They Died for Their Art...Literally!

The last photo of Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein taken at a Los Angeles Friars' Club 
 dinner in 1958. He is shown conversing with Milton Berle. Shortly after this photo was 
 taken, Parke collapsed into Berle's lap from a fatal heart attack.
The last photo of Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein taken at a Los Angeles Friars' Club dinner in 1958. He is shown conversing with Milton Berle. Shortly after this photo was taken, Parke collapsed into Berle's lap from a fatal heart attack. The Los Angeles Herald-Express/WikiCommons, Public domain

The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage
By Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns
240 pp.
Chicago Review Press

If you’re ever interviewing a touring musician of a certain vintage, they might joke that they “hope to die onstage.” Similarly, when a comedian is really getting the audience howling, it's said that they’ve “killed.”

Chicago Review Press book cover
But for the scores of performers in this book – and not just musicians or comedians but dancers, magicians, circus performers, actors, and DJs, death was no laughing matter. Though – as authors Abraham and Kearns point out in this breezy read – an abnormally large percentage of their audiences thought the actual demise was “part of the act.”

Take Maryland community theater actress Edith Webster. In her part as a grandmother in The Drunkard, her character was required each night to sing a song and then “die.” So audiences didn’t think anything was awry – at first – when she did just that, but never got up for the curtain call.

Or in 1990 when illusionist “Amazing” Joe Burrus tried to one-up Houdini at a place called Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center by being bound and escaping from a coffin after being buried alive under dirt and (then also) cement. A cracked coffin lid and three times the amount of cement that was supposed to go down the hole ensured he wouldn't make it out.

Those are just two examples of onstage deaths from both the famous and unknown that the authors have culled, going back to the 1800s, many of which have passed into showbiz lore: the onstage murder of heavy metal guitarist Dimebag Darrell, the heart attack of jam band forefather Col. Bruce Hampton during an all-star concert celebrating his 70th birthday (where fellow musicians first thought he was “bowing down” to the talent of a 14 year old guitarist). And, of course, eccentric singer Tiny Tim who "Tiptoed Through the Tulips" one last time before exiting the garden of life for good.

Then there are the not-so-funny deaths of Dick Shawn during his show or Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein during a Friar’s Club roast in the lap of emcee Milton Berle. As both were comedians, many in the audience at first thought it was part of the act. Einstein was the father of future comic royalty Albert Brooks - whose given name is Albert Einstein! - and Bob Einstein, best known as joke stuntman "Super Dave" Osborne and Marty Funkhouser on Larry David's HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. There are many other lesser known, but equally interesting, passages of other onstage demises.

And poor talk show host Dick Cavett. Just as his guest, outgoing nutritionist J. I. Rodale declared, “I am so healthy, I expect to live on and on!,” Rodale made some loud snoring noises and passed in the guest chair. Despite the faulty memories of many claiming to have seen it, that 1971 episode never actually aired, though the authors were able to see the actual tape in Cavett’s archives while researching this book.

For some entries, Abraham and Kearns have recent quotes and remembrances from family members and fellow performers, which certainly adds to the aspects and, in some cases, inject a dose of stark reality. The Show Won't Go On is equal parts cringe-reading, bizarre incidents, sad situations, and dark humor. And there's never been any book like it, which makes it all the more compelling. 
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero