Performers are in a dangerous profession. From on-stage heart attacks to magic tricks gone wrong to simple but fatal choreographic errors, the world of show business is filled with stories of those who walked on stage for their ultimate final bow. With that macabre backdrop, authors Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns, through interviews and anecdotes, explore a host of entertainers who died doing what they loved.
There’s no getting around it: sudden deaths are a dark topic. But even so, there’s an undercurrent of brightness reflected in this book. For the majority of performers profiled by Abraham and Kearns, there’s an overwhelming sense of commitment to their profession. As such, while there’s an immense sadness at reading about death after death, page after page, there’s a wonderful celebration of the varied careers carried out by actors, musicians, vaudevillians, magicians, and so on. And when the authors are able to expand on a vignette, giving a sketch of a performer’s career along with the morbid details of their demise, everything clicks.
It helps that the authors rely on an immense amount of research. Several of the stories they report have never been collected in this capacity before, and in many cases they offer unique, detailed accounts from witnesses. Some of the more compelling come from more high-profile cases, such as Dick Cavett’s recollections on Jerome Rodale dying while taping an episode of his talk show. However, it should be noted that there are a few cases where unverified accounts have been republished — in one case from an anonymous message board post. While these make for interesting stories, they don’t compare with the trove of verified firsthand accounts.
With all of this focus on the ghastly, Abraham and Kearns do try to find moments of levity. They write with a breezy style, never staying on one episode for too long, and that gives them ample opportunity to drop the occasional joke. This especially works in the section on comedians, when they can actually celebrate the comic’s career with one of their punchlines.
Pulling from an unhealthy catalog of stories, The Show Won’t Go On manages to piece together some of the most fascinating about the people who entertained until the end. And it sure beats reading the obituaries.
Title: The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths of Performers on Stage
Author: Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Publication Date: September 03, 2019
Classification: Entertainment, Nonfiction
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through Edelweiss.