‘The Show Won’t Go On’ – New Book Chronicles Stage, Screen Deaths Before Live Audiences

Bruce Haring

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Talk to any performer, and they probably have a horror story about the time they died on stage. It was a bad crowd, bad night, bad material, the venue wasn’t right.

But now, there’s a book actually devoted to those who have, literally, died on stage. The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage (Chicago Review Press), by Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns, is the first comprehensive study of onstage deaths. Unearthed details, little-known facts, and anecdotes reveal the truth about the final curtain call that ended many artists’ lives. The book arrives on Sept. 3. 

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The book chronicles Albert Brooks’s father, comedian Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein, to high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, rock star Dimebag Darrell Abbott, to rapper Jax the Axehandler. It also covers Tommy Cooper, who died on live television, and cult ukulele crooner Tiny Tim and J.I. Rodale, who died on the set of The Dick Cavett Show.

Abraham is a Hollywood public relations executive and go-to pop culture expert. Kearns is an award-winning television and film producer, director, writer, journalist, and author of the controversial memoir Tabloid Baby. They answered a few questions on the project: 

DEADLINE:  Was there any particular death that you found more shocking than others?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: Any death in the middle of a performance is shocking, but it may be the ones that were recorded on video and live on YouTube. The comedy magician Tommy Cooper died during a live television show. Karl Wallenda falling from the wire onto a taxi cab in Puerto Rico. Kulwinder Kaur blasted point-blank with a shotgun while dancing with her troupe at a wedding celebration. They’ve had millions of views.

For the two of us, the most terrible was watching the death of nutritionist J.I. Rodale on the set of the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Though it’s been talked about for almost 50 years, the episode never aired, and Cavett has kept it locked away all this time. We were the first journalists/authors/civilians to watch and have access to the entire episode. We were able to correct a lot of myths from the event. As we wrote, “although the facts may be at odds with the legend, they are no less impressive or ironic.” It was a shock to watch a man die on a brightly-lit set in television close-up.

This is no pun intended, but the most shocking was maybe Nick Lowe. It’s been agreed that in 1972, Les Harvey of the band Stone the Crows was the first rock musician to be electrocuted to death onstage. We found out singer-songwriter Nick Lowe died onstage of electrocution in 1969– but, in his case, he was revived! Nick was playing with the band Brinsley Schwarz in London when he grabbed a faulty microphone. He was unable to let go. His heart stopped. He was revived when his keyboard player attempted to kick the mic out of his hands — but, instead, gave him a boot square in the chest!

DEADLINE:  Anything you left out of the book for propriety reasons?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: There were no stories or onstage deaths we avoided. Because of the large number of onstage deaths that we researched, we did leave out artists like jazz musician Lee Morgan, who was shot to death by his common-law wife as he was walking toward the stage to play a set. His band was onstage, but he didn’t make it, so he didn’t make the book.

We quickly came to realize that although some stories are ironic, or even funny– the actress who dropped dead after singing “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” they are very serious to survivors. We’ve spoken to many friends and survivors, and people cry when they talk about deaths of loved ones more than thirty years ago. So, in our descriptions of deaths, we do go into detail, but we tried to be sensitive and maintain their dignity.

DEADLINE: We all know the story about Mama Cass and the alleged ham sandwich. How many of the deaths you investigated do you suspect have similar cover-ups?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: We did look into the death of Mama Cass Elliott, and found the basis of the myth that she choked on a ham sandwich. But there were rumors she was a target of the FBI and CIA. In our research, we found many less crucial cover-ups in cases in which drugs, rather than mere heart attacks, may have been to blame. In the case of Tommy Cooper, the comedy magician who died on live television — the producers spread the word he was still alive when his body was removed from the theater because they feared the incident could put future live broadcasts in jeopardy.

DEADLINE: It seems like a lot of the actual deaths were first believed to have been staged. Are there a lot of entertainment plays or whatever that have staged deaths?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: Yes, many! We’ve found too many cases where actors especially drop dead after a line that seems to fit. “Too bad we can only live so long!” Thud. “This is the moment for which I gave waited.” And actors have often had the bad timing to die at a time in the play or opera when a death would make sense. In recent years, there are hanging scenes in Easter Passion plays in which several actors, playing Judas, accidentally hanged themselves. Isabel Bonner, who starred in the 1955 play The Shrike at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, was in a hospital scene when she collapsed on the hospital bed. The actor in the scene ad-libbed before the curtain was rung down.

DEADLINE: Do you believe the show should have gone on in some (most) of the cases where someone died?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: Sometimes it’s just too difficult for things to change, especially in large venues. It’s often a matter of safety. Poor Pedro Monroy fell to his death while doing an “aerial” dance as the opening act for Green Day at a music festival in Spain two years ago. There were thousands of people there. The producers decided they didn’t want to cause a riot, so Green Day went on as scheduled. The problem was, the band had been waiting in a holding area a half mile away and were unaware there was a death on the stage, so they got a lot of bad publicity. Billy Joe Armstrong had to put out a statement saying, “We are not heartless!”

The variety show in which Tommy Cooper died went on after the commercial break — a couple of impressionists had to do their act in front of the curtain while they could hear the grunts as life-saving efforts went on behind it. But it was a live broadcast going out to millions of millions of viewers, and it could not be cancelled!

DEADLINE: Thanks to YouTube and other outlets, there are a lot of people famous in certain communities and unknown outside of them. Do you anticipate that the number of mid-production deaths will rise, given the exponentially increased number of celebs?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS: It already has. Although we found so many cases of performers dying on stage that we had to cherry-pick the ones we felt were most important, we did include a chapter on social media. Then we had to differentiate between real performers who died on camera, and people who commit suicide or die in a stupid stunt.

People go to extremes to be “famous,” but there are social media stars who have famously died in public — like Christina Grimmie, who was a YouTube sensation before she appeared on television on The Voice. She was shot to death by a crazed “fan” during a meet and greet after a show. Then there was extreme athlete Armin Schmeider, a performer with a fan base, and one of the first to make use of the Facebook Live app. He got into a wingsuit and was going to take everyone along on a flight with him. He put the camera in his pocket, leaped off a mountain, and immediately dropped, crashing down and winding up on the field below. All viewers saw was a blank screen and the sound of curious cows mooing as they circled the body. A country singer named Prentis Robinson had a bit of a following. He’d play songs, and then take out his selfie stick and take viewers on a tour of his hometown. Last year, while walking and live-casting, he called out to a passerby “You’re on live!” The guy responded by shooting him dead on camera.

On another front, remember Alison Parker, the TV reporter who was shot to death on live television by a very disgruntled former colleague? They called that “the first social media murder” because the killer uploaded everything to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

DEADLINE: How do you want to go?

ABRAHAM/KEARNS:  Jeff: Old age.  Burt: Quickly.


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