Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). Each week you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 25 “Grab Bag” categories (I might expand the list in the future, but for now, we’re sticking with these 25).
This is the second in a series of examinations of legends related to plays and their playwrights and whether they are true or false.
PLAY LEGEND: Bob Cummings pretended to be from England to get a role on Broadway.
Bob Cummings was a popular actor with a career that stretched a number of decades, from the stage to the screen to television.
He’s probably best known for his critically acclaimed (and popular) sitcom, The Bob Cummings Show, that ran from 1955-1959, where he plays a womanizing photographer.
The show launched the career of Ann B. Davis, as she won two Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for her work on the program (years before she was Alice on The Brady Bunch).
Cummings had a successful film career during the 1940s, with King’s Row….
and Saboteur probably being his two most notable roles…
(he was most popular as a comedic actor, but his dramatic films have seemed to stand the test of time a bit better – he also had a co-starring role in the classic drama Dial M for Murder)…
An experienced and talented pilot, Cummings tried to fit that background into many of the roles he took (including his character on The Bob Cummings Show)…
But what’s at issue here is how Cummings got his start in show business period.
You see, when Cummings was a young man in the early 1930s, he was not having a very good go at getting a job as an actor in New York on the theater circuit. Then, as it remains true now, I suppose, British actors were the “hot” ticket on Broadway, so Cummings devised a rather devious plan.
He actually traveled to England and lived there for a month, developing a British accent and purchasing British clothes, so that when he returned to the States, he was now calling himself Blade Stanhope Conway. He even managed to get an acquaintance to put up a temporary marquee outside a British playhouse stating “Blade Stanhope Conway in Shaw’s Candida.”
He then sent letters of introduction to various New York theater companies telling them that he, Blade Stanhope Conway, would be coming to New York and was hoping to do some theater work there.
And sure enough, he was given a small role in a Broadway play, The Roof.
He soon got work under his own name working as a comedian in The Ziegfeld Follies.
Soon, though, Cummings decided to make the trek out to California to pursue a career in film. This time around, to gain entrance into the world of westerns, he decided to take on ANOTHER persona, this time of a Texan named Bruce Hutchens.
I don’t know if his Texan approach was what got him his first gig, but whatever the reason, he soon got a small role in a film and his career developed from there.
Isn’t that an amazing act of deception and/or ingenuity?
PLAY LEGEND: Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” in a play.
STATUS: False (but Very Close to True!)
Karel Čapek was one of the notable writers in Czechoslovakia during the 20th Century, and he was especially noteworthy when it comes to science fiction, as while he likely would not be technically termed a “science fiction writer,” he surely had a science fiction-tinge to his work, which is especially notable for a guy whose most notable plays all came during the 1920s.
Čapek was a harsh critic of Nazi Germany, and devoted much of his work in the 1930s to criticizing the Nazis. He refused to leave the country when it became pretty clear that the Nazis were coming, and he died of double pneumonia in December 1938, just as the Nazis were annexing part of his homeland.
Perhaps his most famous play was called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which is about, well, robots.
And it is from this play that the term “robot” (an artificial, manufactured human-like being) is derived.
So over the years, you would see stuff like (from this site):
He coined the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920.
Etymological note: Robota is a Czech cognate of the German word arbeit (“work”), from the Indo-European root *orbh-. It is usually translated as “serf” or “forced labor” and was the name used for the so-called “labor rent” which existed in Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1848. From this word K. Čapek created the word robot = a working or serving machine.
The etymological roots pointed above are spot on, but what’s INcorrect is that it was not Karel Čapek who coined the term, but rather, his brother, Josef Čapek. Karel was set to call the machine-men laboři (from Latin labor, work), but his brother argued that roboti (translated into English as “robot”) would sound better.
To his credit, Čapek made sure to let people know that it was his brother’s word, as he lived long enough to see the word becoming a common part of the international dictionary.
While in his death, at least Karel escaped the punishment of the Germans (who were not a fan), Josef was not so lucky, and he was arrested and died in 1945 in a concentration camp (he wrote a book of poetry while in the camp, titled, appropriately enough, Poems from a Concentration Camp).
Man, this story ended up pretty depressing.
PLAY LEGEND: Tennessee Williams’ first published standalone work was a story in the pulp magazine, Weird Tales!
Tennessee Williams is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th Century (and one of the most celebrated American playwrights without qualification).
Between 1944 and 1960, he wrote some of the most famous plays in the history of American Theater…
And his first professional standalone work?
It appeared in the pages of Weird Tales magazine!
(The qualifier, by the way, is because a year earlier Williams had won third prize in an essay contest in Smart Set, so since their was a monetary prize for his winning essay, I suppose that sort of counts as his first professional work – but this was a work published on its own accord and not part of a contest)
Weird Tales magazine was a fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine. Its most famous contributors were H.P. Lovecraft, who debuted his Cthulhu stories in the pages of the magazine, and Robert E. Howard, who did not introduce Conan in the title, but you could argue that Weird Tales was where the character was popularized. Edmund Hamilton was another notable contributor.
But you also have to add young Tennesse Williams to the picture, who had a story published at age 16 in the August 1928 edition of Weird Tales (the same issue that Howard introduced his Solomon Kane character)…
The story was called “The Vengeance of Nitocris,” and it was about the sister of a pharaoh getting revenge on those that have betrayed (and murdered) her brother. Her revenge is pretty lurid (an elaborate death trap that allows her to view them as they die) and it is followed (Spoiler Alert! ) with her graphically taking her own life when she realizes she cannot escape retribution for her acts.
If you would like to stretch, you can even see some similarities between the story and his later, adult work (but it’s a pretty big stretch).
That was the beginning of Tennessee Williams’ pulp fiction career, but it was also the end. Soon he would go away to college, and while in school he began to devote his time exclusively to becoming a playwright which, obviously, worked out pretty well for him.
But imagine if he had gone the other route…who knows what tawdry tales lurked in the mind of Tennessee?!?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org