David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Problem-Solving, Props, Public Speaking, Puns


• While working on her play The Autumn Garden, Lillian Hellman had trouble writing one particular speech. She wrote, rewrote, and rewrote it again, but she couldn’t make the speech say what she wanted it to say in the way she wanted it said. Finally, late at night, she went to bed. The next morning, she got up and discovered that her partner, mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, had written the speech for her. It was perfect.

• Unfortunately, people sometimes take their cellular telephones with them to Broadway plays — which are interrupted when the telephones begin ringing. Actor Nathan Lane, while performing on stage in the comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, used to run off stage when a telephone began ringing in the audience, answer it, and say, “I’m sorry. He’s at a Broadway show right now. He can’t come to the phone.”


• Ralph Richardson had an uncanny eye for detail when it came to props on stage — unfortunately, in one case. Judy Campbell performed with him in George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. In one scene, she had to pour tea, and the handle of the teapot was facing the wrong direction, away from her, making it difficult for her to pour the tea. She spoke to the prop man and for the next performance, the teapot was placed correctly on the tray. However, when Sir Ralph put the tray down before her, he said, “Oh, dear. Someone has moved the teapot,” then he put the teapot back in its original, incorrect position. Because of Ms. Campbell’s respect for Sir Ralph, she didn’t say anything about the teapot for the rest of the play’s run.

• Famous vaudeville comedian Bobby Clark was seldom recognized unless he was wearing his trademark spectacles — which weren’t real, but were merely drawn onto his face. He married a French-speaking woman, and decided to take French at Hollywood High School in order to communicate better with her mother, who didn’t speak English. The high school students were putting on a play, and they asked Mr. Clark to take part — as a prop man. Mr. Clark agreed.

Public Speaking

• In 1957, character actor A.E. “Matty” Matthews was nearly 90 when he was invited to a party at Pinewood Studios to celebrate British filmmaking. The party went well until one after-dinner speaker droned on and on, boring everyone. Matty stood it as long as he could, then muttered, “Good God, doesn’t he know I haven’t got long to live?”

• Each night, after the end of her hit play Catherine Was Great, Mae West made this famous curtain speech: “I’m glad you like my Catherine. I like her, too. She ruled 30 million people and had 3,000 lovers. I do the best I can in two hours.”


• Director Tyrone Guthrie was busy casting The First Gentleman in New York. A friend mentioned an English actress whose actor husband was performing in a hit play in New York and who was carrying on an affair with another woman. The friend said that the actress would probably be delighted “to go to New York because her husband has a hit there.” Mr. Guthrie replied, “She’ll be delighted to go to New York because her husband has a Miss there.”

• In England, to “give someone the bird” means to boo them. On the New York opening night of Bitter Sweet, Noël Coward walked into Evelyn Laye’s dressing room and presented her with a silver box. When she opened the box, a mechanical bird emerged, flapped its wings, and sang. Mr. Coward said, “I wanted to be the first to give you the bird.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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