Black cats, actors' toes, rabbits' feet, and peacocks' feathers all regarded as bad or lucky omens


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 6. Charles Burnham. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1919. p. 356.

SUPERSTITIOUS beliefs old as the hills and numerous as "glittering gems of morning dew," still obtain with many of those connected with the theatre. It is not confined to the minor members of the profession nor to the actor alone, managers themselves frequently placing confidence in many of these various omens.

Dion Boucicault, the noted actor and playwright of former days, declared that most of the superstitious beliefs attached to the theatre originated in the continental cities of Europe, where the ballet predominated, members of this branch of the profession being particularly susceptible. They had unbounded faith in the belief that should they take part in any production where the scenery used was painted blue, misfortune in the form of death or loss of salary would be their lot. Only when scenery was decorated with silver ornamentation would they consent to appear, silver being supposed to remove the evil attributed to the use of blue.

Another of their dogmas to which they attached the utmost faith was that participation in a rehearsal on Sunday would bring disaster to the theatre or its people. The story is told that when "Jim" Fisk was manager of the Grand Opera House in New York, he called a Sunday rehearsal of the ballet he had imported from Europe. They came to the theatre, but absolutely refused to take part, and when later in the week Fisk was shot, they pointed to it as irrefutable evidence of their contention.

THERE is a well-known "star" now before the public who inherits the ballet-girls' belief that a color can convey misfortune. At one period in his career he essayed a Shakespearean character for which he was unsuited and made a failure of it. The morning following his appearance in the rôle, he entered the theatre in a most excited state and proceeded to berate his manager, blaming him for the failure. When the astonished manager inquired the reason why, he was told it was all due to the fact that the printing used to advertise the "star" had been printed with green ink, and he should have known that green was the actor's unlucky color.

There is an old custom still in vogue that on the opening night of a new play, no person presenting a free ticket shall be admitted until a paid ticket has been deposited in the box. Unless this procedure is observed, believers in "signs" prophesy failure for the play. William Wheatley, a prominent actor and manager, directed the fortunes of the Niblo's Garden in 1866, when "The Black Crook" was first presented. On the opening night, Wheatley stood by the side of the doorkeeper to watch the entrance of the enormous crowd waiting patiently to get into the theatre. First to try was a woman, when Wheatley suddenly sprang forward and literally threw her away from the door. "You must not be first," he cried to the astonished and affrighted visitor,--"to admit a woman first would be to ruin the success of the play."

IN speaking of the incident afterwards, he insisted that, while in no way superstitious, he attributed the great success which the play attained, as being partly due to his having refused to allow a woman to be the first to enter his theatre on opening night.

A black cat is supposed to be an infallible source of good luck about a theatre and all dark felines are treated with the greatest care and consideration. Even so famous a play-house as the Théâtre Français possesses one of these animals and it is considered a privileged character in that classic temple of the drama. Fortunate, indeed, does any member of that institution consider him or herself if when entering the theatre the cat meets him at the door, and doubly fortunate the lucky one the cat might brush against while in the theatre.

MANY stories have been told of the black cat domiciled at one time in the Haymarket Theatre, London. One writer said the possession of the animal was: "A case where the management took time by the fore-lock by having puss wander among the audience on an opening night. She came and perched herself by my chair and I really am confident I enjoyed the play the more."

On the first night of Henry Irving's appearance in New York in "Faust," a black cat belonging to the theatre strayed upon the stage while the play was in progress, and ensconced itself to one side of the scene out of the actors' way. The flashes of lightning, the flaming sheets of fire and the almost continuous roll of stage thunder used in the drama failed to disturb the serenity of the animal and it remained fixedly in its position until the fall of the curtain. In speaking with Mr. Irving the following morning, regarding the incident, as to whether it had distracted his attention, he answered with his proverbial smile: "Not at all. It was a well behaved spectator, and perhaps other spectators may have thought it contributed to the success of the night."

NOT long since a well-known actor was on his way home after a jovial evening spent in his club, when in crossing the street he was thrown down by a cat which darted suddenly between his feet. A passing automobile gave him a slight wound and when commiserated with by those who came to his assistance he replied: "I call that a piece of luck. Did you notice it was a black cat? I sure am going to have something good come my way." His belief was realized--he had two weeks' excellent care in a hospital.

There is a certain race of people who have great faith in the belief that ownership of a rabbit's hind foot will ward off disaster. It may have been that some such idea as this was in the mind of the great actor Edmund Kean, when on his visit to America, he caused the remains of another great actor, George Frederick Cooke, to be re-interred in another spot in St. Paul's Churchyard. Kean had the casket opened and appropriated one of the toe-bones of the actor (some authorities claim it was a part of the forefinger), which he preserved for many years as a talisman. Kean, the story relates, was possessed with the same belief in signs which most of the actors of this day entertained and gave his relic credit for carrying good luck with it.

On his return to England, the company from the Drury Lane Theatre went to meet him, in order to grace his entry into the metropolis. On encountering Kean, they were about to welcome him, when he stopped them.

"Before you say a word, my friends, behold! Fall down and kiss this relic! This is the toe-bone of the greatest creature that ever walked the earth--George Frederick Cooke. Come, down with you all, and kiss the bone."

The little black relic was then produced and each actor in his turn fell upon his knees and kissed it till all had performed the ceremony. Kean preserved the relic for many years, the story continues, with the greatest reverence, until one day, Mrs. Kean in a fit of passion, flung it from the window. Kean never knew what became of his talisman, and in mourning its loss would frequently say to his brother actors: "I feel as if I had lost my dearest friend."

For all the admiration bestowed upon that vain bird, the peacock, the belief in the ill-luck that attends the possession of its feathers is wide-spread; particularly in theatre-land.

WHEN Helena Modjeska was appearing in New York during one of her engagements, a friend sent her on opening night a most beautiful fan made from the feathers of the bird of superstition. She handed it to her husband with a cry of aversion and he immediately carried it to the basement of the theatre and threw it into the furnace. When asked why he did not give such a beautiful gift to someone who had no superstitious beliefs in its ill-luck or else return it to the sender, he replied: "The harm would still be there for Madame had touched it and therefore it must be destroyed."

A well-known English writer tells how great surprise was expressed at the appearance in the production of a Christmas pantomime in London of the character representing Juno, without anything in her dress to associate her with the peacock, the bird dedicated to the "Queen of Heaven." An inquirer was told that the omission was not accidental, but designed, theatrical people having a superstitious aversion to the peacock in any form appearing on the stage.

It remained for the manager of a theatre in New York to shatter the efficacy of this pet theory when, in erecting one of the most beautiful and costly playhouses in the country, he caused the proscenium arch to be decorated with facsimiles of the dreaded bird arrayed in all its glory. Many there were who prophesied dire happenings for this outrage upon one of the most sacred tenets of the believer in "signs," but the passing years have failed to see one of their predictions verified.

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