David Bruce: Mishaps Anecdotes


Photo: Jayne Mansfield with jockeys Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker at Jockeys’ Ball in Los Angeles, Calif., 1957

The greatest jockey ever was Willie Shoemaker, and the jockey who made the biggest blooper ever was also Willie Shoemaker. In 1957, Mr. Shoemaker rode Gallant Man in the Kentucky Derby, and he had the race won — all he had to do was to cling to his lead. Instead, he mistook the location of the finish line, raised himself up in the stirrups, and allowed his horse to slow down. A horse named Iron Liege raced by him and won by a nose. This was a major error, and Churchill Downs officials suspended Mr. Shoemaker for fifteen days because of “gross carelessness.” Nevertheless, Mr. Shoemaker bounced back, winning the Belmont Stakes five weeks later while riding Gallant Man. In fact, Mr. Shoemaker behaved so well after his remarkable blooper that his sportsmanship won him the Ralph Lowe trophy. This is all the more remarkable because Mr. Lowe owned Gallant Man.

For the movie The Time Machine, Wah Ming Chang and Gene Warren needed to show a volcano erupting and its lava flowing through a town. Therefore, they created a miniature town and cooked 250 gallons of red-colored oatmeal to represent the lava. Unfortunately, they cooked the oatmeal on Friday and did the filming on Monday. Only after pouring the containers on the set during filming did they discover that the oatmeal had spoiled. The special effects room was so small that Mr. Chang and Mr. Warren found themselves pinned to a wall by 250 gallons of stinking, spoiled oatmeal. Nevertheless, they eventually filmed the scene correctly and ended up winning two Oscars for their special effects in The Time Machine.

In 1981, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, revived Verdi’s Un Ballo in Mashera. Unfortunately, the opening night performance was marred. First, the scheduled tenor and baritone didn’t show up, then the Amelia, performed by Montserrat Caballé, left the stage before her scene with Romeo. Because of the confusion, the stage curtain descended, and the conductor, Bernard Haitink, picked up the telephone in an effort to find out what was going on. When the switchboard operator answered, he said, “Haitink here. Give me the stage manager.” The operator answered, “I’m sorry; I can’t do that — there’s a performance going on.” Mr. Haitink looked at the stage curtain and said, “That’s what you think.”

Problems sometimes arose during Anna Pavlova’s tours through the United States. One theater manager proudly displayed a shiny floor that he had specially polished for her performance. Unfortunately, the floor was much too slippery to dance on, so Ms. Pavlova had it sandpapered before her performance. On another occasion, it was too late to sandpaper a floor, so the dancers attempted to perform on it despite its slipperiness. Her dancers wet their shoes, hoping for traction, while Ms. Pavlova in desperation poured honey on her shoes in an attempt to make them stick to the floor. Nothing worked. According to dancer H. Algeranoff, “We went down like ninepins ….”

Professional opera singers must be ready to deal with the unexpected on stage. On May 19, 1961, Plácido Domingo made his debut as lead singer in the role of Alfredo in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. In the second act, a letter from Violetta was supposed to arrive for Alfredo by messenger. Looking at the door where the messenger was supposed to appear, Mr. Domingo sang, “Who’s there?” No messenger appeared! Thinking quickly, Mr. Domingo sang, “No one,” then he picked up a paper lying on a desk and sang, “From Violetta!” He then continued with the scene as it had been written.

One of Bette Midler’s more unusual grand entrances was in a hot dog costume, complete with condiments and buns. At an early fitting of the costume, Ms. Midler ran into trouble. The costumers had used Krazy-Glu in its construction, and because of a lack of air circulation in the costume, the glue had not dried. When Ms. Midler tried to get out of the costume, she couldn’t — her hair was glued to the giant weiner. She was forced to stay inside the giant weiner until her hairdresser came and cut her out.

African-American jazz great Duke Ellington sleepily stumbled out of his sleeping car at a train station during a tour, then he joined a line of men climbing aboard a bus. The men turned out to be criminals, and the bus was taking them to prison. Fortunately, his road manager saw what had happened and chased down the bus with his car. It took a while, but eventually he managed to convince the driver that Mr. Ellington was not a criminal, but a respected music composer and conductor.

A mishap occurred when Rudolf Nureyev toured with the Australian Ballet. Usually, when a mishap occurs, it is ignored, but Mr. Nureyev often chose not to ignore his own mishaps. The wooden floor was slippery, and during a solo, Mr. Nureyev ended up flat on his back. He got up, went off the stage, then returned and performed the solo perfectly, starting at the beginning. The audience cheered his commitment to perfection.

In 1994, the United States Postal Service honored African-American rodeo star Bill Pickett by issuing a stamp bearing his likeness in its Legends of the West postage stamp series. Unfortunately, Mr. Pickett’s great-grandson informed the Postal Service that the likeness was not that of Mr. Pickett, but of his brother Ben. The stamps were withdrawn, and new stamps bearing the correct likeness were quickly issued.

While appearing as a lecturer across the country, Will Rogers included a comic bit in which he and his nephew moved a piano across the stage. The nephew did the hard work of moving the piano, while Mr. Rogers “helped” by moving the piano stool. One night, an accident occurred on stage. The piano collapsed, the audience laughed, and Mr. Rogers said later, “I wish it would happen every night.”

After retiring from opera and movies, Geraldine Farrar began giving musical concerts. Mishaps sometimes occurred at these concerts. At one concert, a storm knocked out the electric power. Therefore, Ms. Farrar gave the concert by the light of candles. She held one in front of her, while her pianist played by the light of two candles stuck in potatoes.

Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie played a trumpet with the bell pointed upward. The story is that someone once accidentally sat on his horn, bending its bell. At first, Mr. Gillespie was angry, but then he discovered that he preferred the trumpet that way. Afterwards, he ordered all of his trumpets to be made with an upwards-pointing bell.

Even museums make mistakes. The Peabody Museum of Natural History is located at Yale University. In the Great Hall of the museum stands the skeleton of a Brontosaurus. For many years, the skeleton had the skull of another species of dinosaur. The mistake was corrected in 1981.

Ballerinas lead an exhausting life. Karen Kain once fell asleep in front of 3,000 people at the Metropolitan Opera House while lying on the stage in the role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.

When Leon Danielian arrived to take his first dance class from Mikhail Mordkin, he sat on a sofa — and promptly knocked over a gong.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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