Comscore

re: What is truth vs. rumor about the 1973 death of Irene Ryan?

Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
OK. This issue has been bugging me for years, and I was wondering if someone could clear it up.

Irene Ryan was the original grandmother, Berthe, in "Pippin" on Broadway in 1972, singing the fantastic song, "No Time At All" and getting a posthumous Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (she lost to Patricia Elliot of "A Little Night Music.")

All during the 70s and 80s, people would swear to me that Ryan (Granny from "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the benefactress of the Irene Ryan acting award) "just finished her number, walked off stage and dropped dead right there."

Or something to that effect. Or even that she had collapsed onstage during the applause and died barely in the wings, etc.

I recently did an internet search on the topic and found lots of discrepancies between the versions. (So, I'm hoping that no one will just do the same thing and post the results.....Bear with me here.)

Sources agree on the date of her death 35 years ago, and the place of her burial. That is all they agree on.

For you see, you will find that she died either in New York City or in Santa Monica, California.

Some sources say she died of a brain tumor, and some say she died of a stroke.

Some say she knew she had a brain tumor, and some say she didn't know.

Some say she collapsed on stage, some in the wings, and some say not at the theater at all.

Some say she died the very day of her collapse, and some say she died "several days later."

Does anyone know or remember EXACTLY what happened? Or do we need to contact the Irene Ryan Foundation and ask them? (She had no immediate survivors.)

The "romance" in all this, of course, is that the song she sang so brilliantly is a joyful paean to living life to the fullest each day (even including a sly reference to her "Granny" persona), and folks instinctively feel that it is somehow fitting or suitable that she died during the run of the show, which by extension or assumption becomes during a performance of the show.

But what actually happened? Can we put the rumors to rest? As a remarkable performer (she wasn't really like Granny Clampett, you know, she was ACTING), and as a humanitarian, Miss Ryan deserves better, don't you think?

Any assistance will be appreciated........




Updated On: 10/29/08 at 10:53 PM
jayclay
Understudy
joined:9/11/08
Thanks for asking this question - it has bugged me for years too. I was a kid when I saw her performing in Pippin. At the time of her death I do remember hearing that she died back stage (I remember reading it in the paper or a magazine). But like you, when I recently tried to find more details I found all of the conflicting info. I can't help you, but I'm waiting to hear the answer!
dramamama611 Profile Photo
dramamama611
Broadway Legend
joined:12/4/07
My guess is that you will probably not be able to find out. Unless someone here happened to either be IN hte show at the time or personally knew her, anything that someone says is still just hearsay.

But I'd never heard any of that story...so thanks for asking anyway!
If we're not having fun, then why are we doing it? These are DISCUSSION boards, not mutual admiration boards. Discussion only occurs when we are willing to hear what others are thinking, regardless of whether it is alignment to our own thoughts.
miss pennywise Profile Photo
miss pennywise
Broadway Legend
joined:4/7/04
I was a kid, too, when I first saw PIPPIN. I didn't want to see it, but my parents "forced" me and tried to engage my interest with the fact that Irene Ryan was in it.

Well, it turns out that we went to the evening performance following Irene Ryan's last that afternoon. I was so bummed! When I found out the understudy was going on for "Granny Clampett," I was rather disappointed and kept asking my parents "What happened? Why isn't she appearing in the show tonight?" I bugged them so much that finally they asked someone who worked at the Imperial.

We were told that she had had a heart attack after the matinee (the date March 12 comes to mind, but it was a long, long time ago, so I could be off by a day or two). Her death was not announced for a while after that.

That's all I can tell you. I know it help much, but it's sort of a little trivia tidbit.
"Be on your guard! Jerks on the loose!"

http://www.roches.com/television/ss83kod.html

**********

"If any relationship involves a flow chart, get out of it...FAST!"

~ Best12Bars
Tom-497
Stand-by
joined:12/18/05
The New York Times/UPI story published on the day of her death says that she died in Santa Monica six weeks after having a stroke on stage in New York. She was in the Los Angeles area for treatment of the stroke.

While newspapers obviously don't always get everything right, it is unlikely that the Times article saying "SANTA MONICA, Calif ... Irene Ryan ... died today" was a month-and-a-half and 3000 miles off the mark.
Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
So if the NYT/UPI source is accurate, she died April 26, 1973 in Santa Monica, which is about six weeks after the March 12th date Miss Pennywise remembers (which is pretty WOW, if you ask me!).

But the papers said she collapsed "onstage" in New York? That's different than "after the matinee."

Were the ushers or other staff at the Imperial wrong about that? I can see that they may have confused a heart attack with a stroke, but why say "after" if it was "during?"

And where did the brain tumor or brain cancer reports come from, I wonder? That was not mentioned in the next day reporting?

Updated On: 10/29/08 at 12:09 AM
splendero03
Understudy
joined:8/26/06
I just looked up Irene Ryan's obituary from the April 27th, 1973 issue of the New York Times. It says she suffered a stroke on stage six weeks before and flew to Los Angeles for treatment on her doctors orders. I would assume that is the truth. The story I had always her was that they gave the curtain call at the end of a performance, the curtain rang down for last time and she dropped dead of a heart attack. It's a fun story but I'm not surprised to find out it is apocryphal. That's showbiz!
Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
However, if she collapsed right after the last curtain call, that would be both "onstage" and "after the matinee," wouldn't it? Maybe both versions are correct!!! Hmmm

But March 12th was a Monday that year, I see. Could it have been Wednesday, March 14th? Or Sunday the 11th? Were they doing two show Sundays--doubtful.
Updated On: 10/29/08 at 12:16 AM
BrodyFosse123 Profile Photo
BrodyFosse123
Broadway Legend
joined:2/27/06
The myth of her death is right up there with Jayne Mansfield, Mama Cass Elliot and Karen Carpenter.

Jayne Mansfield was NOT decapitated in her fatal car crash, Mama Cass did not die chocking on a ham sandwich and Karen Carpenter did not die anorexic.

Mansfield's wig ended-up on the shattered windshield so spectators thought that was her head; Mama Cass died of a heart attack brought on by her excessive weight and Carpenter was already back to a normal weight -- her heart failure came from years of battling anorexia.





So what does that make you, Brody? A zero-trick pony? - Wanna Be A Foster .........................The only power brody wields is in his own mind, joe. But it's amusing to watch him pretend nonetheless. - tazber
ZiggyCringe
Leading Actor
joined:5/16/05
I've wondered this for years!!!

Here's the thing. Everybody remembers something differently. I was working on a book where we tried to find out the truth of David Merrick ripping up the sheet music for "Meadowlark," and we talked to many people about it.

We got twelve different answers about something that happened once.

There were entertaining answers, there were boring answers, but no two people (who were all there for the event, thirty years ago), that matched.

Personally, I love the Irene Ryan story, and I HOPE it happened that way. I suspect it's mostly truthful.

But you never, ever know.

miss pennywise Profile Photo
miss pennywise
Broadway Legend
joined:4/7/04
If March 12 was a Monday in 1973, then I definitely saw it on Saturday, March 10, 1973. No question.

Who knows what really happened, but sometimes it's a very unglamorous ending that they try to make it out to sound so, oh I don't know, DRAMATIC! I mean, isn't it just so "perfect" for an actor to die "on stage"?

It's funny, but until tonight -- and this thread -- I never realized that my attendance that evening would actually help "solve" a mystery! All I know is that I've been carrying around this grudge for 35 years because I "missed her by that much"!

Maybe now I can finally let it go.
"Be on your guard! Jerks on the loose!"

http://www.roches.com/television/ss83kod.html

**********

"If any relationship involves a flow chart, get out of it...FAST!"

~ Best12Bars
Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
Well, there's the power of the internet for you! Wow, ladies and gentlemen....

And while it very well may be that she was alert and directing her course of treatment for some of those six weeks, I hope that her last moments weren't sad or painful. I hope that she could remember the joy she felt on stage, and the joy she brought to audiences.

Who would ever think that we would be thanking Motown Records for contributing to an intriguing legend and, I guess, an urban myth with what I think is their only original Broadway cast album!

And, really, with a song like that, what a way to go out!

What I wouldn't give for some bootleg video footage of her singing it.

Wonder if Stephen Schwartz is a BWWer and has any thoughts on the topic? Somebody ask somebody to ask him! There must be people still around who were there.....where's Ann Reinking???
BrodyFosse123 Profile Photo
BrodyFosse123
Broadway Legend
joined:2/27/06
Unfortunately... camcorders weren't around until the early 80's so no bootleg video exists of anything in the 70's. Also, Bob Fosse wasn't keen on having ANY of his theater work archived so none of this shows (PIPPIN, CHICAGO, DANCIN', BIG DEAL, etc.) were ever archived by the Lincoln Center or anyone. His reasoning was that his work needed to be seen 'live' and not on some tape, etc.

This lack of visual archiving of his work is what prompted the creation of what became the revue FOSSE. Chet Walker and Gwen Verdon wanted to notate and document Bob Fosse's work before it was lost forever. This idea was thought up when Bob Fosse was still alive but didn't actually come into creation until the success of the revival of CHICAGO in 1996.

As luck would have it, the original Broadway cast of PIPPIN performed "Magic to Do" on the 1973 Tony Awards -- live from the Imperial Theatre. I have this and cherish it dearly as PIPPIN was the very first show I saw on Broadway. I was 7 years old.

So what does that make you, Brody? A zero-trick pony? - Wanna Be A Foster .........................The only power brody wields is in his own mind, joe. But it's amusing to watch him pretend nonetheless. - tazber
jayclay
Understudy
joined:9/11/08
After I saw Pippin I wrote to Ben Vereen and asked for his autograph. He wrote "Long time sun be yours always". I've always loved that phrase and think of it often. It was the second autograph in my pretty decent collection - first was Jeff Fenholt from OBC JCS (my first B'way show). I was pretty upset at the time that Ben Vereen was not playing Judas the day I saw it, but I was thrilled to see him the next year in Pippin.
Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
I forgot to mention the most obvious thing of all--that the song refers to the singer's own death:

I believe if I refuse to grow old
I will stay young till I die

THERE'S the source of the legend. The MAGIC was provided by Miss Ryan's incandescent delivery of the number, complete with sing-along bouncing ball lyrics!
Gothampc
Broadway Legend
joined:5/20/03
A question I have is why would they move her from NYC to Santa Monica? It seems like her health would deteriorate by having to make such a journey in poor health. The only reason I can think for the move is that maybe she wanted to be in familiar surroundings.
If anyone ever tells you that you put too much Parmesan cheese on your pasta, stop talking to them. You don't need that kind of negativity in your life.
Updated On: 10/29/08 at 01:50 PM
CurtainPullDowner Profile Photo
CurtainPullDowner
Broadway Legend
joined:11/4/04
I wonder who will play Berthe in the Deaf West version?
Ryan is a tough act to follow, her rendition on the Original Cast Album is flawless.
Mimi Hines was wonderful in the LA production a few years ago.
morosco Profile Photo
morosco
Broadway Legend
joined:7/10/04
A very different recording of Ryan singing...
No Time at All
noradesmond Profile Photo
noradesmond
Stand-by
joined:10/29/08
I've always wanted to know more about this as well! I seem to remember hearing that she always left the theater after her number and never stayed for the curtain calls. That would seem to indicate that if she did indeed collapse at the theater, onstage or off, it would have been during the performance.
BrodyFosse123 Profile Photo
BrodyFosse123
Broadway Legend
joined:2/27/06
Thanks, morosco... for that link to the A&M promo single. As soon as she started singing the main first verse of the song, I was literally in tears. For some nostalgic reason, every song in PIPPIN always brings me to tears of melancoly. Its embarrassing to see me when the first chord of "Magic to Do" starts.

I'm back to being 7 years old all over again.

So what does that make you, Brody? A zero-trick pony? - Wanna Be A Foster .........................The only power brody wields is in his own mind, joe. But it's amusing to watch him pretend nonetheless. - tazber
JoeKv99 Profile Photo
JoeKv99
Broadway Legend
joined:12/27/04
I remember hearing as a child that she had finished her number and fallen ill and been unable to return for her curtain call. I have NO idea if that was true but it always seemed to be perfect.
No good can possibly come from using this vast wasteland of error and deliberate deceit. You should get off of it and warn others away. You should make sure your children and grandchildren know what a corrupt and morally bankrupt institution it truly is.
Dancin Thru Life Profile Photo
Dancin Thru Life
Broadway Star
joined:2/4/07
WOW!

Thanks for an awesome thread, PWT!

The discussion here serves as an absolutely fantastic tribute to an Actress and her talents.

I needed to read this today...and enjoyed the new info thoroughly!

The recording link really was the icing onthe cake!

God Bless Irene!

:)
"To love another person is to see the face of God!"
hox
Swing
joined:4/17/08
Pippin was the first BW show I saw. I loved it, I was 12. It was in july so she wasnt in it but everyone else was I think. I was in NYC for a dance workshop at the Waldorf and the day after I saw Pippin Ben Verene came and taught a jazz class, it was sooo cool. I love corner of the sky song and magic to do.
fashionguru_23 Profile Photo
fashionguru_23
Broadway Star
joined:4/21/08
I just posted the link of this thread on the "Ask Stephen" Forum on Stephen Schwartz's website. I asked if he could shead any light on the topic...Let's hope for a response!
"The 54th Street[theatre] had a rep as. . .where old musicals went to die." -Smaxie
TxTwoStep Profile Photo
TxTwoStep
Broadway Legend
joined:5/24/03
it also seems as if someone could ask Vereen directly, since he was there for the incident (unless, somehow, he was absent that performance and his understudy was on). Has Ryan ever been given one of those "video biographies" on the many channels that do that kind of thing? if so, lots of talking heads might weigh in.
Will: They don't give out awards for helping people be gay... unless you count the Tonys. "I guarantee that we'll have tough times. I guarantee that at some point one or both of us will want to get out. But I also guarantee that if I don't ask you to be mine, I'll regret it for the rest of my life..."
Paul W. Thompson Profile Photo
Paul W. Thompson
Broadway Legend
joined:11/29/07
I'm loving the resourcefulness of our BWW posters. And I'm loving the love for Miss Ryan and for "Pippin."

But the big question: Can this show be revived? It's kind of getting obvious that it hasn't been.........

1
Page:

 
Advertisement Advertisement