<strong>DON’T WALK UNDER A LADDER – BAD LUCK!</strong>
Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte
Lucky Ladybug. Lucky penny. Lucky horseshoe. Friday the 13th. Knock on wood. Hundreds of superstitions and rituals flow through our lives, although we smile at the mention of such things, like throwing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder. For an Italian, never put only two coffee beans in a snifter of Sambucca—bad luck.
Superstitions have been around since man stood up on two legs. Often they have been absorbed through family beliefs, traditions, and cultures. Some even began with common sense. I won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house, but athletic and artistic pursuits are riddled with ritual and superstition.
Athletes and artists are more disposed to rely on them because the common ground they share is the pressure of constant uncertainty. Despite the advances in education, communication, and science, even without outside forces promoting superstition or rigid ritualistic preparations, one incident, one supposed object of good fortune, can immediately create a sense of security. Many psychologists believe that the dependency on ritualistic practices and superstitions, when observed devoutly, actually helps the individual feel more confident that they’ve done everything to keep the fates on their side.
No athlete, regardless of how gifted or trained, can be sure of the outcome of a contest. No artist, regardless of talent, training, and rehearsal if a performer, can know whether or not a show will be good or well-received. And worse, despite the athletes’ and artists’ best efforts, they have no long–term assurances. Will they be injured? Will they be picked up again after a contract expires? Will they be re-hired for another show or dance company? And added to these stresses is the pressure of the ticking clock. Most athletes and artists have a limited shelf life.
Baseball’s Wade Boggs had a five-hour pregame ritual of obsessive detail and ate nothing but chicken for twenty years. He even wrote Fowl Tips, a book on his favorite chicken recipes. And long ago, baseball legend Babe Ruth always stepped on second base on his way in from the outfield.
Tennis superstar Bjorn Borg’s entire family maintained a complicated routine of pregame habits, and Borg never shaved once a tournament began. During tennis tournaments, one might notice that some players will wear the same outfit every day, especially if they’re winning.
Then there are the superstitions that weave through the arts.
In music, there is the Curse of the Ninth. For a long time, a rumor circulated that any composer who wrote a ninth symphony would die soon after, if not while actually creating a ninth symphonic masterpiece. The suspicion of a curse began with Ludvig Von Beethoven. After completing his ninth, he died at age 56, on March 26, 1827, of post-hepatic cirrhosis of the liver. Antonin Dvorak died not long after finishing his ninth, which he named and gave a different number, but the fates were not fooled. Dvorak died of a stroke at age 62, on May 1, 1904, after completing his New World Symphony, which was, in fact, his ninth. Perhaps the man who thrust this particular superstition into the public eye was Gustav Mahler.
It was well-known amongst Mahler’s colleagues that he was obsessed and paranoid about the issue of death after composing the ninth symphony. He did all he could to circumvent the curse by calling his ninth “Das Lied von der Erde – Song of the Earth, and almost immediately after its completion, he settled into writing his tenth but escaping the curse was not to be. Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911. He was 50 years young.
Of course, other composers wrote more than nine and survived. Mozart wrote 48, and he died in 1791. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 101 and died in 1804, but they lived and composed before Beethoven’s fame.
In the world of opera, while Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the earliest to have earned a reputation for trouble, it is Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino that had the most fatalities. The most dramatic of these is the tragic death of Leonard Warren.
On stage at the Metropolitan Opera on March 4, 1960, in the middle of Solenne in quest ora, (Solemn in this hour), Warren collapsed onstage and died in the wings. More than any other opera, La Forza del Destino fills opera singers with superstitious fears. The late, great Luciano Pavarotti, who sang every other opera in the Italian repertoire, refused to sing Forza.
The ballet world has its own list of rituals and superstitions. Never allow another dancer to put their feet in your pointe shoes. Dancers have an assortment of lucky charms and objects ranging from lucky dolls to stuffed animals. Rituals include lining up makeup and hairpins precisely, preparing for a show. And to wish good luck to a ballet dancer, there is only one acceptable word: Merde!
The French word, literally meaning feces, began for practical reasons. Many centuries ago, horses were used backstage to help move sets and backdrops, and of course, the animals had droppings of their own. Dancers would whisper, merde, and point at the steaming lumps to help each other avoid stepping in the mounds. In time, the use of the word expanded because the horse-drawn carriages pulling up in front of the theatres also left calling cards – and the more calling cards, the better, since that meant they’d have a full house.
In modern times, designer Coco Chanel was supposedly informed by a fortune-teller that her lucky number was 5. Hence, Chanel # 5 – her famed fragrance. She also liked to present her new collections on May 5 for good luck.
Before every fashion show, Diane Von Furstenberg taped a gold twenty-dollar piece given to her by her father during WW II in her shoe.
Artist Pablo Picasso kept his hair trimmings and fingernail clippings for fear that he’d be throwing away part of “his essence” if he discarded them. At the same time, Salvatore Dali carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help “ward off evil spirits.”
Charles Dickens always slept facing north and carried a navigational compass with him at all times to ensure his position, while Dr. Seuss kept a collection of hundreds of hats in his secret closet. When he had writer’s block, he’d go to his closet and choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired.
Yoko Ono lit matches and watched the flame extinguish in a dark room to relieve the stress of sound and light. Later this private ritual became public with her performance called Lighting Piece.
In theaters throughout the world, many well-known superstitions reign supreme even today. Here are a few that have retained their power through the years. A bad dress rehearsal means the show will be a hit; Blue should not be worn on stage; The ghost light must always be on when the stage is empty; Mirrors on stage are bad luck; Never whistle backstage; Say break a leg, not good luck; AND NEVER EVER say Macbeth in the theater unless it’s part of the script.
From this intriguing confluence of reason and ritual, science and superstition, come opportunities for creating more drama.
In Book Two of my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, reason challenges superstition, curses, and rituals. When Mrs. B.’s son moves to Austin and becomes a partner in the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company and Rue de l” Histoire Theatre, strange things happen. When the ballet company prepares for its world premiere of Macbeth, Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn find themselves entangled in Shakespearean superstition and death.
First, the stage manager disappears. Then his dead body falls from a light bridge. A prop breaks free of its wire during a rehearsal, nearly killing Mrs. B.’s daughter-in-law and injuring a young dancer, and the theater is temporarily shut down for a safety inspection. Still, the dancers and stagehands worry, wondering if it’s the Macbeth curse at work.
As fears, and superstitions grow, can Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn use their powers of reason and deduction in time to unravel the mystery before anyone else dies and the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company is ruined? Or perhaps there are other factors at work beyond human control.
Huggett Richard. Supernatural on Stage, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1975
Crawley, Peter. Break a leg Macbeth: why are actors so superstitious?
Han, Isaac. Why Did Composers Write Only Nine Symphonies? Curse or Superstition?
Roberts, Maddy Shaw – What is the Curse of the Ninth – and does it really exist?
Robinson, Mark. 13 Theater Superstitions.
Weinsten, Ellen. The superstitious Rituals of Highly Creative People, from Salvatore Dali to Yoko Ono.