, Mr. Gielgud calls this one of his favorite theatrical gaffes.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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