The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes

Here are the first 10 anecdotes from my books The Funniest People in Theater: 250 Anecdotes:

Absent-Mindedness

  • As a young actress just starting in show business, Eve Arden quickly learned not to be absent minded. She once finished a play’s first act, went to her dressing room, took off her costume and removed her makeup, and then left the theater to take a bus home — only to find the theater manager running after her and yelling, “Second act!” She returned to the stage wearing galoshes and no makeup, where she discovered her fellow actors desperately ad-libbing lines such as “I saw her in the garden, I think” and “She’ll probably be here any minute.”[1]
  • Early in her career, actress Diana Rigg was regarded as something of a kook by her neighbors because she used to lose her keys a few times a year and be forced to gain entry to her apartment by throwing a milk bottle through a window.[2]

Actors

  • British actor Pete Postlethwaite has a rugged face. When he was studying at the Bristol Old Vic, he ran out of money to pay for the completion of his course of study. However, the head of the school knew that the young man had real talent, so he told him, “Listen, I have a hunch you’re going to do all right in this business, so I’m going to put down the outstanding amount as a debt and then, in a few years’ time, I’ll write it off as a bad debt.” Of course, this comment made Mr. Postlethwaite happy, although the next comment did not. The head of the school unfortunately added, “Of course, when you’ve got a face like a f**king stone archway, you can’t go wrong.” Mr. Postlethwaite once acted in a play by Restoration playwright William Congreve, and co-star Prunella Scales sent him a telegram praising his performance. According to Mr. Postlethwaite, she wrote that “I was the best Restoration truck driver she’d ever worked with.”[3]
  • Actress/comedian/writer Ann Randolph got her start in performing when she was hired to work with mental patients at the Athens Mental Health Center while studying theater at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. One of the activities she did was to write several plays for the patients to perform. Some of the things she saw at the Mental Health Center became part of the plays she wrote. According to Ms. Randolph, “I think it shaped me because I was able to see … how devastating mental illness is. I wanted to immediately tell the stories that I was hearing up there. I wanted to tell them on stage. They were amazing stories.” The plays were popular with the patients — one patient even requested, “Don’t discharge me until the play is over.”[4]
  • Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut in the hit Once Upon a Mattress, a comic play based upon the children’s story “The Princess and the Pea.” In this play, her character slept on a bed with several mattresses, under which a pea had been placed. If her character felt the pea, she was a legitimate princess; if her character did not feel the pea, she was not worthy to marry the prince. However, at the same time that Ms. Burnett was starring on Broadway each night, she was also starring on television each day, and she was very, very tired — so one night she fell asleep while lying on the mattresses on stage.[5]
  • Jacob P. Adler was a much-respected Yiddish actor who died in 1926. Fourteen years after his death, an old man showed up at a theater where Mr. Adler used to perform. He presented the theater manager with a pass that had been signed by Mr. Adler — but the pass was good for free admission to a Dec. 31, 1919, performance. The old man had been unable to use it in 1919, but he wanted to use it in 1940 because he had heard that Mr. Adler’s daughter, Celia, was appearing at the theater. The theater manager had such a high respect for Mr. Adler that he honored the pass.[6]
  • Katherine Cornell was a much-loved theatrical actress. Once, she was supposed to appear in Seattle, Washington, but because of bad weather her train did not arrive until almost midnight. Hearing that the audience was still awaiting her arrival, she and her troupe went to the theater and got the stage ready in full view of the audience, allowing them a glimpse of behind-the-curtain activity they had not seen before. Ms. Cornell and her troupe then performed the play, which did not end until 3:45 a.m.[7]
  • When Diana Adams first started dancing with the New York City Ballet, like most newcomers she was given the pantomime roles that did not require much if any dancing; unfortunately, she was not much good at pantomime — although as her career proved, she was excellent at dancing. As the Duchess in Giselle, she acted regally, but for lack of a better thing to do, looked at the scenery. This amused André Eglevsky, who commented, “That girl, she looks as if she’d never seen a tree before!”[8]
  • Actors John Gielgud and Hugh Griffith once attended a party at which Sir John amused everyone by talking of various productions he had seen of Shakespeare’s Tempest. He especially criticized a particular production, saying it had “quite the worst Caliban I have ever seen.” Noticing how quiet Mr. Griffith was, he said, “You’re very silent, Hugh.” Mr. Griffith replied, “Not as a rule. I was just trying to recall my performance and wondering if you could possibly be right.”[9]
  • After retiring from gymnastics following the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Cathy Rigby began her acting career by playing the role of Peter Pan for seven months — traditionally, Peter Pan, a boy, is played by a woman. She is well known for this role, which she has played several times in intervening years. In fact, she says her daughter once told her that “when she grows up, she wants to be a boy just like me.”[10]

[1] Source: Eve Arden, Three Phases of Eve, p. 14.

[2] Source: Jeffrey S. Miller, Something Completely Different, p. 59.

[3] Source: Alfred Hickling, ‘I was mugged by the movies.’ The Guardian. 25 April 2007 <http://arts.guardian.co.uk/theatre/drama/story/0,,2064980,00.html>.

[4] Source: Nick Claussen, “Humorist returns to Athens with acclaimed one-woman show.” The Athens News. 13 July 2006 <http://www.athensnews.com/index.php?action=viewarticle&section=news&story_id=25423&gt;.

[5] Source: a Lifetime Intimate Portrait program featuring Carol Burnett.

[6] Source: Lawrence J. Epstein, A Treasury of Jewish Anecdotes, p. 8.

[7] Source: Virgilia Sapieha, Ruth Neely, and Mary Love Collins, Eminent Women: Recipients of the National Achievement Award, pp. 75-76.

[8] Source: Tanaquil Le Clercq, The Ballet Cook Book, pp. 26-27.

[9] Source: Robert Morley, Robert Morley’s Book of Bricks, pp. 92-93.

[10] Source: Minot Simons II, Women’s Gymnastics: A History. Volume 1: 1966 to 1974, pp. 276, 278.

 

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