Accidents


Accidents
   Accidents causing serious injury were all too common on the modernist stage before the era of union regulations. Scenery and lighting equipment sometimes fell onto performers, trap doors malfunctioned, prop pistols misfired, electric lights on costumes could short-circuit, hems of dresses might swish over the footlights and ignite, and so on. A few news reports will show that the stage could be a dangerous place. In New York, on 10 September 1883, during a rehearsal of Othello at Colville's Fourteenth Street Theater, a bridge gave way, causing Friedrich Price and six supernumeraries to drop 13 feet; the injuries ranged from fractured ribs to a broken foot. In Louisville, on 20 October 1877, the leading actress in Spalding's Dramatic Company production of Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun was wounded by the paper wad and powder from a pistol shot. A solo dancer in the opera Faust in Kansas City on 16 April 1911 was injured in rehearsal when she leaped and landed on a part of the stage floor that had been cut into for electrical connections; a long splinter pierced her cloth dancing pump and incapacitated her for two days. The popular equestrian actress Leo Hudson died in St. Louis on 4 June 1873, about three weeks after a performance of Mazeppa in which her horse Black Bess lost its footing during the dramatic ascent up a zig-zag runway; she and the horse fell about 14 feet. The Sacramento Bee reported in December 1885 that the operator of the thunder effects in Rip Van Winkle stood on a small platform in the theatre's loft and became so engrossed in his work that he stepped off the platform and one leg went through the ceiling, causing a rain of plaster on the orchestra. The audience started to panic, but when they looked up and saw the limb with a foot that was "not of Cinderella like proportions," the terror turned to uproarious laughter.
   Of course, there were also "happy accidents" like those recounted in Claude Bragdon's memoir, More Lives than One (190-92). For example, an audience member appreciated the "marvelous illusion of a twinkling star in the sky," which turned out to have been created by the shiny head of a safety pin used to repair a tear in the sky cloth. When Provincetown Players scene designer Cleon Throckmor-ton was complimented on a fleecy white cloud in his blue sky, he found that someone had accidentally punched a hole through one of the blue gelatins on a lamp aimed at the cyclorama, and the resulting patch of white light resembled a cloud.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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