'Show Won't Go On': Book Compiles Performers Who Died Onstage

Sep 21, 2019
Originally published on September 23, 2019 10:16 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's no business like show business, as you may have heard. Performers who get tepid response from an audience say they died onstage. Those who lay them in the aisles say they killed - killed. A new book takes those words to heart. "The Show Won't Go On" by Jeff Abraham, a PR executive and comedy historian, and producer Burt Kearns tells the stories of actors, comedians, classical musicians, conductors, dancers, singers and circus stars who've died on stage or soon thereafter for real.

Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns join us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEFF ABRAHAM: Thank you.

BURT KEARNS: Yeah, thanks for having us.

SIMON: I learned from your book, it's not always a good thing to say is there a doctor in the house.

KEARNS: Especially if you're a comedian. There's been several instances where a comedian has collapsed on stage - for instance, the great Sid James from the British "Carry On" films was in a comic play. He sat down on a couch, leaned back and began to snore. And the other people in the cast realized something was wrong. And they said, is there a doctor in the house, which got a huge laugh through the audience. And then finally a doctor came up onto the stage. And he was laughing as well until he realized what happened.

The most famous case of this is, of course, the nutritionist and the longevity expert who died of a heart attack during a taping of "The Dick Cavett Show," when Cavett realized that his guest J. I. Rodale - when he realized Rodale was in trouble, Cavett looked to the audience and said is there a - and he told us that he caught himself because he knew that if he said is there a doctor in the house, he'd get a laugh. So he adjusted what he was going to say. And said is there - excuse me, might there be a doctor here. But it was too late.

SIMON: Yeah. The great Jackie Wilson, best known for his hit "Lonely Teardrops..."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY TEARDROPS")

JACKI WILSON: (Singing) Lonely teardrops. My pillow's never dry of lonely teardrops...

SIMON: September 1975, he was singing a very poignant line in this song, wasn't he?

KEARNS: His famous song "Lonely Teardrops," he was performing at the Latin Casino outside Philadelphia during a Dick Clark Rock 'n' roll revival show. And he got to the point where he said my heart is crying, crying...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY TEARDROPS")

WILSON: (Singing) My hear is crying, crying...

KEARNS: ...And stopped. And said my heart, my heart, fell over backwards with apparently a heart attack, smacked his head on the stage floor, which triggered a stroke. And Jackie Wilson, for the next eight years, was in and out of comas before he died.

SIMON: Oh, my word. The Wallenda family get their own chapter in your book. They really earned it, didn't they?

ABRAHAM: Karl Wallenda always said I would rather die on the wire than in bed. And when we interviewed Karl's grandson, the great Nik Wallenda, who's breaking Guinness Book World Records as we speak, the first question we asked him is, at what point did you get out of the high-wire business? And they never did. I mean, in the mid mid-'60s they were doing the human pyramid. Two members of the family perished, and one was paralyzed. But the show went on and on.

And at age 73, Karl took to the tightrope to walk across two buildings in Puerto Rico for a publicity stunt for a circus. And the winds got him. He was not in the best of shape, but he was certainly an amazing performer, having recently broken records himself. And the winds took him. And he fell 125 feet to his death.

KEARNS: What's most amazing about that story is that he was performing with his granddaughter and two nephews. We interviewed the photographer who was on the roof with the granddaughter and two nephews waiting for Carl to make it across the wire. When he didn't, the photographer witnessed them and how destroyed they were as he, with the motor on his camera, got the shots of Karl falling.

When he got back to the newspaper office, he was very excited, and he told his editor you won't believe the pictures I got. And the editor said, what are you doing here? Get to the circus. The Wallendas are going on. And he's like, what? Karl was killed. No, the show did go on. The granddaughter and the two nephews did the act without Karl that afternoon.

SIMON: Before we go, I have to tell you I've got a small story - well, not small for the man involved. I was hosting this middle-of-the-night show on CBS TV called "Nightwatch." And we booked a haiku poet named Nick Virgilio. We began the interview. He began to have what was later diagnosed as congestive heart failure. We stopped the interview, you know, went to a commercial. He was removed. He died that morning. It was the only time I ever met Nick, but to this day, I send statements to Nick Virgilio memorials. I appear when they ask. I feel we've been joined together. I should honor that.

ABRAHAM: These things do stay with you for years and years. And this book is a celebration of lives. Even though it has the word death in the title, it's really celebrating these wonderful performers. And we hope people will remember these people for years and years.

KEARNS: Yes, your reaction to the death of Nick Virgilio is very similar to the reactions we got when we speak to people who are friends or survivors of performers who passed away decades ago. And we kept that in mind that this book wasn't going to be snarky. We weren't going to be making fun. Although, you know, many of the passings are ironic or humorous - the actress who dropped out on onstage after singing "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and got a standing ovation. You know, there's humor in that, but we also realize that this is - it's a tribute to performers who gave their lives to their craft. It's like any biography series. But instead of leading to an Oscar or Tony, Grammy or Emmy - although they might get those along the way - all the stories really end with this glorious moment where they died doing what they loved.

SIMON: Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham, their book "The Show Won't Go On," thank you so much for being with us.

KEARNS: Thank you.

ABRAHAM: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS")

JERRY ORBACH: (Singing) There's no people like show people. They smile when....

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.