The late James Kirkwood‘s 1986 play Legends!–about two feuding old movie stars who are comically reunited–developed its own legend thanks to a mass of on-the-road problems, including the contrasting antics of its stars, the passive-aggressive Mary Martin and the just plain aggressive Carol Channing.
But one of the most famous things about it is how Mary–who just couldn’t seem to retain a word of the play–had to wear an earpiece so she could be prompted on most of her lines, and at one performance she actually heard traffic reports, which she repeated, in character!
Stuff like “There’s a pileup on LaBrea, but traffic’s moving on Wilshire…” as the audience sat there, even more stunned than if she’d said the play’s actual dialogue.
That kind of story makes for great cocktail chatter for theater queens, but alas, it’s not what really happened.
But what really happened is still pretty good!
In Diary of a Mad Playwright, Kirkwood’s breathlessly readable book about the play’s inception, tour, and ultimate death, he remembers that when the show was trying out in Phoenix, Mary’s hearing device started misbehaving and picking up taxi cab dispatches while she was onstage!
Her hills were alive…with the sound of car alerts.
That threw Mary even more than usual–though thankfully she didn’t repeat the dispatches to the audience–so of course, they frantically took the device out of her ear at intermission.
And the weird thing is, she then did Act Two perfectly!
After that, Mary amazingly retained all her lines and did OK.
All because she couldn’t take a chance on hearing stuff like “Cab 302, please pick up Mrs. Campbell in Scottsdale.”
I love show biz.