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OUT OF THE VAULT: Practical joke creates mad stampede

Published on November 4, 2017 3:00AM

A vaudeville actor played a practical joke on a group of musicians in November of 1917 and created such a stir that the theater where he was performing was cleared in a matter of minutes.

Gerald McCormick, a member of a vaudeville team playing the Alta theater in Pendleton on Nov. 14, 1917, was a handsome Irishman with the ability to alter his features to the extreme, a useful skill for a man in his line of work. During that afternoon McCormick inserted false tusks in his mouth, ruffled up his hair, hunched his shoulders and distorted his facial features, then walked into Alta manager C.G. “Guy” Matlock’s private office, demanding whisky in a husky voice. Matlock was so frightened that he was a nervous wreck for the remainder of the day.

McCormick was so pleased he decided to continue his prank, with Matlock in on the joke. Early in the evening a stagehand heard a hoarse voice crying “I want whisky,” and turned to see the most horrible face he could imagine. He fled and told the other stagehands and members of the orchestra, who were in the restroom under the stage, about the wild man he had seen. Matlock, who was present in the company of McCormick, also related his experience. Members of the orchestra began to feel uneasy, while McCormick slipped out of the room.

Suddenly, a great shaggy head thrust itself through the door of the orchestra pit and said, in a guttural voice, “I want whisky.” The piano player shrieked and made for the door to the orchestra pit, but the male musicians were faster. Out through the orchestra pit they ran, and members of the audience, seeing the terror on their faces but not knowing the cause, joined the stampede out of the building.

Matlock, knowing the joke had gone too far, jumped to the stage in an attempt to allay the panic, but only the people in the first few rows heard him. Men, women and children joined the race for the exits, though strangely enough no one thought the building was on fire. Someone suggested perhaps an armed German spy was hiding backstage. The Alta was emptied in a matter of minutes.

Outside on the sidewalk, people began to feel a bit sheepish and questioned the cause of the stampede. No one knew, and many didn’t want to know. About half of the crowd returned to the safety of their homes to hide their agitation, while the rest braved the theater again to watch the show.


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