They Really Died Out There

August 2, 2019

“Dying” is comedian and musician slang for giving a terrible performance that the audience hated. But these performers literally died on stage, making for some of history’s weirdest deaths.

Awkward Guest

American publisher and writer Jerome I. Rodale, who advocated organic foods and healthy living, was a guest on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 alongside journalist Pete Hamill. During filming, Rodale told the host that he had Decided to live to be a hundred,” and that he had never felt better in his life. When he started to snore and slump in his chair, Hamill thought Rodale was joking, but he wasn’t — he was dead at the age of 72. The episode, due to be aired that night, was cancelled.

Shock ‘n’ Roll

Stone the Crows guitarist Leslie Harvey was playing a gig in Swansea, Wales, in 1972 when he touched an ungrounded microphone and was electrocuted. A roadie unplugged his guitar to try to save him, but it was too late and he collapsed onstage, dying later in hospital.

No Encore

In January 1996, tenor Richard Versalle was performing in The Makropulos Case at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. He sang the role of Vitek, an old man who worked in a legal firm, and in the opening scene climbed a library ladder to access a case file. Immediately after singing the words, “Too bad you can only live so long,” irony and death struck — Versalle, 63 suffered a heart attack, fell off the ladder, and died.

Less Than Magical

Welsh magician and prop comedian Tommy Cooper was a mainstay of British television, and in April 1984, he appeared on Live from Her Majesty’s, a variety show aired live from a London theater. Cooper performed his familiar “magic cloak” routine: He wore a huge gown, and stood in front of curtains through which an assistant would pass him objects he’d magically produce as if from thin air. The bit was supposed to end with show host Jimmy Tarbuck coming out of the curtain with a ladder, but before that could happen, Cooper, 63, suddenly took a tumble onto the stage. This wasn’t physical comedy: Cooper had suffered a heart attack. The director quickly threw to commercial…while stagehands pulled Cooper’s body through the curtain and to an ambulance. He was pronounced dead when he arrived at a hospital.

Not So Funny

Comedian Dick Shawn performed in San Diego in 1987, presenting a series of sketches and jokes, including a bit about the end of the world. In the midst of that, Shawn lay down on the stage and didn’t move. The audience thought that he was pretending to be dead, as part of the bit about the mass extinction of the human race. But then he kept not moving. Someone in the audience even shouted out “Take his wallet!” After a long five minutes, the masses realized Shawn, 57, wasn’t kidding around. A doctor hit the stage and unsuccessfully examined Shawn in search of a pulse. CPR was administered and paramedics escorted Shawn to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The Organ Grind

Louis Vierne held the lofty position of organist in residence at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, and in addition to playing church services, he gave recitals of his own compositions. In 1937, the local clergy decided to ban all non-religious performances, but allowed Vierne to play some of his original work for his fans one more time. About 3,000 people showed up to hear Vierne play. After just one piece, he turned to an assistant and muttered, “I’m going to be ill,” played one note…and passed away in front of the keyboard.

Find more stories of the most bizarre ways that people passed to greener pastures in History’s Weirdest Deaths, available now from Portable Press.