Friday, January 18, 2013

Fly On The Wall, January 18, 2013

On Superstition
I love the number 13.
by Jim Murchison
[ED: Today we introduce a new weekly column by our Editor-in-Chief in Ottawa.]
It struck me that many triskaidekaphobics will be wringing their hands expecting a full year of bad luck. They were counting on the Mayans to release them from the only year in the calendar of their lifetime where nothing good can possibly happen. Now, if you check in the dictionary there is no listing for triskaidekaphobic; only triskaidekaphobia, but I am taking the artistic license to assume that one that suffers from a phobia must be phobic. Having said that I am ready to proclaim myself a devout  triskaidekaphile. I love the number 13. While nothing bad has ever occurred to me on Friday the thirteenth, three of the greatest times I have ever had, happened on Friday the thirteenth. 
I was booked on Flight 666
On Friday, February 13, 1981 My Bloody Valentine premiered in North American theatres and I watched it with people who were dear to me and had a great time and that film has been the only thing that continues to pay me and that people remember from so many years ago. On Friday, May 13, 1983, about 20 of my cousins, Aunts and Uncles, my parents and my sister, one of my brothers and my 97 year old Grandmother came to see me perform in Walsh at the National Arts Centre. I gave one of the best performances I have in any play and partied with my family until the wee hours of the morning. It was the last time I saw my father healthy and we sang Willie Nelson songs and laughed until almost dawn. If it sounds like I am making this stuff up, the last one, no one will likely believe. On Friday September 13, 1985 I flew to Fredericton, New Brunswick to be best man at my cousin Dave's wedding. I was booked on Flight 666 out of Pearson airport. It was another great time. My cousin is not only still married, but to the same woman.  
Now there are some things I will not do. I will not walk under a ladder, but that is for the same reason I don't like to step in front of a moving bus. Danger abounds! There are stupid and clumsy people that stand on ladders that carry hammers, knives and air conditioners, any one of which, if dropped could cause significant damage to someone foolhardy enough to be walking under a ladder. Even if no one is on the ladder, they likely left their hammer, piano or whatever they were transporting precariously balanced on one of the steps so they wouldn't have to carry it back up after they finished their lunch... and then of course there is the ladder itself. Even today's lightweight aluminum alloy ladders would raise a large goose egg on the noggin of anyone trying to impress their date that they were not superstitious. 
A lot of superstition is based historically on common sense.
Which brings me to theatrical superstition. A lot of superstition is based historically on common sense. The reason that it is bad luck to whistle in a dressing room is attributed to one of two reasons. The first one is that before headsets it was believed that stagehands whistled their cues to each other. An idle whistler could be responsible for a 100 pound counterweight suddenly dropping on someone's head and causing considerable recasting problems. If the whistler was also the understudy it may raise suspicion of exactly how idle the whistling was in the first place. The second reason it is bad luck is somewhat more frightening. As dressing rooms were originally stacked one upon the other with the most important characters residing at stage level, whistling could throw the diva off pitch. Imagine the horror of some delicate featured little apprentice being charged at by burliest most powerful member of the company. If you were wiry enough to evade personal injury, you would still have to face unemployment... likely forever.
Another theatrical superstition is that it is bad luck to leave your shoes on the dressing room table. Some attribute this to be that it was a sign of respect to place the shoes of a dead coal miner on the table and by doing so for any other reason was tempting fate or being disrespectful. In a time when the black plague was prevalent, shoes were also associated with contamination. I well believe it. When I was working 12 hour days in stifling heat as a concrete worker, it would have been bad luck to find yourself in the same room with a pair of my boots. None of these explanations are particularly limited to the theatre, so perhaps it was bad luck for the same reason that you locked up your silverware when the theatre troupe was visiting. Employment in the theatre is tenuous in the best of times and a good pair of shoes bartered to the right broker may well see you through to your next gig. 
There is also that Scottish play. Yes, to say or quote Macbeth is supposed to be very bad luck indeed. In various versions of theatrical lore, in the very first staging of the play, the actor playing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth died just before, on, or just after opening night. Also legend has it that the Globe theatre burned down during a performance of Macbeth, but as it turns out it was actually Henry VIII. Okay, this sounds like straight superstition. I have another purely hypothetical theory. There have been a lot of bad productions of the play. Perhaps it is bad luck or bad taste to remind an actor of their abject failures before a performance. I saw a production of a musical called Goodtime Charley on Broadway in the 1975 starring Joel Grey. I thought it was abominable, but it was nominated for several Tonys. If Mr Grey felt the same way about it as I do, he would have undoubtedly referred to it as "that musical" and it would have been rude to bring it up in front of him.

Having said all this, I can assure you I am not in the least bit superstitious. I avoid doing all the things that are considered superstitious, but it is out of respect for those that are. Not me though. I don't believe any of it. Cross my heart and hope to die. Thanks for listening and break a leg everyone.

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