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He's dying up there: the macabre, surprisingly funny history of onstage deaths

Tommy Cooper died during a 1984 ITV broadcast
Tommy Cooper died during a 1984 ITV broadcast Credit:  FremantleMedia Ltd/REX/Shutterstock

Martin Chilton on the unlucky last bows of performers through the ages, from conductors and human cannonballs to a Carry On star

Heart attacks, strokes, fractured skulls, broken necks, cerebral haemorrhages – these are just a few of the varied and unwelcome ways we can shuffle off this mortal coil. A more freakish finale, however, is the high-velocity crash landing of a human cannonball. A new book about deaths in showbusiness cites “human cannonball historians” – and who knew there was such a thing? – recording 30 such airborne fatalities.

Annihilation seems to be an occupational hazard of the entertainment business, whether at Broadway shows, local theatres, nightclubs, concert halls, circus tents, radio stations, movie sets or even live on television. Authors Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns say the purpose of their book The Show Won't Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage (Chicago Review Press) is to explore a “devastating showbusiness phenomenon that has gone unexamined until now”.

Given the obvious dangers involved for circus performers, it’s no surprise that "The Big Top" has folded on lots of acrobats down the years, whether during failed human pyramid displays or perilous high-wire acts. It is hard not to conclude that 33-year-old Thomas Macarte was the master of his own downfall, though. Macarte, known as Massarti the Lion Tamer, lost a limb when he was badly mauled in Liverpool in 1862. He decided to chance his other arm and return to such a dangerous profession. All went well until 10 years later in Bolton when, after some “hefty shots of liquor”, he was knocked down in a small cage by a very large cat called Tyrant. The crowd fled in panic as Macarte, who was dressed as a Roman soldier, was “torn to pieces” by five lions.

The following day, in January 1872, the Bolton Evening News reported in full the gory account of Macarte’s final moments. A macabre desire to discover the grisly details of a shocking death is nothing new, but it is sated by new media in the digital age. The book reports that when aerial dancer Pedro Aunión Monroy was killed in 2017 at the Mad Cool festival in Madrid, after he tumbled 100 feet from a suspended cage, the crowd “were recording cell phone videos” of the tragic fatality. Massarti the Lion Tamer would have gone viral nowadays.

The late comedian Robin Williams joked that “death is nature's way of saying, ‘your table's ready’” and there are, thankfully, some accounts of death that border on being uplifting. Jane Little, who was appropriately named given she was four feet 11 inches tall, had a glittering career. She started playing for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1945, when she was only 16, and continued lugging her giant double bass for them over the next 71 years, playing for conductor Igor Stravinsky and performing at the 1996 Olympic Games ceremony in her home city. She made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest tenure in a single orchestra.

On 15 May 2016, at the age of 87, she collapsed as the musicians were playing the encore song There’s No Business Like Showbusiness from Irving Berlin’s score for Annie Get Your Gun. She was carried off stage and never regained consciousness. “It was a pretty spectacular ending for a spectacular lady. You really couldn’t write a better Hollywood ending,” said fellow bass player Michael Kurth. A far gloomier ending met Indonesian pop singer Irma Bule, who was only 29 when she was bitten by a cobra during a show that featured snakes. Bule had reportedly not taken the precaution of checking whether the venom glands of the cobra had been removed.

Most of the risk-averse population avoid danger but for some performers it is an essential part of the thrill of their job. Escapologists seem especially keen to prove their daredevilry. "Amazing" Joe Burns boasted that he was greater than Harry Houdini and could pull off the treacherous trick of escaping after being buried alive. In 1990, while wearing a white tuxedo and purple bow tie, Burns was handcuffed and shackled in a homemade see-through plastic-and-glass coffin. He was then covered in seven tons of cement. You can probably guess the ghastly outcome.

Many showbiz deaths are more mundane. More than a dozen classical music conductors have died from strokes and heart attacks mid-baton wave. There are explanations for the number of middle-aged musician who expire on stage. Musicians tend to be heavy drinkers or chain smokers, working unsocial hours and having poor diets. Add to that the stresses and demands of public performance and you have a lethal cocktail. It is a running thread of the book, incidentally, that audiences often think that an on-stage death or collapse is part of the act. When opera singer Armand Castelmary died at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in February 1897, the authors report, in rather unfeeling terms, that “the audience cheered… no one realised the old ham’s heart had stopped at sixty-two.”

One cliché that is bandied about after countless onstage deaths is that the particular performer “always said that’s the way he wanted to go”. Actor Joe Greenwald may have taken this to the extreme in 1938, when the 60-year-old expired in Santa Barbara, during a play for which Glenn Ford was the stage manager. “This is the moment for which I have waited all my life…” were the final lines uttered by Greenwald as he suffered his fatal heart attack.

The authors note that “everyone got refunds” after Greenwald’s unscheduled piece of improvisation. The quest for reimbursement seems to be a regular response from crowds who have just witnessed a tragedy. When comedian Dick Shawn died in 1976, during a show in San Diego, his son Adam, who was running the audio and lighting cues that night, watched in dismay as people demanded a refund of their ten-dollar ticket entrance fee, with his father’s body not even cold. “They wanted their money back,” he said.

When Sid James died after suffering a massive heart attack during a performance of The Mating Season in 1976, the authors state that “all four hundred members of the audience got their money refunded”. When comedians and comic actors are involved, however, there seems to be more gallows humour involved. The manager of Sunderland’s Empire Theatre rang the show’s producer Bill Robertson to tell him that James, the famous Carry On film star, had died in Sunderland. “Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland,” Robertson replied.

Sid James, left, in 1971, with Carry On co-stars Kenneth Williams and Patsy Rowlands Credit: Getty

Other British stars feature in the book. There is a chapter about Tommy Cooper, who died after collapsing during the ITV broadcast of Live from Her Majesty’s show in 1984, which speculates unnecessarily about whether he actually died at the theatre or in the ambulance. The authors include a few of his jokes – “I bought some pork chops and told the butcher to make them lean. He said, ‘which way?’” – which simply act as a reminder that it’s better to remember Cooper in life than death.

Live television carries its own risks, of course, which is why real-time shows are usually taped ahead of broadcast or shown with a small delay. The authors document that they were shown a private viewing of the “lost episode” of an infamous Dick Cavett show. Nutritionist JI Rodale died on set that day in June 1971. This so-called “guru of organic food”, who was 73 at the time, shared some raw asparagus with the host and chatted about the benefits of his health regime. A few minutes later, as he was listening to another guest, Rodale started making strange gurgling sounds.

The cry of “is there a doctor in the house?” is one that appears regularly in the book. To avoid risking a laugh from the crowd with this comedic cry for help, Cavett shouted, “Is there a doctor here?” instead, as it became clear something terrible was unfolding. The oxygen equipment at the studio did not work and Rodale – who was described poetically by Cavett as looking “the ghastly pale of a plumber’s candle” – could not be saved. The episode was never broadcast. “Who would the gods have die on a talk show but a health expert?” Cavett later quipped.

There are other moments of unintentional comedy amid all the carnage. As comedian Harry "Parky" Einstein lay dying after a heart attack at a Friars Club social event in New York in 1958, the tuxedoed emcee urged star singer Tony Martin to distract the celebrity crowd. The panicked crooner Martin warbled the first tune that came to mind: There’s No Tomorrow.

Spare a thought also for saxophonist Wayne Marsh, who collapsed and died during a gig at Donte’s jazz club in North Hollywood in 1987. As he slid to the floor, the last words the musician heard were from his bandmate drummer, who shouted, “what the f--- you doing, Wayne?”.

Over 240 pages, the bizarre bereavements pile up. Acrobat Mary Larkin de Phil died after slipping as she dismounted from a unicycle; guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was shot on stage; an actor stabbed himself to death during a performance of Peer Gynt in 1926 in Strasbourg. The authors, in trying to be witty about such grim events, are sometimes blasé in their references to people plunging, tumbling and “slamming into concrete”. In addition, the description of Marty Feldman having “bulging eyes that welled with tears”, after witnessing Kenneth Horne’s death at an awards ceremony in 1969, is crass.

Marty Feldman (pictured) was present at the death of Kenneth Horne Credit: Getty

By the final chapter – "Fifty More who Died onstage: a Chronological Selection" – this reader felt like he was enduring a printed version of the brilliant television show Six Feet Under. Only this was a loop, just showing all the openings of each episode, with death after bizarre bereavement. Death needs deftness, context and narrative to be more than a horror show.

With showbusiness folk, as with everyone, your luck is either in or out. It was certainly missing for three members of the Indonesian band pop band Seventeen when their outdoor concert at a beach resort in Java was hit by a tsunami in 2018.

Fortune favoured Nick Lowe when his band Brinsley Schwarz opened for Yes at the Marquee Club in Soho in July 1969. Lowe received a violent electric shock from a badly-wired microphone. After being thrown up in the air, he was still hanging on to the mike when his heart stopped. “Keyboard player Bob Andrews ran up and tried to kick the thing out of my hand, to break the circuit,” recalled Lowe. “But in doing so, he kicked me really hard in the ribs… which doctors later told me got my heart going again.”

In life and death, there really is no business like show business.