David Bruce: Work Anecdotes

An efficiency expert started working at a movie studio, but the screenwriters rebelled at such changes as pencil sharpeners being taken from their offices and replaced by a couple of pencil sharpeners in the hall. In addition, the efficiency expert stopped the deliveries of coffee to the writers’ rooms. One writer, Harry Ruskin, started using pencils at the phenomenal rate of three dozen an hour. The efficiency expert investigated and discovered that Mr. Ruskin was writing a few words with each pencil, then tossing them out of the window because “it wouldn’t be economical for a man making 50 cents a minute to walk down the corridor and sharpen them.” The efficient expert next discovered a group of writers gathered in the hall, where they had cut a hole in the rug, started a fire, and were making coffee because they claimed it was more efficient for them to make their own coffee than to walk to the commissary to buy it. The writers won — the efficiency expert was fired.

 When he was 18 years old, Italian baritone Giuseppe De Luca got a job recording arias onto cylinders used in a primitive kind of jukebox which played music whenever the customer inserted a small coin. This job was not quite ethical, but Mr. De Luca took it because his family needed the money. What was unethical about it? The arias he recorded were attributed not to him, but to the world’s greatest baritones. (As tenor and author Nigel Douglas points out, this may have been good training for Mr. De Luca’s later performances as Giacomo Puccini’s confidence man, Gianni Schicchi.

 Soprano Adelina Patti once lost her voice after two acts and was unable to finish the opera “Don Pasquale.” The director of the opera house was frantic, and having noticed another soprano, Madame Volpini, in the audience, he asked her to take over for Ms. Patti. Madame Volpini was no fool — she did take over, but at considerable advantage to herself. Her contract had not been renewed for the following year, but she managed to negotiate both a one-year contract and a raise of 5,000 francs before taking over for Ms. Patti.

 In its “Frozen Wages,” the San Francisco Mime Troupe uses juggling to show the effects of layoffs on workers. Several people begin juggling, but one by one the jugglers are laid off, leaving a smaller number of jugglers to juggle all the clubs that the large group had been juggling. The number of jugglers gets smaller and smaller, the number of clubs remains the same, the jugglers work harder and harder, and the clubs are thrown faster and faster until one too many juggler is laid off and everything collapses.

 Of course, John F. Kennedy came from a very wealthy family, and he worried that it might keep him from getting the votes of workers. In West Virginia, he met a coal miner who asked if it was true that Mr. Kennedy had never had to do a hard day’s work outside of military service. Mr. Kennedy admitted that it was true, and the coal miner replied, “You haven’t missed a thing.”

 Before becoming famous as the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling was the worst secretary ever. At meetings, she would sit and take notes — but the notes weren’t about the meeting, they were about plot ideas and characters. Another reason she was frequently fired was that she typed her manuscripts while she was supposed to be working.

Like many writers, Quentin Tarantino, famous for his movies “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown,” etc., worked at odd jobs before becoming famous. He once worked on a workout video starring Dolph Lundgren. (Mr. Tarantino’s job was cleaning doggy doodoo off the parking lot so Mr. Lundgren wouldn’t get his outfit dirty.)

 In the early days of television, technical directors worked long hours. After working 30 hours in a row — with no sleep — on the “Colgate Comedy Hour,” Bob Finch collapsed during its live performance. The producer, worried about the show on the air, yelled, “Somebody get an ambulance — but first, get me a replacement for Finch.”

 Like many illustrators of children’s books, Pat Cummings frequently gives presentations in schools about her career. After one presentation, she received a letter from a girl who wrote that she had wanted to be an illustrator, but since Ms. Cummings had revealed how much work it was, she now wanted to be a lawyer.

 Thomas Eakins was an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 19th century. He believed that artists ought to have a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, and he was fired after someone walked into his studio and discovered cadavers — which Mr. Eakins had been dissecting.

 Freddie Fox, a stutterer, wrote comedy for Bob Hope. Mr. Hope formed the habit of calling Mr. Fox at all hours for jokes, and Mr. Fox got tired of this habit. On the telephone, Mr. Fox said, “Bbbbob, you ttttake your jjjjob and ssssh ….” Mr. Hope said, “It’s OK, Fred; I get the idea,” then hung up.

 Singer Al Jolson was a very popular guest star on radio programs — he once guested on 10 shows in one week! While he was guesting on the Burns and Allen program, Gracie asked why he didn’t get his own program. Jolie replied, “What? And be on the radio only once a week?”

 Bruce Degen, author/illustrator of such children’s books as “Jamberry,” used to ride the subway to work, stay at work all day, and then come home. Now, he picks up a cup of coffee at home, tells his wife, “I’m off to the office, dear,” then walks upstairs.

 Italian soprano Claudia Muzio used to stay occasionally at the Grand Hotel in Milan, which displayed a portrait of Giuseppe Verdi in her apartment. One day, Ms. Muzio asked the portrait, “I wonder if you know how much work you have brought my way.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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Free PDF book: William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce

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Free PDF book: Honey Badger Goes to Hell — and Heaven by Martina Donna Ramone and David Bruce

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