Members of the Wallenda family falling off the high wire and plummeting to their deaths — repeatedly. Orchestra conductors having heart attacks in the middle of symphonies. Owen Hart dropping from the rafters in a wrestling stunt gone wrong.
These are just some of the performers who died onstage and are profiled in “The Show Won’t Go On,” a compilation by Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns. Some of them have long been part of show business legend.
There’s J.I. Rodale, a more-than-a-bit-odd nutritionist who was on “The Dick Cavett Show” to tell viewers how to live a healthier life, in part by not cooking vegetables, which he claimed would cause cancer. Rodale, who was sure he’d live a very long life, died on camera before the end of the show. Despite the episode never airing, there are lots of people who claim to have seen it happen on TV. Impossible, since Cavett has kept the tape locked up since that night in 1971. However, he allowed Jeff and Burt to watch the show so they could describe it in full detail in the book. My favorite part is when Pete Hamill, the celebrated newspaper columnist who was the next guest, calmly took out his reporter’s notebook and wrote down what happened after Rodale collapsed so he could use it in his column the following day.
There’s Harry Einstein, father of both Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein, who performed in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s as Greek dialect comedian Parkyakarkus. In 1958, he was one of many comedians at a Friars Club tribute dinner for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. After doing his schtick at the microphone in the center of the dais and getting repeated roars of laughter from the crowd, he returned to his seat, put his head down on the table and never picked it up.
There’s Dick Shawn (“The Producers,” “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”) who used to open his one-man stage show by lying still under a pile of newspapers, then pop up to begin his performance, only to fake a heart attack at the end of the first act and lie prostrate on the floor during intermission — until one night, it was all too real. Jeff and Burt got Dick’s son Adam, who was working as his father’s stage manager that night, to tell the story.
There are several magicians who were killed while doing the bullet catch trick, including one famous Chinese performer named Chung Ling Soo. It wasn’t until after a fatal shot that it was discovered that Soo wasn’t Chinese at all, but an American named William Robinson.
I’ve known both Jeff and Burt for many years. The former is a renowned publicist for some of the country’s top comedians (many of whom he lined up for my show) and owner of one of the biggest collections of comedy memorabilia in the world. The latter is a tabloid and reality show TV producer (“A Current Affair,” “Hard Copy”) and author of “Tabloid Baby.”
They unearthed so many of these showbiz death stories they had to limit the book to only those who died onstage and leave out the many who keeled over later at home or in a hotel room or anywhere else. Along the way, they recount the deaths of actors, singers, chorus girls, models, and even some social media stars. While the subject might seem morbid, the stories often border on the unbelievable, but Jeff and Burt assure us they’re all true.
It’s a great read, even if you don’t know many of the performers — and you won’t.
For instance, they start the book with Jane Little, who held the record as the musician with the longest tenure with an orchestra. After 71 years playing the double bass (not an easy task for a woman only 4’11” tall!), she was on stage with the Atlanta Symphony, which had finished its program and returned for an encore. Jane died in the middle of that song, the perfectly apropos “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
When I had dinner with Jeff in Los Angeles earlier this year, he told me about the book and teased me with some of the stories. I don’t want to say I was dying to read the rest, but I’m glad I made it all the way through and lived to review and recommend “The Show Won’t Go On” for you.
If I still had a radio show, I could easily fill an hour letting Jeff and Burt tell some of these stories — and maybe a few that will have to be in the followup.