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Performers who left them wanting more celebrated in ‘The Show Won’t Go On’

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Most performers could tell you about the night they “died onstage” – when nothing seemed to work and they just wanted to crawl off and vaporize. The list of entertainers who actually did draw their final breaths in front of an audience is a surprisingly extensive one, but there has never been a book to collect them – until now.

“The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage” (Chicago Review Press) is an anthology of history’s most compelling onstage deaths from author and entertainment publicist Jeff Abraham and coauthor Burt Kearns. Abraham’s clients have included George Carlin, Jeff Foxworthy and The Smothers Brothers.

Abraham says the book was written not as a ghoulish gala of bad timing on the part of the performers, but as a celebration of their lives, beginning with the book’s introductory figure, an 87-year old double bass player for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

“Her name was Jane Little,” Abraham said during an interview. “At 4 feet, 11 inches, she lived up to her name. Her double standup bass was bigger than she was.”

Little had battled health problems for years, but even through illness and injury, she never lost her willingness to perform. Her last gig was part of an Atlanta Symphony tribute to Broadway.

“Jane knew that if she performed during the 2016 season, she would be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest tenure with a symphony orchestra – 71 years,” Abraham said. “She wound up dying during the encore of a Broadway tribute, which turned out to be ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’”

Legendary illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini didn’t die onstage in the famous “Chinese Water Torture Cell” as depicted in the Hollywood version with Tony Curtis in the titular role, but a magician named Joseph Burrus (AKA: “The Amazing Joe”), who frequently compared himself with Houdini, died while trying to outdo his predecessor, according to Abraham.

“Instead of using dirt as Houdini had done, Joe decided to take it one step further by using wet cement. You can guess how that turned out. We interviewed Joe’s son for the book, and he painted a candid and tragic picture of his father, but was grateful that we were paying tribute without being snarky.”

Nik Wallenda has nine entries in the Guinness Book of World Records for various acrobatic feats, and most famously became the first person to walk between Canada and the United States on a tightrope strung across Niagra Falls.

Wallenda’s grandfather Karl, founder of The Flying Wallendas family of acrobats and tightrope walkers, fell to his death during a live television broadcast in March 1978.

“Karl was on a high wire between two buildings in Puerto Rico when he fell 125 feet to his death,” said Abraham. “We contacted a photographer who was there and he gave us rights to use his photo for the book. He provided us with such a detailed eyewitness account of Karl’s final steps on that wire.”

Too often when a performer collapses onstage, the audience believes it is part of the act. Abraham’s book contains eyewitness accounts from both audience members and family members.

British prop-comedy magician Tommy Cooper fell onstage while performing on live television in 1984.

“After Cooper collapsed, the audience kept waiting for something to happen but sadly, comedy turned to tragedy that night,” Abraham said.

According to Abraham, he and coauthor Kearns are considering a sequel to their book titled “The Show Can’t Go On,” containing tales of television and movie performers who died during production of their shows and films, including John Ritter, Redd Foxx and Vic Morrow.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 November 2019 07:22

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