David Bruce: Don’t Fear the Reaper — Practical Jokes, Prejudice

Practical Jokes

• As a young man, William Schwenck Gilbert, who was later to be the librettist of The Pirates of Penzance, liked to give the impression that he was important in the theatrical world. A friend asked him if he could write an order for free seats at a local play, and Mr. Gilbert very happily did so. However, when the friend presented the order at the box office, he was laughed at, and later he demanded an explanation. Mr. Gilbert explained, “You asked me whether I could write you an order for the play. I replied that I could, and I did, but I never said it would be of the least use to you.”

• Tibor Zana was dancing in the operetta Count of Luxembourg when he and the other male dancers decided to play a joke on the women dancers. In the operetta, the men and women danced a waltz, with a line of men and a line of women coming toward each other, then dancing. Before the waltz, each of the men took a big bite of an onion, then at a predetermined time breathed toward their dance partners, causing quite a few heads to turn away from the smell. The stage manager fined the male dancers for the prank, but they decided the prank was worth the fine.

• In the early days of Methodism, members of a congregation sometimes had fun with preachers. Jesse Lee once preached on a verse from Acts 17:6: “These that turned the world upside down have come here also.” He then said that sin had turned the world upside down, and the ministry was determined to set the world right side up. The next day he discovered that in the village he had preached at, everything that could be turned upside down had been turned upside down: wagons, boats, signs, gates, etc.

• Sir Thomas Beecham was a practical joker. While conducting Façade in 1932, he decided to play a trick with the tempo of a polka danced by ballerina Alicia Markova. At first the tempo was normal, but as the dance progressed, he speeded up the tempo faster and faster, grinning at Ms. Markova as she speeded up her dancing. Afterwards, he admitted that he had wanted to see how fast she could dance, and he complimented her on being able to keep up with his tempo.

• In an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, jumps into a swimming pool. The scene was scheduled to be shot in the morning, but it kept being delayed until afternoon. When he finally jumped into the swimming pool, Mr. Denver found out why. The crew had filled the pool with ice cubes and had to wait until they melted so Mr. Denver would not know how cold the water was until he jumped in.


• The great black dancer Bill Robinson, aka Mr. Bojangles, fought prejudice. He and his wife were on a train going from Chicago to St. Louis when they went to the dining car to eat. To avoid trouble, they usually waited until all the white people had eaten, but this time they knew that the dining car was going to be dropped off early. There was one white man still in the dining car, so they asked if he would mind if they ate in the dining car. He didn’t, so they began to seat themselves at a table. The steward said, “This table is reserved,” and refused to let them be seated. Mr. Bojangles was furious and pulled out a gun. The train conductor telegraphed down the line that a madman with a gun was in the dining car. Fortunately, Mr. Bojangles was friends with the police in that town and so was not arrested — also, he had gotten rid of the gun before the police showed up. In St. Louis, he made a complaint against the steward to the railroad manager, who said he would fire the steward. However, Mr. Bojangles didn’t want the man to lose his job, so he said, “I’m playing at the Orpheum Theater. If he wants to come down and apologize to me, I won’t force this charge against him.” The steward did apologize and saved his job.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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