It Must Have Been the Singing
(True Stories About What Entertainers Go Through To Avoid Serious Work )
Nineteenth Century Americans approached live entertainment with deviltry on their minds, bloodlust in their hearts, and, if Mark Twain is to be believed, dead cats hidden under their coats. Whether anyone ever actually threw a dead cat at an entertainer is uncertain, but a newspaper from the period does report the case of a hypnotist who was knocked out cold when a member of the audience hit him over the head with a live dog. Most audiences weren't quite so creative, but pelting an act with rotting fruit and vegetables was considered to be perfectly reasonable behavior.
Heckling came straight from the heart. In Nevada City, California, an incompetent actor concluded a monologue by handing his sword to an actress and baring his chest. The disgruntled crowd saw the situation as an obvious case of opportunity knocking. "Kill him!" they roared, "Kill him!"
Out in the boomtowns of the American West, the territorial governments often had trouble providing facilities to keep up with the expanding populations. As a result, the local theater usually did double duty as a courtroom. In 1882, the miners of Leadville, Colorado dragged two unfortunate wretches into the local theater to try them for murder. The men were found guilty and hanged, for a packed and enthusiastic house.
Later that evening, on the same stage, the poet Oscar Wilde was scheduled to lecture on "The Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration, with Observations on Dress and Personal Ornament." You would think that Wilde was setting himself up for trouble, but apparently he knocked 'em dead. Some entertainers can follow anything.
With no radio or television to distract them, people were hungry for any kind of entertainment at all. The audience might decide to shower a performer with their surplus produce, but they'd be there to see the show -- whatever it was. A Gilbert and Sullivan production ran for 130 nights straight at the Bella Union Theater in Deadwood, South Dakota, during which period eight spectators managed to get themselves shot. The Union Spy sold out for a solid month in Wichita, Kansas: population 3000. In Helena, Montana, the local jail was still under construction, so the sheriff brought his only prisoner to the theater for opening night. The prisoner -- a Flathead Indian -- escaped.
Audiences were astonishingly parochial. Steven Wright says it's absurd that ballerinas stand on their tiptoes all the time, and suggests hiring taller women. In 1879 The Leadville Chronicle interviewed a miner who said precisely the same thing -- the difference being that he was perfectly serious. Another theatergoer must have been impressed with the lavish furnishings, stunning sets, and colorful costumes at Leadville's Tabor Grand Opera House. He came right out and admitted that he liked "op'ry" just fine. However, he felt obliged to be brutally honest. "The stage is hansum all right," he explained, "an' the fiddlin' fuss rate. But so much singin' spiles it all."
There's been a lot of gloomy talk in the comedy business lately. People keep telling me that live entertainment is going to hell. I disagree. When I played the Bella Union, nobody shot anybody, and the only vegetables I saw were sitting in front of slot machines. You never have to follow a hanging anymore, and modern audiences don't collect roadkill on the way to a show. In fact, they're even prepared to tolerate a certain amount of singing. I think things are getting better.