I’ve been involved in theater in one capacity or another for pretty much my entire life.
One of the great things about live theater is the stories that come from it, particularly the stories about disasters. I’ve shared before the story — most likely apocryphal, but I want to believe — about a Passion play wherein the actor playing Jesus had to be replaced halfway through with a much thinner actor; when it came time for him to ascend to Heaven on a hidden wire, the rigging was set for a heavier man and skinny Jesus was launched screaming into the ceiling.
Again, that one’s probably not true, but man, do I ever want it to be.
However, the story I share today is one I witnessed with my own two eyes.
When I was a young man, my class went on a trip to Martinsville Middle School to see a traveling production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
If you’re unfamiliar, the stage play is based on “The Diary of a Young Girl,” a journal kept by a young Jewish girl named Anne Frank while she and her family spent two years hiding in the attic above a factory during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was arrested in 1944 and Anne Frank died of typhus the following year in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Obviously, any adaptation of Anne Frank’s story is some heavy stuff. We had been learning about the Holocaust in school, and our teacher decided the best way to drive the lesson home was to take us to see this play. What better way to help kids understand the horrors of World War II than by exposing them to the story of Anne Frank, a child herself?
Before the trip to see the play, our teacher told us to be on our best behavior. We weren’t going to see “Peter Pan” or something. This was serious business. You don’t cut up with your buddies or play with your Tamagotchi during “The Diary of Anne Frank.” You watch quietly and respectfully.
As I said, this was a traveling production of the play. These were professional actors who criss-crossed the country performing this play for school groups. This was a well-oiled machine. And as it happened, the stage at Martinsville Middle School at the time was perfect for the production. There was a short flight of stairs at the very front of the stage, and since the entire play takes place in the attic above a factory, the stairs served as the perfect spot for actors to enter the stage.
The play began, and everyone in the audience was very quiet and respectful. It wasn’t hard to get lost in the world of the play; the actors were excellent.
There is a scene in the play in which a prowler breaks into the factory. The Frank family, along with some other folks who are hiding with them, fall silent; if the prowler hears them, it could spell their doom.
The prowler soon leaves, but things become even more tense when two police officers, summoned by a night watchman, arrive to investigate the break-in. They shine their flashlights on the very bookcase that conceals the secret staircase to the attic where the Frank family is hiding.
During this scene, the actor playing Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, slowly and silently paced around the attic, a finger held to his lips. Meanwhile, the actors playing the two police officers chatted near the concealed staircase at the front of the stage as they searched the premises.
It’s an impossibly tense scene, a moment of life or death that hinges on everyone in the attic remaining silent. My classmates and I were still as statues. You could have heard a pin drop.
And then Otto Frank fell down the stairs.
When I say that the actor playing Otto Frank fell down the stairs, I don’t mean that he tripped and slipped down one or two of them. He hit every stair on the way down. There couldn’t have been more than seven or eight steps, but it sounded like he hit about twenty. Curly Howard himself could not have done a better pratfall.
Everyone, both on stage and in the audience, watched in stunned silence. The two police officers in front of the stage didn’t even react to Otto crashing to the ground in front of them like a 200-pound sack of potatoes. Otto Frank gathered himself up, darted back up the stairs with a pronounced limp, looked around at the other actors on stage, and said the following in a hoarse stage whisper:
“I don’t think they heard that.”
As God is my witness, it was the funniest thing I have ever seen that didn’t get a single laugh.
Ben, I love your style. You always set the stage and leave me speechless! Thanks!