David Bruce: Audiences Anecdotes

A 1991 TV commercial for Perrier shows a thirsty woman climbing up a mountain to get a bottle of Perrier. When she arrives at the top of the mountain, she comes face to face with a thirsty lion that has climbed up the other side of the mountain. The lion roars at the woman, the woman roars at the lion, and vanquished, the lion slinks off, leaving the woman to enjoy the Perrier. Not everyone liked this commercial. It won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Advertising Festival, but the audience booed as the commercial’s director, Jean-Paul Goude, picked up the award. Mr. Goude booed the audience back.

When Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed in Vienna, it was a huge and immediate success. The members of the audience applauded wildly, but Beethoven, who was deaf by that time, could not hear them and was unaware that they were applauding. Finally, a soloist turned him so he faced the crowd. The members of the audience then added a visual element to the expression of their appreciation by throwing their hats into the air and by waving their handkerchiefs.

Just before competing in the 1984 Olympics Games, ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean practiced their Bolero program at 6 a.m. in the presence of a group of 20 or 30 cleaners. They put everything they had into the program, and when they were finished, the cleaners, who had stopped working to watch, broke into applause. In competition, Torvill and Dean’s performance of Bolero received nine perfect 6’s for artistic impression, and they won the Olympic gold medal.

Country comedian Jerry Clower sometimes toured with country singer Mel Tillis, and they had a wonderful relationship. Mr. Clower would come out first to start the show, then Mr. Tillis would come out with his act. Always, Mr. Tillis would say before the last song of the night, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get the nation’s number one country comic back out here on stage and let you applaud him again.” And then Mr. Tillis would invite Mr. Clower to stay out there on stage and sing the last song with the band.

Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s temper was world famous. In Chicago, he was suffering from a torn calf muscle, and it took him a long time to warm it for a performance. The audience grew restless and started clapping for the show to start, so Mr. Nureyev stepped in front of the curtain and shouted, “Everyone, shut up!” They did, and they were pleased that night to witness both one of Mr. Nureyev’s performances and one of his legendary bursts of temper.

Sometimes, stand-up comedians face very hostile audiences. Once, an audience kept shouting at George Calfa, “Get off! Get off!” He told the audience that the only way he would leave would be for the audience to give him a standing ovation. but after the audience had given him a standing ovation, he told them, “This is the first standing ovation I ever got — I’d better do an encore.”

Goodman Ace was the head writer for The Danny Kaye Show. While Mr. Kaye was performing, his agent, Abe Lastfogel, asked Mr. Ace, “How can we make this man [Danny Kaye] funnier?” Mr. Ace replied, “I can’t hear you.” Again, Mr. Lastfogel asked his question, and again Mr. Ace said, “I can’t hear you.” Mr. Lastfogel then asked, “Why not?” Mr. Ace said, “The audience is laughing too loud.”

The ancient Roman audiences did not mind leaving in the middle of a performance of a play if they felt that better entertainment was available elsewhere. During a performance of Terence’s Mother-in-Law, the audience left to see some performing rope dancers and boxers nearby. And when Mother-in-Law was produced again, the audience left to watch gladiators fight.

Ron Athey, the controversial performance artist, remembers as his favorite performance experience a blood-soaked piece that had members of the audience literally screaming. After the performance, he discovered that so many members of the audience had fainted that they had to be drug out of the nightclub onto the sidewalk despite a rainy night.

Hans von Bülow once played piano in front of a very appreciative audience, and even after he had played several encores, the audience showed no signs of going home. Therefore, Von Bülow threatened, “If you don’t stop this applause, I will play all of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues, from beginning to end!” The threat worked, and the audience went home.

When Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight premiered in London, it was a great success. Mr. Chaplin was present, and after the film was over, he walked out on the stage and said “thank you” to the audience. However, a woman in the audience said, “No! No! Thank you!” Soon all the members of the audience were thanking Mr. Chaplin.

As a young skater, Robert Davenport had great strength but little control. When he performed jumps, the audience would gasp because it looked as if he would come crashing down on the ice (indeed, he sometimes did). Members of the audience used to say, “He’s a kamikaze.”

Some people have the money but not necessarily the intelligence to attend significant musical events. A truly intelligent pianist, Denis Matthews, once overheard this during a program conducted by Arturo Toscanini: “When is Toscanini coming on? Don’t tell me he is only the conductor!”

Gustave Mahler sat in the audience at the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor. The audience disliked it, and Mr. Schoenberg asked a man near him to stop hissing. The man replied, “There’s no need to get excited. I hiss Mahler, too.”

During her stand-up act, comedian Diane Nichols asked a man in the audience what his occupation was. He replied, “Your gynecologist. Don’t you recognize my hands?” She replied, “No, but I recognize the top of your head.” The audience gave her a standing ovation.

As conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowsky was infuriated by stragglers arriving late to his concerts. To make a point, he once had the musicians in his orchestra straggle in, individually and in twos, long after the concert was scheduled to start.

The violinist Fritz Kreisler was walking with a friend along a street when they came upon an open-air market and saw rows of dead codfish staring blankly with their mouths open. “That reminds me,” Mr. Kreisler said, “I have a concert tonight.”

After coming out as a lesbian for the first time to her audience, stand-up comedian Judy Carter had a good set and the audience gave her a standing ovation. She started crying because the audience had accepted her for who she was.

Some audiences are tough. In Vancouver, Bette Midler sang the lovely romantic ballad “Superstar.” Apparently, someone didn’t like the song, because he threw a bagel, hitting her in the mouth.

Noël Coward dressed well, but he wanted people to come to his performances. He once said, “They can wear dungarees, as long as they come. Well-cut ones, of course.”

George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” was so popular with audiences that he called it an “applause machine.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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