Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stage Disruptions, starring Hugh Jackman, Basil Rathbone & more



By Steve Crum

Last week, Hugh Jackman stopped his on-stage dialogue with co-star Daniel Craig during a performance of their Broadway show, A Steady Rain, as an air headed audience member’s cell phone rang--and continued to ring. Breaking character, Jackman faced the guilty party from stage and asked, “You want to get that?” The waiting Jackman paced; Craig patiently sat; and the phone rang for another minute. “Come on,” Jackman pleaded, “just turn it off.” Finally the cell ceased, and Jackman got back into character and his lines.

Audience rudeness and disruptions have plagued live theater, and movie theaters, for that matter, long before cell phones. Ticket holders’ talking to each other during a performance is common. Sometimes it escalates to arguing and beyond, like the time I witnessed two burly guys literally fighting over a front row seat at the premiere of The Godfather movie at the old Empire Theater in Kansas City. The movie had begun, and Marlon Brando’s mafioso seemed to be looking down on these two Neanderthals. Life imitates art.

Pat Hunt, a good friend and former teaching colleague, tells a great audience rudeness story involving Basil Rathbone when he performed at The University of Kansas. Rathbone is forever remembered for his starring role in many Sherlock Holmes movies as well as his dueling villainy versus Errol Flynn’s title hero in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

“I was a student at KU,” she says, “so the performance was in the early sixties, 1961-64. It was at the big auditorium at KU. It was a one-man performance; he (Rathbone) performed a selection of soliloquies from Shakespeare. As I recall, he had begun Romeo’s speech at the beginning of the balcony scene.

“After one or two lines, a baby began to cry loudly from somewhere in the upper balcony. He froze, turned to face the audience, and in his inimical rich baritone, commanded loudly and firmly, ‘Remove that baby at once!’ The audience, after a stunned silence, applauded. He didn’t move until he apparently saw that the child had been taken out, and the audience was silent again. Then he turned, and began the speech again. I was mightily impressed and thankful that it wasn’t I who had brought the child to the theater that night.”


Some 50 years before the Rathbone escapade, in 1915, Al Jolson told a Kansas City Star reporter about losing composure with his audience. The great entertainer Jolson, in town for his touring show, Dancing Around, is quoted from “No Joke On the City Now,” published Oct. 6, 1915:

“You know, I think I’m developing a temperament,” said Jolson. “Honest I do. It used to be they could unload a ton of scrap iron back stage when I was working and I’d shout a little louder to drown the noise and never mind it. I thought I was good then. The other night a man came in late, and when I saw him coming down the aisle it sent me up in the air. I almost blew up. It that isn’t temperament, what is it?” This comes from an egoist who, legend says, never played to an empty seat throughout his illustrious career.

Were that Rathbone and Jolson had to deal with cell phones.
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