I’ll Take What Del Had


Actor/Improviser/Teacher Del Close

When an audience does not respond well to a performance, the performer will often use the ancient showbiz phrase, “I died up there.” And that’s how it feels. Like a slow, lingering death-by-indifference. It’s part of the life we performers have chosen. It’s what we signed up for.

There are, however, a significant number of performers who have died onstage for real. Sheet-over-the-head, dead-gone-dead. A wonderful performer and dear friend Steve Daly said, “There’s the way every performer wants to go….onstage during a show.”

I’m not so sure. Here are a few performers who have gone to the greenroom in the sky during a performance.

In 1918, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed under the name Chung Ling Soo, was shot through the chest while performing a trick known as The Bullet Catch. Metal fatigue in the gimmicked portion of the rifle caused the actual bullet to be fired. He died the next day.

Zero Mostel, Movie and Broadway star, and creator of the role Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, collapsed and died from an aortic aneurism during a preview performance of The Merchant in 1977.

In 1984, Comic/Magician Tommy Cooper, famous for tricks that went hilariously wrong, collapsed onstage from heart failure during a TV appearance on Live From Her Majesty’s in London. The audience, thinking it was a bit, laughed for a full minute before the director cut to commercial, and Tommy was taken offstage.

Comedian/Movie Star Dick Shawn died of heart in 1986 failure during a sold-out performance at UC San Diego. He lay onstage for five minutes before stagehands realized it wasn’t a bit. Even when paramedics arrived and took him away by ambulance, many audience members still believed it was a bit done in very poor taste.

Singer/Musicologist Tiny Tim suffered a fatal heart attack onstage in 1996 while singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips during a benefit concert hosted by the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.

Near Misses…

In 2017, actor Stacy Keach suffered a silent heart attack in Chicago during the opening night performance of the one-man play Pamplona, in which he portrayed Ernest Hemingway. As of this writing, he is recovering.

At the Concert For the Americas in 1984, drummer Buddy Rich suffered a heart attack while playing his solo during his band’s closing number. He finished the solo and the song, bowed, walked offstage, THEN went to the hospital and recovered. Badass Level: INFINITE.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve’s opinion regarding performers wanting to go during a performance. I think I’ll pass, given a choice. I think I’d rather go out the way legendary improv performer/teacher Del Close did, in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones and friends. Some of his last words were, “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.*”

In his will, Del bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater with instructions that it be used as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.

That’s a good way to go. I’ll take that.

Just not quite yet.

~Kevin Burke


An Autograph and a Chat with Todd McFarlane


I met Todd McFarlane at an autograph-signing at a comicbook* convention…my first at age 56. Todd broke away from Marvel comics in the early ’90’s at a point where he was making $1 million per year as the writer/artist on the Spider-Man comicbooks. There, he created the supervillain Venom. He left because he had characters he wanted to create, but couldn’t come to an agreement regarding ownership. (Creators for DC and Marvel did not own any ongoing piece of their creations. To this day, Stan Lee himself does not own a piece of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, or any of the many other characters he co-created with different artists.) Todd left Marvel to start Image Comics in 1992. His first hit was Spawn, which started a trend toward creator-owned comicbook characters.

I’ve always liked Todd’s art, and the fact that he told Marvel to go jump in a lake. So, at the Amazing Comic Con in Las Vegas, I brought along my copy of Spawn #8. The artwork is beautiful, and Spawn is posed in an iconic Spider-Man pose created by Todd a few years earlier. Perfect for signing.

I asked Todd if he would quote a favorite line he’d written for Spawn. He thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t really…..there’s nothing I…AH! Here. Here you go. I’ll write this” He inscribed, “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES!!” Then, deadly earnest, he said, “What I mean by that is this…YOU have to take control of your life. So many people miss that. If you want to be an artist, pick up a pencil. If you want to stop drinking, put down the fucking bottle. If you hate your boss, quit your job. Only you can prevent forest fires.” We then chatted about the Cubs, Steve Bartman, and how he wishes he had won the auction for the ball. He would have waited, then publicly blown it up just before game one of the World Series.

He also spoke about art. Todd is writing, producing, and directing a SPAWN film. He told me that this degree of creative control was non-negotiable. He’s successful enough that he doesn’t need the film, which puts him in a position to do it his way or no way. “That’s the reason to pursue success.” he said, ‘To be able to create more art. If I hadn’t been constantly creating and building on my early success, I wouldn’t be able to move this project forward. After this project, I’ll create more art.”

He also said, “Hollywood has all these new platforms to deliver content, but they have no new IDEAS. Everything they are doing now is something they’ve already done. Now is the time to be a creator. They need YOU.”

All in all it was a delightful 6 minute chat with one of my favorite artist/writers.

(*Stan Lee later that day said the ONLY correct written form is the one-word “comicbook”. I’ll take his word for it, and pass that along to you.)


A World Without Ringling


For the first time in 146 years, there are no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances scheduled, and the world is a poorer place for it. The Greatest Show on Earth is no more. Your great-great grandparents may have had a date at a show. It is now certain that your great-great grandchildren will not.

Before we continue, a word about the animals…If you believe they were mistreated or abused, stop reading. This is not for you. All I can tell you is that I was there. I lived and worked with these animals 24/7, and if you believe they were abused, then you were NOT there. Elephants, for example, do not breed unless their social and biological needs are met. RBBB had the single most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. The proof is in the pudding.

Still here? Great. In the 1800’s PT Barnum created the circus spectacle. Three rings, two stages, more than the eye could take in during a single performance. Family entertainment for children of all ages on a scale never before seen. Barnum partnered with the greatest circus showman of that era, James Bailey, to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Ringling Bros. bought the show and combined it with their own. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.
At that time, RBBB was a tent show. The Big Top seated from 5,000 to 9,000 people over the years. The 100-car train carried 1,200 employees and nearly as many animals. It was a city on wheels which moved the circus across the USA on a perpetual tour of one-night-stands. Each night, the circus would pack itself up, load itself out, head to the next stand, and do it all over again. So impressive was this feat, the US Army brought RBBB in to consult on logistics regarding moving people and materials in order to better fight WWI.
Moving the show into arenas and out of the tent in 1956, RBBB was still a juggernaut with a train a mile long. As new arenas were built across the country, Ringling rolled out to meet them. When the Astrodome was built in Houston, RBBB rolled in and sold it out. 67,000 seats. A record for the Astrodome and Ringling.

Those are the basic facts.

Now for the truth. Ringling was more than a show. It was a culture with it’s own language, traditions, and peculiar form of justice. Some people stayed; Lou Jacobs was a Ringling clown for 66 years. Some people left after one season. All are part of a family that made up the longest continually-running theatrical production in modern history.
All are world-class athletes who pushed the very boundaries of human ability, 13 times per week. In the final performance, trapeze artist Ammed Garcia Tuniziani twice attempted a quadruple somersault…a feat so difficult only a handful of performers have sporadically succeeded over the past 30 years. Ammed failed, but it didn’t matter. The RBBB audience was thrilled by the attempts.

Ringling was a truly great spectacle. 24 elephants. 14 tigers. 18 horses. Llamas, dogs, chimps, a giraffe, a famous gorilla, bears, and at least one disgruntled bison all were featured under the Ringling banner.
Human acts included teeterboard artists from Soviet-bloc countries who performed double backward somersaults to a five-man-high pyramid, a man in tails and top hat who balanced 30 feet in the air on one finger, human cannonballs, contortionists, BMX riders, unicycle riders, wire walkers, and 24 clowns per show…all these and more put their lives on the line daily in order to spread joy and wonder.

As joyful and wondrous as it is, the circus is a cruel mistress who kills it’s brightest stars. Two members of the Wallenda wire walking family were killed in a fall in 1962. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous in 1932 for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, she fell 40 feet and died a few days later. Dessi Espana died in 2004 when a piece of aerial equipment failed and sent her plunging 30 feet down to the arena floor. Two Ringling performers, Ceslee Conkling, a clown, and Ted Svertesky, an elephant trainer, were killed in a circus train crash in 1994. Ringling Bros. performers accepted the possibility of being killed as the price of admission to being a member of the Greatest Show on Earth family.
Circus life was never easy. Performers and crew lived in rooms on the mile-long train mentioned earlier. Each room was 6X3X7.5, and was built out of 3/4 inch plywood. (Funfact: According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to TWICE as much living space.) While each car had sinks and commodes, the only showers were to be had inside the arena locker rooms. Sit down baths? Not an option unless someone rented a hotel room. Everyone traveled from the railroad yard where the train was parked to the arena and back aboard the RBBB bus, which cost 25 cents to ride each way.
As in any community, love was fallen into–and went unrequited, weddings were celebrated, babies were born, breakups and divorces were mourned. Life was lived by the clock of show schedules, and centered around the three sacred performance rings.

A word about rings…As many circus-type acts as a theatrical show may have, it’s not an actual CIRCUS unless it has at least one ring. It’s the ring which defines circus, circumscribing life and death within its 42 feet diameter. Why 42 feet? That’s the ideal diameter for a galloping horse. The RBBB rings are where Mass was held on Sunday morning, and where lives were risked on Sunday afternoon.

Today, the rings have been disassembled and sold to the highest bidder The train has been sold off car by car. Pie-Car Jr, the RBBB food truck which parked out back of the arena and sold food to performers “at cost,” (lol) is probably headed to a carnival where it will feed fairground workers. Guy lines will be cut into one-inch sections and sold as a remembrance of the show. The elephants are headed to a 700 acre facility in North Florida, and the performers are headed for home, the open road, other shows, or oblivion.
Our city has been dismantled and dissolved. Forever. I’m sad that you’ll never be able to visit us, again. I’m sad that a chain of performances stretching back 146 years is now broken. Most of all, I’m sad for the children who will never see 24 elephants on parade, 20 clowns piling out of an impossibly tiny car, and hear a Ringmaster cry, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of ALLLLL ages! The producers are proud to present…..RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!”

In the Broadway musical BARNUM, PT Barnum sings about a bleak and dreary world saying, “Someone’s got to make it bright. Shoot a rocket! Shine a light! Tell ya who that someone’s gonna be….”

Until today, we KNEW who that someone was gonna be.


No idea, but I can’t wait to find out!!!!

See you down the road.

Field of Dream

I took the mound for the Las Vegas 51s one hot Summer day in 2014. I stared into the catchers eyes, and shook out my 53-year-old throwing arm. As I rubbed the brand-new ball to give myself a better grip, I thought back to a similarly hot Summer day in 1973…

I was the Little League 1st Baseman for the Mets in Munster, Indiana’s, A-league. We had a strong team. Years of playing together had turned us into a well-oiled, run-scoring machine full of 12-year-olds. I batted third, and was wrapping up an awesome season at the plate. I was a solid hitter who batted .440, and only struck out once. Gary Milliken batted behind me in the lineup, and was such a potent hitter our opponents didn’t dare walk me. They HAD to pitch to me. Gary and I racked up a LOT of home runs that season.

In the first inning, I hit the first pitch over the right field fence. (I hit right-handed, and tended to swing a little behind the ball.) My second time at bat…BOOM…a line drive over the same spot on the fence. Two consecutive pitches, two home runs. It doesn’t get any better than that in July in the Midwest. Our coach sensibly took me out of the game at that point. He didn’t want to spoil a perfect day, though my pre-teen ego told me I could DEFINITELY hit a third.

After that season, music and girls took hold of my interest, and I moved away from the game I loved.

Fast forward to 2014. I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Las Vegas 51s game. The 51s are the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets. They play in the Pacific Coast league, and are managed by Wally Backman, former 2nd Baseman for the Mets. Their Pitching Coach is Cy Young Award-winner, World Series MVP, Sweet Music himself, Frank Viola. In front of these two legends, I was invited to take the mound.

I was screwed.

I never had a great arm. Not even a very good one. I could hit, and was a competent fielder, but my arm never caught up with the rest of my skill set. That’s why I played 1st Base, not a lot of throwing. Nonetheless, the sport a man plays in his youth is the sport he always believes he can still play well, given the right opportunity. I was being given the right opportunity, in the right sport, but in the wrong spot on the field. At the plate, I might be able to pull it off, as long as the pitcher threw…not too fast…at my preferred spot of slightly less than shoulder high on the outside edge of the plate. But pitching? Not a chance. No way.


It was a chance to see if I still had a little gas left in the tank. So I said, “Yes. I would LOVE to throw out the first pitch…but are you sure there’s no ceremonial first hit?” They assured me there was not, so I mentally prepared myself to either validate, or completely destroy, my sense of self as a man. As an AMERICAN man participating in the National Pastime.

I stepped out of the dugout into the blazing hot Nevada sun. The temperature was well over 110 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. The place was virtually empty. No Nevada resident in their right mind goes to the ballpark on a day like that. Good! While there would be no crowd to witness potential triumph, there would also be none to witness abject failure. If I Baba Booeyed* the pitch, my humiliation would be witnessed only by Coach Backman, Coach Viola, and a handful of players, which was bad enough. (*Google “Baba Booey First Pitch Blunder” and watch the video. Gary Dell’Abate…Howard Stern’s Producer…threw out the first pitch at a Mets game. It was so wild and wide, it prompted the sportscaster to blurt out “Jesus Christ! He just threw the ball and hit the umpire!”)

There was a bright spot on the field in Las Vegas. An 11-year-old girl who was raising money for a charity was also going to throw a pitch. Perfect! There was no WAY I could could follow an 11-year-old and not throw at least a little better. She walked over onto the grass in front of the mound…the traditional spot…and went into her adorable little pitcher’s stretch. She then shook her head, and stepped up ON THE FRIGGIN’ MOUND! The tiny crowd roared it’s approval.

Wait….she couldn’t do that. *I* couldn’t do that! There was no way I could pull it off from up there. But I had to because I couldn’t wuss out after a little girl threw from the rubber. It didn’t matter whether she got it over the plate or not. The fact that she was willing to try it from there meant I HAD to try. Crap.

She bounced in a two-hopper.

I turned to Frank Viola and said, “Coach, how do I NOT screw this up, now that I have to throw from the mound?”

Mr. I-Held-The-Cardinals-To-Just-Two-Runs-In-The-Seventh-Game-Of-The-World-Series grinned at me and said, “Try not to think about it. HA! TOO LATE!”

Thanks, Coach.

“Just go up there and have fun. That’s what we tell the kids,” he said, gesturing toward the players who were starting to warm up.

OK. Have fun. Got it. I stepped out onto the field, and it truly was a dream. The base path was some kind of finely-ground gravel, the likes of which I have never seen, and the grass….oh, the grass…it was soooo green and perfect it made me tear up, just a little. It truly was a cathedral of everything good and right about the USA.

And I was about to defile it.

Here’s what Major League Baseball says, “The distance between the pitcher’s plate and home base, (the rear point of home plate,) shall be 60 feet, 6 inches.” That is a lie. It’s at least 100 yards. At least.

Further, MLB tells us, “The top of the rubber on the pitcher’s mound is to be no higher than ten inches (25.4 cm) above home plate.” BS. It’s at least a mile.

I stepped up onto the mound, and looked across the gulf at my catcher, who was only about 11 inches tall at that distance. “This looks like a LOT farther than 60 feet from up here,” I said.

“YEP!” he grinned, and settled into his crouch.

He signaled for the old Number One. The heater, the fastball, the smoke. Riiiiiight. I nodded, and rocked back in an effort to make some kind of approximation of a pitcher’s motion. It felt pretty good! I pointed my glove hand at the catcher’s mitt as I went into a little kick. (A kick. I had a little kick!)

I let it fly.

To be perfectly honest, if my 12-year-old self had been batting, he would have crushed it 300 feet, at least. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a strike. A strike! A little gas left in the tank in a real ballpark from which real players get called up to The Show.

One last perfect Summer day.