The new book, The Show Won’t Go On, is the first comprehensive study of a bizarre phenomenon: performers who died onstage. Written by Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns, the book covers almost every genre of entertainment, and is full of unearthed anecdotes, exclusive interviews, colorful characters, and ironic twists. FOG! had the opportunity to speak with Jeff and Burt about the book’s origins, the most unusual death they uncovered and how Jerry Lewis brought them together.
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FOG!: The Show Won’t Go On takes a look at “the most shocking, bizarre, and historic deaths of performers onstage”. What was the genesis of this book?
JEFF ABRAHAM: What else? An Elvis Presley impersonator show!
Fifteen years ago this month, I attended an Elvis tribute show at a Trump casino near Palm Springs. One of the special guests was Al Dvorin. He was Elvis’s announcer, the guy who said, “Elvis has left the building” to clear out the place after Elvis performed. Al performed the line onstage that night, everyone cheered and then he went into the lobby to sign autographs. I heard someone say, “Al, you should write a book.” Al said, “I will. I have time.” Then on the drive home to Las Vegas the next morning, he was killed in a car crash. That shook me! It also gave me the idea for a book about performers who died onstage, on the way to a show, or on the way home. I had the title. The Show Won’t Go On.
BURT KEARNS: Jeff had the title for twelve years when he mentioned the idea to me. I said, “Let’s do it. Don’t talk about it. Let’s write the book.” We started compiling a list. The list got long — too long, so we narrowed the focus to performers who died onstage in front of an audience. On stage. In an arena. On radio. Live television. Social media.
It turns out we’re a good team. Jeff is a show business historian and the leading comedy archivist, probably in the world. I’m a writer and journalist. I produce nonfiction television and documentaries. Jeff has great respect for show people. I have great respect for the story. We’re both pop culture mavens.
JEFF ABRAHAM: We bonded over Jerry Lewis.
It seems like the majority of well-known performers who passed onstage were comedians and musicians. Whose death, in your opinion, resonated the most with the general public?
JEFF ABRAHAM: If you’re a Heavy Metal fan, it was the murder of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. If you like classical music, maybe it was the death of Simon Barere onstage at Carnegie Hall.
The general public probably knows a few of the most legendary deaths onstage. And in most cases, they’ve gotten the facts wrong. Harry ‘Parkyakarkus’ Einstein, father of Albert Brooks and the late Bob “Super Dave” Einstein, died on the dais at a Friars Club testimonial. Dick Shawn, the genius comedian, died during a one-man show. Tommy Cooper, the British comedy magician dropped dead on live television. You can see that on YouTube. You can find the real stories, and the stories between the lines, in our book. From eyewitnesses.
BURT KEARNS: And family members. And speaking of live television, the most legendary of all is the death of natural foods advocate and longevity expert J.I. Rodale. He died while he was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. “Legendary” because the show never aired. Cavett has kept the tape locked away for close to fifty years.
JEFF ABRAHAM: But thanks to my good friend Robert Bader, who works closely with Cavett, we were the first “civilians” allowed to watch the episode. We were allowed to record the audio, and we got comments from Cavett. We were able to correct five decades of misconceptions.
BURT KEARNS: In this case and others, we set the record straight and literally re-wrote pop culture history. There’s a lot of bum information out there. Don’t trust Wikipedia.
What was the most unusual death you came across in your research?
BURT KEARNS: Each death onstage is unusual in its own way. There’s the pop star who was bitten by her dance partner, a King Cobra snake. She kept dancing for forty-five minutes until the venom reached her heart. The community theatre actor who died with a prop gun in his pocket during a play called The Art of Murder.
JEFF ABRAHAM: How about Colonel Bruce Hampton, the jam band godfather? Two years ago, they celebrated his seventieth birthday party with an all-star concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. For the encore, everyone came out for a big jam, and at one-point old Bruce knelt down and then fell to the stage at the feet of a fourteen-year-old blues guitarist. Everyone thought he was doing the Wayne’s World “I am not worthy” routine. They kept jamming for another five minutes while he died.
BURT KEARNS: Then there’s the audience member who committed suicide by jumping from a roof onto the stage at a folk-rock concert outside San Francisco.
Have you ever been witness to a live onstage death? What was the experience like?
JEFF ABRAHAM: Well, I work with a lot of comedians and I’ve seen more than a few die onstage. Rim shot. But actual death? Al Dvorin was as close as I came…
BURT KEARNS: I’ve attended performances by many of elderly musicians in Las Vegas and in jazz clubs here in LA. I do admit that while writing the book, after one show by an 85-year-old jazzman, I was tempted to return for the following night’s show, because his death onstage, if not imminent, did seem to be at least a distinct possibility.
With the culture of the social media celebrity, do you find that more “performers” are just the result of people doing stupid things and recording them?
BURT KEARNS: Well, that was an issue when we added social media to the mix in the book. We decided early on that we wouldn’t include athletes who risk injury or death every time they head out onto the field. On social media, you have people committing suicide, trying to stop bullets with encyclopedias, hanging off skyscrapers, setting themselves on fire and other jackass, attention-seeking stunts. We focused on actual performers who have talent and have gained followings through social media — and who died on the social media stage.
JEFF ABRAHAM: Remember Christina Grimmie? Grimmie was the YouTube singer who went even wider when she appeared The Voice. She was shot dead by a so-called fan in Florida during an after-show meet and greet. A month ago, there was a Chinese video blogger who had a regular show in which he ate poisonous centipedes on camera. He died from the poison during a livestream.
BURT KEARNS: I think we might file him under “jackass.”
Do you have any upcoming projects?
BURT KEARNS: Our next major project is turning The Show Won’t Go On into a television series. A very unique biography series.
JEFF ABRAHAM: I’d like to see an animated version, like Mike Judge’s Tales from the Tour Bus.
BURT KEARNS: Tales from the Hearse, maybe. In any case, we’re looking at teaming with a production company and network. It’s ready to go. And its tailormade for a series. The stories in The Show Won’t Go On aren’t stories of death. They’re stories of life. Careers and struggles and dramas, all leading to a performer’s ultimate finale… going out in a blaze of glory, surrounded by friends and fans, dying doing what they loved.
JEFF ABRAHAM: Plus, we’ve got enough material in our archives for a sequel and spin-offs.
What are you currently geeking out over?
JEFF ABRAHAM: Jerry Lewis. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. The Ritz Brothers. Elvis ’69. And Jerry Lewis on eBay.
BURT KEARNS: Jerry Lewis. Thelonious Monk Live at the It Club. Jerry Lewis online auctions. The Hunt Sales Memorial, whose album Get Your Shit Together is the album of the year in my house. Jerry Lewis tattoos. Binging the latest season of Animal Kingdom. And Jerry Lewis on eBay.
The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre, and Historic Deaths
of Performers Onstage is now available in bookstores, and e-tailers.