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When Bullets Flew

Photo: Rob Drummond in Bullet Catch. Bullet Catch is at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor on January 7-12, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Reviewing Bullet Catch for the New York Times a few months ago, Charles Isherwood noted that while the sound of gunfire onstage is hardly unusual, the shots in Bullet Catch “are more unsettling than most.” That’s because they’re real, because they’re fired by a volunteer from the audience, and because they’re aimed straight at the head of performer and creator Rob Drummond.

Drummond’s 75-minute show re-creates a stage trick that took off in Europe in the 17th century and remained popular well into the 19th—and on more than one occasion proved lethal. Drummond claims he’s exploring the idea of free will as an “illusion” by re-enacting the perilous stunt—and inviting an audience volunteer to join him—but Isherwood finds the whole thing “in terrible taste,” even though Drummond gives audiences a chance to leave just before the climactic “bullet catch.”

Performance trailer

I suspect Isherwood would have been none too happy with the 19th-century American stage, where actors repeatedly pulled out—and used—real firearms in yet another chapter in this country’s long and tumultuous love affair with guns. Before its renovation in the 1990s, my own favorite theater, the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, built in 1852, was thought to bear the scar of at least one bullet on its proscenium arch—the result of a misfire by Buffalo Bill during one of his six appearances there between 1873 and 1882.

Buffalo Bill.

William F. Cody—aka Buffalo Bill—was perhaps the most famous practitioner of the so-called American “border drama,” but he had plenty of company. Go to a show in the late-19th century in one of the nearly 4,000 theaters that stretched across the nation, and you were likely to stumble on a play about Davy Crockett or Jesse James or Daniel Boone, about pioneers or rangers, miners or sharpshooters or Mormons with “one hundred wives.” The real American frontier may have been in its death throes, but the stage version was alive and well.

Audiences poured into theaters to see real “marksmen,” “sharpshooters,” “wing shots,” “rifle shots,” and “dead shots” shatter glass balls and tempt disaster. In his prairie dramas and Wild West shows, Buffalo Bill shot apples and potatoes from women’s heads and cigars from men’s mouths, often holding his rifle upside-down or firing backwards with the help of a mirror.

Cody seldom misfired, but others weren’t so lucky. On November 30, 1882, Frank Ivers Frayne killed his fiancee in front of a crowd of 2,300 inside Cincinnati’s Coliseum Theater.

Famed for the spectacular shooting stunts he wove into the plots of his plays (most of them set in the American West), Frayne was an expert marksman, capable of extinguishing a candle with a bullet, shooting a pipe out of a ranch hand’s mouth, firing a bullet through the rope of an innocent man about to be hanged, and shooting two guns simultaneously in two different directions, so that bullets shattered objects on either side of the stage—all tricks he performed during his 20-odd years of touring the country’s theaters. He taught his wife and two kids to shoot as well, and they often performed with him.

The backward shot

In his most daring stunt, “the backward shot,” Frayne blasted an apple off his wife’s head while propping his rifle on his shoulder and focusing in a mirror. (According to one account, the bullet sometimes not only pierced the apple but also triggered another rifle aimed at a plate suspended inches above Frayne’s head.) Ads reassured nervous theatergoers that the “backward shot” looked more dangerous than it was, because the actress wore a chain mail skullcap, and the apple rested on a six-inch hat.

After his wife’s death in 1880—apparently from natural causes—Frayne hired a 23-year-old actress named Annie Von Behren to be his assistant in the stunt, and the two became engaged.

At a matinee performance on Thanksgiving afternoon in Cincinnati on November 30, 1882, Frayne set up his backward shot as usual and pulled the trigger. A sudden burst of smoke enveloped his head, burning Frayne’s face and neck. The unexpected blast shoved the barrel of his rifle down by a few lethal inches, and with 2,300 people looking on, a bullet shattered Annie’s forehead. “My God! My God! What have I done?” Frayne bellowed as he rushed to her side. The curtain came down, and backstage, with Frayne moaning beside her, Annie Von Behren died. Frayne was charged with manslaughter but exonerated. He resumed performing in early 1883, some four weeks after the accident, but in a nod to safety he abandoned his most dangerous stunts. He continued to tour until his death in 1891.

Neither Frayne nor his promoters seemed to mind capitalizing on the tragedy. Announcements for his shows invariably mentioned Annie’s death, with graphic accounts of Frayne’s rushing to her and swooning over her corpse. The actor, papers reported, “is broken down with uncontrollable grief.” It was all theater—as is, I sometimes think, our contemporary fascination with guns and the tragedies they spawn.

And as I hope Bullet Catch will be. Asked if either the audience or he himself is in actual danger during the show, Rob Drummoned has said, “Them, no. Me, yes.” I have a sneaking suspicion I may be one of those audience members who heads for the exit when given the chance.

Interested to know Leslie’s post-performance response? Come back to UMS Lobby’s “People are Talking” section after the performance.

5 Curiosities about Bullet Catch

Photo: Rob Drummond in Bullet Catch. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A stunt so dangerous that Houdini refused even to attempt it, the magic trick known as the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 12 illusionists, assistants, and spectators since its conception in 1613. Director Rub Drummond explores the history of the Bullet Catch, including the true story of William Henderson, who died in 1912 attempting the infamous trick. Bullet Catch is (at Arthur Miller Theatre January 7-12), and in preparation, we’ve dug up 5 curious facts about the trick.

Behind the Scenes with Rob Drummond

This post is a part of a series of playlists curated by artists, UMS Staff, and community. Check out more music here.
Photo: Harry Houdini (1874-1926) vanishing Jennie, the elephant, performing at the Hippodrome, New York. Photo by White Studio.

We asked Rob Drummond, director, writer, and performer of Bullet Catch (at Arthur Miller Theatre January 7-12) to put together a playlist for us, maybe something having to do with magic. A stunt so dangerous that Houdini refused even to attempt it, the magic trick known as the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 12 illusionists, assistants, and spectators since its conception in 1613. Drummond explores the history of the Bullet Catch, including the true story of William Henderson, who died in 1912 attempting the infamous trick.

Rob Drummond: This is admittedly an unusual and eclectic mix but then again I don’t trust anyone who only likes one type of music just as I don’t trust someone who only likes action movies or only likes pizza. Common People is my favourite song of all time – I won a talent competition singing it when I was fifteen. Killing in the Name Of is one to lose yourself to in a disco at three in the morning. Al Wilson’s The Snake tells a great story and is really an allegory for domestic abuse, which is hard to pull off in a finger snapping big band style. Elvis is just Elvis. Sinatra, ditto. Magic by ‘The Boss’ is the exit music for Bullet Catch and It’s a Kind of Magic used to be the opening song in the much cheesier version of the show from circa 2008. Cee Lo Green’s joyously incongruous use of the most satisfying of expletive phrases is just a fun fun song. My twin niece and nephews used to sing along with the clean version (Forget You). And lastly, a song from my past as Francie and Josie, the greatest Scottish comedy double act of all time (available on YouTube), sing about the quaint single track transport system enjoyed by my Grandparents and upon which I now travel every day.

“Glasgow Underground” by Francie and Josie:

What did you think about this playlist? Share your thoughts or song suggestions in the comments below.