David Bruce: Don’t Fear the Reaper — Names, Performing, Politics, Practical Jokes

Names

• Names and nicknames can be interesting. When he was 15 years old, Anton Dolin studied under dance teacher Nicolas Legat, who always called him by the nickname “Piccadilly.” Mr. Dolin didn’t understand the meaning of the nickname until they were traveling on a bus together. When the bus passed Piccadilly Circus, Mr. Legat pointed in its direction, and Mr. Dolin saw that he was pointing at a status of Eros. By the way, opera singer Birgit Nilsson’s last name came from her father, Nils. In Sweden, sometimes a child — even a girl — is given the father’s first name, to which son is always — and dotter is never — added. This then becomes the child’s last name.

• The writers of Jackie Gleason’s TV series featuring him as blowhard Ralph Kramden wanted to call the series The Beast, because they felt that Ralph was like an animal. However, Mr. Gleason felt that love was a major element of the show and underlay the arguments between Ralph and his wife Alice, so he insisted that it be called The Honeymooners.

Performing

• Dancer Agnes de Mille auditioned for impresario Billy Rose early in her career. She danced for hours in different costumes and wigs, she paid the accompanist and the dresser, and her effort was immense; however, no job offer materialized after the audition. A little later, Ms. de Mille’s choreography for Rodeo was a hit when it premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on 16 October 1942, and Mr. Rose asked about her, “Where has she been? Who discovered her? She can’t have just sprung to this eminence from nowhere. She must have been somewhere. Where did she hide herself?”

• The first duet ever performed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn was a North African dance which received great applause after each performance — until they danced it in Topeka, Kansas. At the end of the dance, the audience was completely silent for a long time — until a member of the audience said with feeling: “Jesus!” Afterwards, Mr. Shawn told the story of the dance’s Topeka reception to Ethel Barrymore, who commented that the audience’s reaction to the dance was “a very great tribute.”

Politics

• In 1931, Robert Benchley, Lewis Milestone, and Douglas Fairbanks were in Italy, when they decided to pay a visit on Benito Mussolini. Because Mr. Fairbanks was a huge movie star, a visit was arranged, but when they arrived at the appointed time, they were told that Mussolini could not see them for a half-hour. They replied that they were too busy to wait, and departed, leaving behind a startled bureaucrat.

• Once a woman complained to Sir Winston Churchill that she didn’t like either his politics or his moustache. Sir Winston replied, “Madame, you are unlikely to come into contact with either.”

Practical Jokes

• Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, had the hardest lines to learn because so much of what he said was scientific. One day, as a practical joke, the series’ producer, Sherwood Schwartz, wrote out a half page of scientific-sounding gibberish and told Mr. Johnson to memorize it for the next day’s shooting. The next day, to Mr. Schwartz’s surprise, Mr. Johnson was letter-perfect in his recitation of the gibberish. (Mr. Johnson had suspected the practical joke and had stayed up half the night to learn his lines.) By the way, in 1986, Mr. Johnson was invited to speak at Park College in Missouri. He got a kick out of the posters for his lecture: Underneath a picture of his face were the words, “See a real Professor speak.”

• Gladys Cooper once wrecked a theatrical performance with a series of practical jokes. One actor lit an exploding cigar. The actresses who were supposed to eat cookies on stage were given cookies with flannel inside them. An actress who was supposed to eat an apple discovered that the apple was made of soap. Actor Gerald du Maurier witnessed these practical jokes and worried that he would be the next victim. His character was given a parcel on stage, and he thought that when he opened the parcel, something might fly out. Relieved to discover that the parcel was not booby-trapped, he sat down on a cushioned chair — which was rigged to emit a series of squeaks.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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