Fun and Games Backstage
By John Bennett
For many of us professional musicians, life in the fast lane can be hectic and sometimes downright stressful. Through the years, many musicians learned to cope with that stress by becoming practical jokers and spinners of funny stories.
Take for example, this fun story about CLARK TERRY, legendary trumpeter of the jazz world:
Once, while on tour of jazz clubs around the country, Clark misplaced his trademark plunger mute. Before the gig, he found his way to a nearby hardware store ( and not telling the clerk that he was a musician) asked the clerk to show him some toilet plungers. After looking through a pile of the usual rubber items, Clark said "This one will do fine" and started to walk to the cash register to pay.
The clerk asked "Don't you want the stick that goes with it?"
Clark answered "I never use one "
"Oh man, that's GROSS!...gasped the clerk!
JOE VENUTI was a very talented jazz violinist with the famous Paul Whiteman orchestra of the 1920's and remained a very active performer well into the 1970's .Along with his considerable talents as a jazzer, Joe was also recognized king of the practical jokers who added spice to many a gig. No one was safe when Venuti was around.
Here's a classic story:
PAUL WHITEMAN (who had no sense of humor whatsoever) with his large "Symphonic Jazz Orchestra" was touring the country playing theatre dates. Joe Venuti, along with BIX BEIDERBECK, JACK TEAGARDEN and TOMMY DORSEY again was a featured soloist. Every concert began with the traditional timpani roll and tuba trilling the same note. As Whiteman, in his stylish tuxedo strolled onstage to be introduced, the audience sat on the edge of their seats in anticipation of a great evening of symphonic jazz music.
One night just before the downbeat, Venuti sneaked onstage with a ten pound sack of fluffy white flour and dumped it down the upright bell of the tuba sitting onstage. When showtime came, the timpanist played a loud roll and when the tuba player trilled his bottom note…billowing clouds of white flour shot out of the bell like a volcano erupting all over the black suited orchestra!
Watching helplessly, Whiteman boiled, bubbled and burned to a redfaced crisp while the devilish Venuti, laughing hysterically, peered through the side curtains!
BITSY MULLINS, former lead trumpet with the TOMMY and JIMMY DORSEY orchestras was overheard talking to his good friend BILL HODGES, another fine lead trumpet from the BENNY GOODMAN band:
"I could play higher, but my left arm keeps giving out!
JOHN HUDGENS , a fine lead trumpet with the WARREN COVINGTON/ TOMMY DORSEYand TED WEEMS orchestras was a dyed in the wool practical joker. He constantly played tricks and jokes on his band buddies, but one night at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas , the other guys got their revenge.
Because John always seemed to have a dry mouth when playing, he would go onstage with a pitcher of water to drink during the two-shows a night gig and placed it under his music stand. One night , as the spotlighted singing star was doing her thing at center stage and the band sat in the dark, John poured himself his usual drinks of water and slurped them down.
As the last notes of the show were played, John heard a noise coming from his frosted pitcher…a sort of splashing and flopping sound. While his band buddies looked on and cackled wildly, John peered in the pitcher and found a bright orange goldfish flopping around inside. His water had a special flavor that night!
Here's one last Venuti story:
During the late 1940's, after World War II , the hot places for bands of all sizes to play were the movie theatres that featured Saturday morning kiddie matinees. Usually theatres like this would have jugglers , comedians, puppeteers or other acts who would do their thing and entertain kids before the movie was shown.
Lumped together on one of these tours was the unlikely combination of JOE VENUTI and ROY ROGERS with Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies! Most of the theatre marquees would have the name of Roy Rogers in giant letters , Trigger's name below that in slightly smaller letters and finally in almost tiny letters , Joe Venuti. Of course, having the super ego that goes along with being a super star. Joe hated having his name below a horse and schemed to get even.
On one sunny Saturday morn , things came quickly to a head. With the theatre full of rowdy kids, Troy was onstage singing his heart out and Trigger waited patiently in the wings to be called onstage for his part of the show. Venuti said to himself " That's it…….enough is enough!"
With his violin bow, Venuti began tickling the plumbing of Trigger…who, by the way was a frisky full-blown stud who had never been cut. Sure enough, Joe got the desired result and out flopped a king-sized "Smartest Horse in the Movies" schlanger!
As Roy finished his last song and whistled Trigger onstage , the palomino galloped out in all his erect studly glory…while kids laughed and cheered and moms screamed. Roy almost fainted.
Offstage, Joe Venuti laughed himself almost into hysterics over that one…the perfect revenge.
John Bennett , author of these (hopefully) funny tales is busy compiling stories to be included in his upcoming book about musician humor. He has been a fulltime working professional trumpet player for over 45 years. After working with the woody Herman band alongside Bill Chase, Don Rader , Bill Berry and Paul Fontaine, John played lead with the big bands of Sam Donahue/Tommy Dorsey, Warren Covington and Buddy Morrow. He then migrated to the show bands of Las Vegas where he worked for over 33 years.