David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Critics, Dance

Critics

• After seeing actress Diana Rigg in a brief nude scene in the play Abelard and Heloise, caustic critic John Simon wrote, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” The next day, as Ms. Rigg went to the theater, she hoped that no one would recognize her. Fortunately, all of the cast members knew better than to mention the review. After a few weeks, however, she began to think the review funny and soon started quoting it. (By the way, Ms. Rigg knows an actress — not herself — who saw Mr. Simon in a New York restaurant and took the opportunity to dump a plate of potato salad on his head.)

• Robert Benchley was asked to become drama critic for Life, a humorous magazine, but he was reluctant to accept the job. Workers at Life therefore asked him to stop by and look around. When Mr. Benchley arrived, they shoved him into the critic’s office and locked the door. Mr. Benchley worked for Life for eight years.

• For years, Percy Hammond was happy as a feared drama critic for the Chicago Tribune. Upon being invited to move to New York City and perform criticism upon Broadway productions, he hesitated, saying, “I’m 47, and it is very difficult for me to make new enemies at my time of life.”

• Drama critic Robert Benchley once watched a play that used dialect. Mr. Benchley could stand it no longer when these lines were spoken, “Me Nubi. Nubi good girl. Nubi stay?” He stood up to leave, and told his neighbors, “Me Bobby. Bobby bad boy. Bobby go.”

• The critics hated Mae West’s controversial stage success Catherine Was Great. Ms. West commented, “The way the boys wrote up the show, I’m surprised they weren’t raided. And to think I took out the stronger lines — on account of Lent.”

Dance

• Lee Schubert produced the Broadway show Americana, which featured some of Doris Humphrey’s dances. Mr. Schubert came to a rehearsal, watched for a while, and then said, “Some of the dances are too long. Why can’t they be cut down to the high spots?” Ms. Humphrey replied, “Your contract said these dances are to be intact.” Later, at a dress rehearsal, Mr. Schubert again said, “Miss Humphrey, too long!” This time, she replied, “Mr. Schubert, please keep your predatory hands off my dances.” Mr. Schubert shouted, “I’ll see you never have your dances done on Broadway again.” She answered, “That will be just fine with me.” Then she asked, “Do you know what ‘predatory’ means?”

• Grover Dale was hired to dance the role of Snowboy on Broadway in West Side Story. However, the success of Chita Rivera singing “America” caused a problem for his “Cool” dance, which followed it. Mr. Dale starts the scene doing pushups, and the applause for “America” was so prolonged that instead of doing three or four pushups, he found himself doing 10, then 20, then 30, then 40 pushups. Worried about whether he would have enough energy left to dance, he knew that he had to do something — so he collapsed, seemingly exhausted by the pushups. The audience laughed, and choreographer Jerome Robbins congratulated him afterward on his quick thinking.

• When Simon Robinson became a personal assistant to ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, one of the first things he says he learned is that “dance is pain.” Mr. Nureyev was dancing in The King and I in Cleveland, and a female dancer danced for a few minutes, then exited — and collapsed in great pain. Mr. Robinson came forward to help her, but she told him, “F**k off. Get out of my way.” With a great effort, she straightened up, made another entrance, danced a few more minutes, then exited — and staggered to her dressing room. The other dancers paid little attention to her — such a scene was not new to them.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Christmas, Costumes

Christmas

• When playwright Lorraine Hansberry was in kindergarten, she received a very nice Christmas present: a white fur coat with matching fur muff. However, she was not pleased by the gift. She knew that although her family was financially well off, other children in their neighborhood were not. In fact, some of the children in the neighborhood were forced to put cardboard in their shoes to keep the snow and ice from coming through the holes in the soles of their shoes. Just as young Lorraine suspected, the other children were jealous of her coat, and they chased her home the first day she wore it and threw mud balls at her.

Costumes

• In 1982, Sinead Cusack appeared as Katherine in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. For her costume, an exquisite pink silk dress had been designed; however, she felt that the character would not wear anything exquisite. Therefore, she wore boots with the dress, and she suggested to the designer, Bob Crowley, “Let’s desecrate it.” He agreed, and he said, “Shall I make the first cut?” With a pair of scissors, he cut a slash in the skirt, then she did the same thing. After the desecration, the dress suited the character.

• Born Sarah Francis Frost, Julia Marlowe invented her stage name by taking the last name of Christopher Marlowe and the name of the heroine from a favorite play, The Hunchback. Late in the 19th century, she was asked why she didn’t act in more modern plays — after all, her finances were being hurt because she preferred to act only in the plays of Shakespeare and other classic dramatists. Ms. Marlowe replied, “Well, I don’t fancy myself in modern drama. I never look well in modern clothes.” End of discussion.

• One of Bette Midler’s more unusual grand entrances was in a hot dog costume, complete with condiments and bun. At an early fitting of the costume, Ms. Midler ran into trouble. The costumers had used Krazy-Glu in its construction, and because of a lack of air circulation in the costume, the glue had not dried. When Ms. Midler tried to get out of the costume, she couldn’t — her hair was glued to the giant hot dog. She was forced to stay inside the giant hot dog until her hairdresser came and cut her out.

• Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld was a master at making the beautiful women who appeared in his Follies even more beautiful. Whenever he inspected a costume, he would turn it inside out to look at its lining. He believed that when the inside of the costume was as beautiful as the outside, the women in his Follies felt more beautiful and thus appeared more beautiful.

Critics

• Robert Benchley was the drama critic for Life for several years. He detested Abie’s Irish Rose, which set a record with 2,327 performances over several years. Unfortunately for Mr. Benchley, Life ran capsule reviews of plays previously reviewed, so each week he had to find a new way to write “awful” in his capsule review of the play. After running out of ideas, he began to fill the space with such “reviews” as “There is no letter ‘w’ in the French alphabet” and “Flying fish are sometimes seen at as great a height as 15 feet” and “In another two or three years, we’ll have this play driven out of town” and “Closing soon. (Only fooling.)” Eventually, he held a contest for suggestions to fill the space. Harpo Marx’s suggestion was “No worse than a bad cold.”

• Billy Rose produced The Great Magoo, written by Gene Fowler and Ben Hecht. Unfortunately, the New York critics disliked the play and it soon closed. Mr. Rose, Mr. Fowler, and Mr. Hecht were approached by a few financial backers of the play — financial backers who also happened to be members of organized crime. The financial backers invited the three men to pick any three New York critics they would like to see dead, and the financial backers would see to it their wish turned into reality. Mr. Rose was against bloodshed, Mr. Fowler wanted a few critics to die, and Mr. Hecht wasn’t sure one way or the other. Eventually, they decided to let the critics live — a decision that Mr. Hecht later said he sometimes regretted.

***

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***

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

Children

• During a matinee performance of Macbeth at which few people were in the audience, Sir Laurence Olivier noticed a boy sitting in the balcony and decided to give a special performance just for him. Sir Laurence gave a wonderful performance and the entire company followed suit, so that during intermission Sir Laurence said, “That boy will never see anything like this as long as he lives; it’s an experience he’ll never forget.” Unfortunately, when Sir Laurence and the company went back on stage following the intermission, they discovered that the boy had left the theater and gone home.

• Carol Burnett’s career got a big boost when she appeared as Princess Winifred in the off-Broadway play Once upon a Mattress. However, the play was on the verge of closing after only six weeks. Therefore, Ms. Burnett and other cast members started to picket the theater, urging management to keep the play open. Joining the picket line were several children from the neighborhood. A Broadway columnist figured that Ms. Burnett was paying the children to picket, but after talking to them, he wrote, “I apologize. Carol Burnett is the best-loved girl on Second Avenue.”

• When 10-year-old Patricia Fosse started taking dance lessons in the Chicago Academy of Theatre Arts, she was shy and cried at the thought of taking dance lessons alone. Therefore, her parents sent her eight-year-old brother, Bob, along to keep her from feeling alone. Bob Fosse grew up to be a world-famous choreographer for such musicals as Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and All That Jazz. In 1973, Mr. Fosse won an Emmy (for Liza Minnelli’s Liza with a Z), an Oscar (for Cabaret), and two Tony Awards (for Pippin).

• At a dinner that Alexander Woollcott threw for Mrs. Minnie Fiske, four street urchins followed the proceedings as they looked through a window. They were delighted when Mr. Woollcott and his friends gave them some after-dinner mints, but when Mrs. Fiske offered them some red roses, their leader declined, explaining, “I work in a florist’s.” Following the dinner, the smallest of the street urchins said, “Thank you, one and all, gentlemen and -women of leisure.”

• When British character actress Patricia Routledge was a small child, whenever she would cry, her mother would say, “Have a toffee.” Sometimes young Patricia would say she wanted a different kind of candy, but her mother insisted, “Have a toffee.” Why? Because it’s impossible to both cry and chew a toffee. Young Patricia’s attempt to do both would make her mother laugh, and soon young Patricia would laugh.

• Playwright and screenwriter Charles MacArthur used vulgar language and slang around the house, even in front of his children. When Mary, his daughter, was in the fourth grade, she was invited by some other little girls to play a game of “Kick the Can.” Mary was “It,” and because she didn’t know how the game was played, she bent over and waited for the other little girls to kick her.

• When Groucho’s first child was born, the Marx Brothers were starring in vaudeville in a comic skit called “Home Again.” Upon hearing the news of the birth, Groucho told the audience, “I have just been informed that my wife, Ruth, has made me the father of a six-pound bouncing baby. When the baby stops bouncing, I’ll let you know whether it’s a boy or a girl.”

• Music Hall performer Marie Lloyd once gave money to her dresser to have the dresser’s child see her in performance. After all, Ms. Lloyd said, “She mustn’t ever say she has never seen Marie Lloyd.” After the performance, Ms. Lloyd asked the child what she had thought of the show. The child replied, “You can’t dance and you can’t sing, and I think you’re rotten.”

• When Sir Michael Redgrave’s daughter Vanessa was born, family friend Sir Laurence Olivier announced to a theatrical audience, “Today a lovely young actress was born.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Audiences, Censorship, Children

Audiences

• John Barrymore could be temperamental on stage. Mr. Barrymore once grew irritated at an audience that coughed too much, so he flung a fish at it and cried, “Busy yourselves with that, you d*mned walruses, while the rest of us proceed with the play!”

• After watching Eve Ensler perform her play The Vagina Monologues, an entranced 70-year-old man told her that he “finally got it.” A few weeks later, he brought his girlfriend to the play, and she thanked Ms. Ensler.

Censorship

• Jewish actor Zero Mostel was a victim of the blacklist during the McCarthy era. While he was working on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the services of Jerome Robbins, who staged songs, were needed. Mr. Robbins had been a friendly witness in the House Un-American Committee hearings, and people worried that Mr. Mostel might not want to work with Mr. Robbins. But Mr. Mostel said, “We of the left do not blacklist.”

• Mae West was often faced with censorship. For example, she wrote and starred in a play titled Sex, about a group of prostitutes. As a result, she was arrested, put on trial, found guilty, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 days in prison. Although she wore a prison uniform like the other prisoners, underneath she wore her own silk underwear.

• Ancient Roman playwrights suffered from censorship. For example, they could be put in prison or exiled if they defamed a very important person. However, they figured out a way to avoid punishment and still attack their targets. They set their plays’ locations in Greece and made their characters — which were sometimes based on important Romans — Greeks.

Children

• Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár was very leery of child actors because of an experience that happened during a play staged by Max Reinhardt’s Vienna Repertory. The play called for a five-year-old boy who had no lines. Because the part was so easy, the nephew of the stage manager was called into action. Unfortunately, it was a dramatic scene in which one of the characters shouted, and this scared the boy so much that he wet himself on stage. Also unfortunately, the stage was raked (that is, slanted), and the stream of urine began to flow downstage — directly toward the prompter’s box, where the prompter was sitting. Of course, the audience members in the high seats were watching the stream of urine, which was clearly visible, and wondering what the prompter would do. Just before the stream of urine reached the prompter’s box, the prompter’s hand reached out and diverted the urine away from his box.

• While he was in kindergarten, children’s book author Tomie DePaola hoped to get the lead role in the class production of Peter Rabbit, but because he talked so much, his teacher gave him the minor role of Flopsy instead. In his dancing class, he had learned that when acting on stage, he should react to what the other actors did. Therefore, when the actor playing Peter Rabbit did anything, Flopsy reacted — opening his mouth in shock, waving his arms, putting his hands over his ears. Naturally, all this reacting got a lot of attention and gave the audience pleasure — with the result that Flopsy stole the show. Afterward, Tomie’s mother made him apologize to his teacher and to the child playing Peter Rabbit, but Tomie apologized when no one could hear him, because he wasn’t very sorry.

• While on tour in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Gielgud played the lead role in Macbeth. Unfortunately, he found a matinee of Scottish schoolchildren very difficult, as they giggled during the performance and threw paper cups. However, Mr. Gielgud was astonished when they laughed when his character kissed Lady Macbeth at breakfast. When he made a speech a few days later, he mentioned his astonishment at the laughter, and the next day a letter appeared in The Scotsman and explained the laughter: “We do understand Mr. Gielgud’s feelings, but perhaps he did not realize that husbands and wives in Scotland do not kiss at breakfast-time.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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

Audiences

• 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

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Animals, Audiences

Animals

• William Butler Yeats wrote some plays in the Japanese Noh style, including The Hawk’s Wells, which created a problem. The stage direction “The Girl gives the cry of the hawk” appears twice, but Yeats, choreographer/dancer Michio Ito, and costume/mask designer Edmund Dulac did not know what the cry of the hawk sounded like. They made a few trips to a zoo, but were unsuccessful in hearing the cry of a hawk, even though Mr. Dulac prodded a hawk with his umbrella. Finally, they decided that the Japanese word for hawk, taka, was onomatopoeic, and so when the Girl gave the cry of the hawk, she cried taka.

• Before he became a success, Jack Benny was desperate for work. Hearing that an animal act was needed at a vaudeville theater, he borrowed two Pekinese dogs and showed up to work. However, Mr. Benny simply tied the dogs to some scenery on stage, and then performed his regular act of telling jokes. While paying Mr. Benny his $25 fee, the theater manager remarked that the animal act was very peculiar and asked, “Don’t your dogs do any tricks?” Mr. Benny pocketed the money, then replied, “Not at these prices, they don’t.”

• The part of Nana, the nanny-dog in James M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, was based on Luath, Mr. Barrie’s Newfoundland dog. To create the costume for Nana, costumers copied Luath’s black-and-white coat. For one performance, Luath made an appearance on stage during a curtain call — the audience was delighted. Afterward, Luath was famous and took liberties during his walks at Kensington Gardens. Sometimes, he would even eat buns that he had taken from babies.

• Jack Benny once performed in USO shows in Europe. After a performance one night, he and some other performers were riding back to their quarters on base when an MP ordered them to stop. The jeep didn’t stop fast enough for the MP, so he fired some shots into the air. After the jeep had stopped and the MP was inspecting the entertainers’ papers, a black cat crossed in front of the jeep. Mr. Benny watched the black cat, then said, “Now he tells us.”

• Mrs. Patrick Campbell certainly loved her dog. When a taxi driver accused her dog of making a puddle in the back of his taxi, Mrs. Campbell rose to the defense of her pet by claiming, “I did it!”

Audiences

• Marga Gomez, the lesbian author of Marga Gomez is Pretty, Witty, and Gay, ran into problems the first time she performed this one-person theatrical piece. Because the piece was new, she placed cheat sheets on the set, out of the sight of the audience. Unfortunately, she accidentally kicked the sheets, mixing them up, and she had to wing the rest of the performance. However, this was not her most terrifying performance. That occurred when she thought Cher was in the audience. All during the performance, she was afraid she would forget her lines. After the performance, she discovered that Cher hadn’t been there — just a man who looked like Cher.

• When Eli Wallach was studying to be an actor, he often attended plays (with cheap tickets) in New York. He once watched a play titled Waiting for Lefty, which was about a taxi-driver strike. Mr. Wallach sat by a man who looked as if he was a taxi driver and who became very interested in the acting on stage. Eventually, an actor on stage started shouting, “Strike! Strike!” The man next to Mr. Wallach jumped to his feet and started shouting, “Strike! Strike!” Carried away by the emotion beside and in front of him, Mr. Wallach also jumped to his feet and started shouting, “Strike! Strike!” Other members of the audience felt the same way and did the same thing.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Agents, Alcohol

Agents

• Walter Winchell used to write a column that frequently featured one-liners by celebrities; however, publicity agents, not the celebrities, often thought up the one-liners. For a while, one-liners by Alexander Woollcott appeared frequently in Mr. Winchell’s column, but eventually Mr. Winchell stopped mentioning Mr. Woollcott’s name. When this happened, Mr. Woollcott sent a message to his publicity agent, Irving Mansfield, and asked, “Dear Irving, whatever happened to my sense of humor?”

• Joe E. Brown was a vaudeville actor for many years, but he played in a star-studded movie version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a performance for which the movie studio did not want to pay him in money, but instead give him a car. His agent asked, “What would my commission be, a bicycle?”

• Eli Wallach once visited Israel in the company of his wife and his agent. While he was there, a street vendor in Bethlehem pointed to Mr. Wallach’s wife and said, “I’ll give you 10 sheep and 10 camels for her.” Immediately, his agent advised, “Take it — I get 10 percent.”

Alcohol

• As a young actress, Eve Arden once appeared in a play with Alice Buchanan. One April day, Ms. Buchanan, who was not known to drink, appeared much later than usual to get dressed for her part. Her face was flushed and her speech was slurred, and when she entered her dressing room, she refused to speak to anyone, preferring instead to sing drunkenly. Her friends were sure she was going to lose her job. However, just before show time, she opened the door of her dressing room, told everyone, “April Fool,” and then performed brilliantly on stage.

• The 19th-century actor George Frederick Cooke sometimes appeared onstage while drunk. In Richard III, he played the Duke of Gloucester, and at one point he staggered across the stage with his sword raised above his head. A member of the audience disliked the performance and shouted, “That’s not like the Duke of Gloucester!” Mr. Cooke stopped, faced the audience member, and shouted, “That’s not like a British auditor!” The act ended with applause (and a few hisses) for Mr. Cooke.

• An obviously inebriated gentleman came to the Court Theatre to buy a ticket only to be told by the box office attendant that he would not be allowed to buy one. The gentleman asked why not, and the box office attendant pointed out that the gentleman was drunk. Affronted, the gentleman replied, “But of course I’m drunk. Do you think I should come to the Court Theatre if I was sober?”

• Actor John Neville was unhappy in the late 1950s Old Vic production of Measure for Measure, so he used to escape to the nearest pub as often as possible. In fact, just before the pub opened at 5:30 p.m., he would lean against the door. When the door was opened, he would fall inside and say, “Sorry I’m late.”

• The 19th-century actor O. Smith, née Richard John Smith, knew his craft. In the drama Peter Bull, he played a drunkard, and one of his bits of business was to spill a drink, and then throw himself on the floor and lap it up. A poorer actor would have been laughed at.

Animals

• The great Shakespearean actor Sir Ralph Richardson had a pet mouse, which he sometimes took for a walk so it could get some exercise. One day, he was walking in a gutter over the mouse — to protect it — when a passing police car stopped to investigate. Sir Ralph explained, “I’m taking my mouse for a walk.” The police officer recognized him and offered to use his flashlight so that Mr. Richardson could better see the mouse. For a while, onlookers saw a little parade — the police officer with a flashlight, the mouse captured in the beam of the flashlight, and Sir Ralph Richardson watching over the mouse. Eventually, Sir Ralph felt that his pet mouse had gotten enough exercise, so he put him in his pocket, thanked the police officer, and returned to his hotel.

***

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***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Actors, Age

Actors

• Steven Spielberg was looking for an actor to play Oskar Schindler in the movie Schindler’s List when he and his family saw Irish actor Liam Neeson in the play Anna Christie. The mother of Mr. Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, was visibly moved by the play and was crying, so Mr. Neeson hugged her. Ms. Capshaw later told her husband, “That’s exactly what Schindler would have done.” Mr. Neeson got the role.

• Actor Patrick Macnee once appeared in a play titled The Assassin, whose lead character died in his arms at the end of the play. Playing the assassin was Peter Glenville, who added a few seconds to the death scene each time he played it. After one performance, Mr. Macnee staggered home, collapsed on a couch, then told his wife, “Tonight Peter Glenville took seven minutes to die!”

• Actors and actresses have strange skills. One day, Roger Prout was passing by Elizabeth Vaughan’s dressing room, where he heard her coughing and coughing as if she were about to die. Concerned, he asked if he could do anything to help her, but she stopped coughing, smiled, and then said, “It’s all right — I was just practicing.”

• As a young, impoverished actor, Harry H. Corbett traveled with a troupe in a very old truck. Frequently, the police would order that the truck be repaired in a shop. The mechanics did what they could, but on the bill they would write, “We are no longer responsible for the state of this vehicle.”

• Dr. Samuel Johnson could be complimentary when he wanted to be. When he received a visit from the actress Mrs. Siddons, one of his servants was slow in bringing her a chair. Referring to her ability to sell out a theater, Dr. Johnson said, “You see, madam, wherever you go, there are no seats to be had.”

Age

• Two great Dames of the English theatre — Dame Sybil Thorndike and Dame Edith Evans — appeared together when they were aged. This caused a major problem for the manager of the theater: Which Dame should get the star dressing room? He went to Dame Sybil and explained the problem. The two dressing rooms in question were both very good, but the number two dressing room was at the top of a flight of stairs. Dame Sybil replied, “Well, then, there’s no problem. Dame Edith must have the number one dressing room — I can still climb stairs.”

• When Sir Ralph Richardson was 74 years old, Richard Eyre visited him in his dressing room, where he was surprised to see Sir Ralph using makeup to put lines under his eyes, the way young actors do. Sir Ralph noticed the look of surprise on Mr. Eyre’s face, so he explained, “Ah, I’m playing an old character, you see.”

• When theatrical maven George Abbott was 95 years ago, he had to get a pacemaker. When he asked about its disadvantages, the doctor joked, “You’ll have to have a new battery after 10 years.” As it happened, when Mr. Abbott was 105 years old, he needed a new battery. Eventually, he died at age 107.

• The last time Leslie Caron saw Fred Astaire was at a benefit for Gene Kelly. A waiter accidentally brushed against her and knocked her off-balance. Mr. Astaire, then 85 years old, immediately grabbed her wrist and steadied her. Ms. Caron told him, “Fred, you haven’t lost your grip.”

Agents

• Diana Adams auditioned for George Balanchine for the Broadway show Dream with Music, which would star Vera Zorina, but before the audition her agent told her not to settle for anything less than the second dancing lead. After the audition, Mr. Balanchine told Diana that she had passed the audition and he would hire her. Immediately, she remembered what her agent had told her, and so she told Mr. Balanchine that she wanted the second dancing lead. Mr. Balanchine looked at her and replied, “In this show, there is only one dancing lead.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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

Actors

• Actress/comedian/writer Ann Randolph got her start in performing when she was hired to work with mental patients at the Athens Mental Health Center while studying theater at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. One of the activities she did was to write several plays for the patients to perform. Some of the things she saw at the Mental Health Center became part of the plays she wrote. According to Ms. Randolph, “I think it shaped me because I was able to see … how devastating mental illness is. I wanted to immediately tell the stories that I was hearing up there. I wanted to tell them on stage. They were amazing stories.” The plays were popular with the patients — one patient even requested, “Don’t discharge me until the play is over.”

• Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in the hit Once Upon a Mattress, a comic play based upon the children’s story “The Princess and the Pea.” In this play, her character slept on a bed with several mattresses, under which a pea had been placed. If her character felt the pea, she was a legitimate princess; if her character did not feel the pea, she was not worthy to marry the prince. However, at the same time that Ms. Burnett was starring on Broadway each night, she was also starring on television each day, and she was very, very tired — so one night she fell asleep while lying on the mattresses on stage.

• Jacob P. Adler was a much-respected Yiddish actor who died in 1926. Fourteen years after his death, an old man showed up at a theater where Mr. Adler used to perform. He presented the theater manager with a pass that had been signed by Mr. Adler — but the pass was good for free admission to a Dec. 31, 1919, performance. The old man had been unable to use it in 1919, but he wanted to use it in 1940 because he had heard that Mr. Adler’s daughter, Celia, was appearing at the theater. The theater manager had such a high respect for Mr. Adler that he honored the pass.

• Katherine Cornell was a much-loved theatrical actress. Once, she was supposed to appear in Seattle, Washington, but because of bad weather her train did not arrive until almost midnight. Hearing that the audience was still awaiting her arrival, she and her troupe went to the theater and got the stage ready in full view of the audience, allowing them a glimpse of behind-the-curtain activity they had not seen before. Ms. Cornell and her troupe then performed the play, which did not end until 3:45 a.m.

• When Diana Adams first started dancing with the New York City Ballet, like most newcomers she was given the pantomime roles that did not require much if any dancing; unfortunately, she was not much good at pantomime — although as her career proved, she was excellent at dancing. As the Duchess in Giselle, she acted regally, but for lack of a better thing to do, looked at the scenery. This amused André Eglevsky, who commented, “That girl, she looks as if she’d never seen a tree before!”

• Actors John Gielgud and Hugh Griffith once attended a party at which Sir John amused everyone by talking of various productions he had seen of Shakespeare’s Tempest. He especially criticized a particular production, saying it had “quite the worst Caliban I have ever seen.” Noticing how quiet Mr. Griffith was, he said, “You’re very silent, Hugh.” Mr. Griffith replied, “Not as a rule. I was just trying to recall my performance and wondering if you could possibly be right.”

• After retiring from gymnastics following the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Cathy Rigby began her acting career by playing the role of Peter Pan for seven months — traditionally, Peter Pan, a boy, is played by a woman. She is well known for this role, which she has played several times in intervening years. In fact, she says her daughter once told her that “when she grows up, she wants to be a boy just like me.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Sports, Volume 2: 250 Anecdotes — Work; The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Absent-Mindedness, Actors

Work

• Walt Disney was uncoordinated but fiercely competitive, and during the Great Depression (when jobs were very, very scarce), his employees did not want to throw or tag him out when he played in one of their lunchtime softball games. Disney employee Jack Kinney once witnessed a game in which Walt Disney hit a grounder to second base. Although the second baseman could have fielded the softball easily, he booted the softball instead into right field. Because the softball had stopped rolling, the right fielder was forced to pick it up, and he immediately threw it to the third baseman instead of the first baseman. The third baseman threw it to the second baseman. The second baseman had no choice but to throw it to the first baseman. The first baseman deliberately bobbled the ball, and when uncoordinated Walt finally made it to first base, the first baseman dropped the ball. Result: Walt was credited with a single. Moral: If you are uncoordinated but want to be a great athlete, just be the guy who does the hiring and firing in the midst of a depression.

• As a child, Tod Sloan (who was later a famous jockey) worked in a carnival with “Professor” Talbot, who among other activities rode in a hot air balloon. One day, the Professor, who had never seen a parachute, made one by looking at a picture and using it as a model. He then announced to the crowd that he would go up in the balloon and his little boy would jump from the balloon and float down to earth with the parachute. Tod asked, “Who’s your little boy?” The professor said, “You are.” Tod exclaimed, “Like h*ll I am!”

• In 1916, pitcher Jack Nabors was in a game that was tied 1-1 in the ninth inning, and he let the other team walk in the winning run—on purpose. Why? He explained, “If they think I’d stand there in that sun and pitch another nine innings waiting for our bums to make another run, they’re crazy.”

Absent-Mindedness

• As a young actress just starting in show business, Eve Arden quickly learned not to be absent minded. She once finished a play’s first act, went to her dressing room, took off her costume and removed her makeup, and then left the theater to take a bus home — only to find the theater manager running after her and yelling, “Second act!” She returned to the stage wearing galoshes and no makeup, where she discovered her fellow actors desperately ad-libbing lines such as “I saw her in the garden, I think” and “She’ll probably be here any minute.”

• Early in her career, actress Diana Rigg was regarded as something of a kook by her neighbors because she used to lose her keys a few times a year and be forced to gain entry to her apartment by throwing a milk bottle through a window.

Actors

• British actor Pete Postlethwaite has a rugged face. When he was studying at the Bristol Old Vic, he ran out of money to pay for the completion of his course of study. However, the head of the school knew that the young man had real talent, so he told him, “Listen, I have a hunch you’re going to do all right in this business, so I’m going to put down the outstanding amount as a debt and then, in a few years’ time, I’ll write it off as a bad debt.” Of course, this comment made Mr. Postlethwaite happy, although the next comment did not. The head of the school unfortunately added, “Of course, when you’ve got a face like a f**king stone archway, you can’t go wrong.” Mr. Postlethwaite once acted in a play by Restoration playwright William Congreve, and co-star Prunella Scales sent him a telegram praising his performance. According to Mr. Postlethwaite, she wrote that “I was the best Restoration truck driver she’d ever worked with.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

The Funniest People in Sports, Volume 2: 250 Anecdotes — Buy

The Funniest People in Sports, Volume 2: 250 Anecdotes — Buy the Paperback

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The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy

The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy The Paperback

The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy Kindle

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The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes — Buy Kobo

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