Show stoppers: Entertainers whose final acts were onstage
Sometimes, “Curtains!” means just that.
An actor goes on stage, expecting to take a bow after the final scene, not bow out for his final act. And how prophetic is it when a comic complains, “I’m dying up here” – then, does?
Sure, being a performer is a hard life, but few expect it to be life-ending. Still, dying in front of an audience has happened enough to fill “The Show Won’t Go On.” Billed as a collection of “The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage,” it delivers an eerie assortment of unlucky magicians, ill-fated actors, and unbalanced acrobats.
Some chapters read like insurance agents’ nightmares.
Most dangerous onstage act? That would be the old Catching a Bullet Trick. Authors Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns list more than 20 people who have tried it over 400 years and failed spectacularly.
One story features two London magicians, Chung Ling Soo and Ching Fing Loo, 19th-century conjurers locked in an ongoing rivalry. When Soo tried to perform the bullet trick onstage and was shot dead, many suspected Foo of murder.
The simple truth was, instead of shooting a blank, Soo’s assistant had accidentally fired a real bullet. The shocking revelation was that, under all that makeup, Chung Ling Soo, mysterious wizard of the East, turned out to be Bill Robinson, a white man from Westchester County.
Magicians, including Penn and Teller, still do similar tricks today. But most take a safer approach than Ralf Bialla, who outfitted himself with a pair of steel dentures and caught the bullet in his mouth. Three thousand performances, however, left him perpetually dizzy, and prone to blackouts.
He fell off a cliff in 1975.
Mentalist Washington Irving Bishop met an even more gruesome end. Drawing on his special mental powers, he raced horse-drawn carriages blindfolded. Bishop, incidentally, was also a drug addict and a cataleptic. He carried a note in his pocket, warning people not to be such a rush to bury him.
In 1889, he collapsed during a mind-reading demonstration at New York’s The Lambs Club. A doctor friend pronounced him dead and had him taken to the undertaker. There, the physician, who had always been eager to study Bishop’s powers, sawed open his skull and removed his brain.
When Bishop’s widow went to the authorities, insisting everyone knew her husband was a cataleptic, the physician claimed he never saw the note. The doctor was set free, although he was warned about overzealousness.
Sometimes onstage fatalities are the result of foolhardy bravery, or maybe pure stubbornness.
The Wallendas have been high-wire artists since the 18th century. The family made their American debut in the 1920s and became famous for performing without a net. By the 1940s, they were dubbed “The Flying Wallendas.”
“To some,” the book notes, “the title ‘The Falling Wallendas’ was more fitting.”
During a 1962 show in Detroit, their signature high-wire stunt, “The Seven-Person Pyramid,” collapsed and sent the family falling 50 feet. Two Wallendas died; one was paralyzed. In 1963, another member, Yetta Wallenda, died after a 45-foot fall.
Another troupe member, Richard Guzman, fatally electrocuted when he grabbed a live wire during a 1973 performance. Five years later, patriarch Karl Wallenda died trying to walk a high-wire strung between two Puerto Rico hotels. He was 73.
The Wallendas still perform today, even after a 2017 accident, which left five of them severely injured, and a past which seems cursed.
The family was even at one of the worst disasters in American history, the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. The Wallendas were 20 minutes into their act when a blaze broke out in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey big top. Panic erupted. At least 160 people burned to death and more than 700 were injured.
For once, the Wallendas walked out without a scratch.
It’s comedians, though, who seem to meet the saddest ends.
The sweetly goofy Dick Shawn debuted during the nightclub era of Lenny Bruce and “Mrs. Maisel.” After hitting big as the hippie Hitler of “The Producers,” he toured with his one-man act, “The 2nd Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World.”
His show began with the stage empty except for a mountain of crumpled newspapers. After the audience settled into their seats, Shawn would emerge from the mess, eating a banana. After that, audiences never knew what to expect.
So, on April 17, 1987, when Shawn started talking about nuclear war, they snickered. When he announced that, if the bombs dropped now, he would be their new leader, they laughed. When he dropped to one knee, then fell on his face, they roared.
But then a minute went by. Then another. "Take his wallet!" someone yelled.
Finally, Shawn’s son, Adam, who was serving as stage director, ran out. His father suffered a heart attack. Shawn died before he reached the hospital. Angry audience members asked for their money back.
Later, fans would insist Shawn had gone out the way he wanted. His son disagreed.
“He didn’t want to go doing what he loved,” he corrected. “He wanted to be able to do what he loved forever, until he went.”
Another veteran comic, Britain’s Sid James, was touring with the play “The Mating Season” in 1976 when he took his final cue. Partway through the first act, James gasped and sat down hard on a sofa. His eyes rolled back and the audience giggled.
As James died, his co-star ad-libbed frantically until she realized what happened. The stage manager brought down the curtain — for good. The famous line was called out: “Is there a doctor in the house?”
Ironically, Sunderland, the town they were playing, was known as a graveyard for British comedians because audiences were so tough. When the stage manager phoned with the news James had died onstage, the London producer thought he flopped.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everybody dies in Sunderland.”
Still, Abraham and Kearns note several gruesome public swan songs. Ty Longley, the guitarist for Jack Russell’s Great White, died along with 99 clubgoers in 2003 when the band’s pyrotechnics sparked a raging fire in Rhode Island. The next year, a deranged fan fatally shot ex-Pantera guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott on stage.
The true-spirit-of-rock-n-roll award, however, goes to Nick Lowe, whose band was opening for Yes at a British club in 1969. When Lowe grabbed the mic and his guitar at the same time, he got a shock that threw him eight feet, burning his hands and stopping his heart. The techs plugged in the equipment wrong.
Lowe, 20, was revived and rushed to the hospital. When he woke up, he was so thrilled to be alive that he snuck out and surprised the rest of the band at their local pub, where they were getting extremely drunk. “They freaked, ’cause they really thought I’d died,” he explained.
But after another pint, they all went back to the club and played their second set.