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Opinion

Last hurrah

There's worse ways to go than dying while doing what you love

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/4/2019 (472 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

All comedians dream of leaving them laughing — and that’s exactly what Ian Cognito did.

British comedian Ian Cognito. (Facebook)

British comedian Ian Cognito. (Facebook)

The British comedian made headlines around the world earlier this month when he dropped dead onstage minutes after joking with the audience about dying.

Cognito, 60, a British comedy veteran whose real name was Paul Barbieri, died during his stand-up show at the Atic bar in Bicester, an English town north of Oxford.

The show’s host, Andrew Bird, told the BBC that Cognito was not feeling well before going onstage, but insisted on performing. He said the comic even joked onstage: "Imagine if I died in front of you lot here."

During the show, Cognito — described in 2008 as the U.K.’s "most banned" comic — sat down on a stool, began breathing heavily, then fell silent for about five minutes.

Bird said the audience thought it was all part of the act, and continued to laugh, unaware anything was wrong. "Even when I walked onstage and touched his arm, I was expecting him to say ‘boo.’"

When they realized something was amiss, his fellow comedians ran onstage to help, along with two off-duty nurses and a police officer. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Atic bar owner Ryan Mold said that dying onstage was the way Cognito wanted to go, "except he’d want more money and a bigger venue."

Sadly, the veteran comic is far from the first person to die while doing what they loved, as we can see from today’s somewhat ghoulish list of Five Famous Performers Who Died With Their Metaphorical Boots On:

5) The drop-dead star: "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott

Dying with their boots on: It was not the kind of drama anyone expects to see at a heavy metal show. On Dec. 8, 2004, the rock band Damageplan — formed after the breakup of the popular metal band Pantera by Pantera’s legendary guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott — took the stage at Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus, Ohio.

Abbott, 38, was a big deal in the metal scene, considered one of the most influential guitarists in heavy metal history. On that night, four bands were on the bill at the club, with about 250 people paying US$8 per ticket.

In the darkness outside, Nathan Gale, 25, a stocky former marine, lay in wait. "A construction worker from Marysville, Ohio, a blue-collar suburb 25 miles northwest of Columbus, Gale stood 6-3 and weighed more than 250 pounds. He wore thick glasses and a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey jersey over a hooded sweatshirt," according to Rolling Stone magazine.

Ralph Duke / The Associated Press files</p><p>Damageplan guitarist Dimebag Darrell (right) was killed in 2004 by a deranged fan.</p></p>

Ralph Duke / The Associated Press files

Damageplan guitarist Dimebag Darrell (right) was killed in 2004 by a deranged fan.

When Damageplan took the stage, Gale jumped a six-foot fence and rushed into the club through a side door. The deranged fan was reportedly obsessed with heavy metal music and upset that Pantera had broken up, an acrimonious split he apparently blamed on guitarist Abbott.

Witnesses thought Gale, whose head was shaved, wanted to stage-dive. Onstage, Gale, whose mother said he was discharged from the military due to mental health issues, drew a Beretta 9-mm handgun and headed straight for Abbot, shooting him at least once in the forehead as the guitarist "was head-banging, his hair in his face."

Three other people — concert-goer Nathan Bray, band crew member Jeff Thompson and Alrosa Villa employee Erin Halk — died that night before a police officer entered from the backstage area with a 12-gauge shotgun and shot Gale once in the head, killing him. The deaths came on the 24th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon.

4) The drop-dead star: Jerome Rodale

Dying with their boots on: A publisher, editor and author, Rodale was one of the first advocates of sustainable agriculture and organic farming in the U.S. He’s the guy who popularized the term "organic" to describe growing food without pesticides.

"In the mid-20th century, Jerome Rodale (also known as J.I. Rodale) advocated some health habits considered pretty out there at the time but which are totally normal now: eating foods that weren’t loaded with antibiotics or eating local. Rodale wrote and spoke for years about how those and other healthy practices would extend his life span," according to entertainment site grunge.com.

In the end, his healthy lifestyle didn’t seem to help. The longevity guru died of a heart attack at the age of 72 while appearing as a guest on an early-evening taping of The Dick Cavett Show that was slated to be aired that same night, June 8, 1971.

During his interview on the talk show, Rodale had stated "I’m in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way"; "I’ve decided to live to be 100"; and "I never felt better in my life." He had also previously boasted: "I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver."

But he didn’t make it that far — minutes later he was dead, in front of a live studio audience. As Cavett interviewed his next guest, New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, Rodale slumped back in his seat, turned pale, and became unresponsive. Some reports say he let out a ghastly, guttural noise. "This looks bad," Hamill reportedly said to the TV host.

According to some, including a physician in the audience, Cavett said, "Are we boring you, Mr. Rodale?" But Cavett has emphatically denied that. Two doctors in the audience reportedly tried to revive the health guru with CPR and mouth-to-mouth, as did some firefighters who arrived on scene, but it was all to no avail. Rodale was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. The episode on which he died was never broadcast.

3) The drop-dead star: Irma Bule

Dying with their boots on: If there is anything worse than dropping dead onstage, it is probably being bitten by a gigantic poisonous snake before dropping dead. That, tragically, is what happened to Indonesian pop star Irma Bule in April 2016.

Bule, 29, was not exactly a household name in the English-speaking world, but in Indonesia she was a popular singer of "dangdut" — a pop fusion of folk, South Asian film music, and rock ‘n’ roll that rose to prominence in the 1980s.

"Dangdut is such an oversaturated musical genre in Indonesia that it’s not surprising how many artists employ gimmicks in their act to stand out from the rest," Coconuts Jakarta, one of a network of sites that cover urban areas in Asia, wrote at the time. "Unfortunately, dangdut singer Irma Bule’s deadly gimmick, combined with her dedication to showmanship, led to her untimely death."

What happened, according to the Washington Post, was Bule was performing in a village in West Java when she was presented with a venomous king cobra that was supposed to have been defanged. "My daughter might not have known that the snake that was given to her for the show was a dangerous cobra," Bule’s mother, Encum, told an Indonesian outlet quoted by the Daily Mail. "She was told she could wear it, even though its mouth was not closed with duct tape."

Bule was known for performing with live snakes, but in this case, during her second song, she accidentally stepped on the snake’s tail, and it reared up and bit her in the thigh, injecting deadly venom into her bloodstream. Though a snake handler with a venom antidote was on hand, the oblivious singer continued to perform for 45 minutes before collapsing.

"The effects were felt 45 minutes after the bite," witness Ferlando Octavion Auzura said. "She vomited, had seizures, and her body seized." The singer, who had three young children, was taken to hospital, and pronounced dead on arrival.

2) The drop-dead star: Dick Shawn

Dying with their boots on: If you are a person of a certain age, you will remember Dick Shawn. The American actor/comedian was well known for his roles in movies such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Producers as well as appearances on TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Three’s Company and Magnum, P.I.

He performed his standup act for 35 years, and also famously was the voice of Snow Miser on the holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus. But the laughter came to a shocking end on April 17, 1987, during a performance at the University of California, San Diego’s Mandeville Hall, where an audience of about 500 gathered to watch the award-winning comedian.

The goofy show began with Shawn performing a sketch where he played a disembodied head on a dinner table, then comically danced out of time to some music. "Next, Shawn launched into a routine about the end of the world, during which he lay down on the stage and stayed completely still," grunge.com writes. "The audience thought it was part of the bit, that Shawn was pretending to be dead. The end of the world is about people being dead, after all."

What they didn’t realize in the moment was that Shawn had collapsed after suffering a fatal heart attack. The audience thought it was just a comedian milking it for laughs. Tom Wartelle, an audience member that night, told the L.A. Times, "There were comments from the audience like, ‘Take his wallet’" and that "it all blended in very well" with Shawn’s act.

After the comic didn’t move for five minutes, the laughter stopped, a doctor rushed onto the stage, tried to find a pulse and flipped Shawn onto his back. The audience, unsure what was going on, was ordered out while CPR was performed on the entertainer. A notice in the San Diego Union newspaper the next day revealed Shawn had died onstage at the age of 63.

1) The drop-dead star: Louis Vierne

Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files</p><p>Philippe Lefebvre plays the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. </p>

Christophe Ena / The Associated Press files

Philippe Lefebvre plays the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Dying with their boots on: The fire that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday has devastated Paris and much of the world. Fortunately, the cathedral’s famed organ — which had survived two world wars, including a couple of bombs that hit the cathedral during the first — was not destroyed, though it remains unclear how much damage it sustained.

That organ is no stranger to tragedy on a historic level. On June 2, 1937, it was the site of what has been called "the most epic death in music history," the final moments of the famed French organist and composer Louis Vierne.

By all accounts, Vierne had a hard life — he was legally blind, his wife cheated on him, one son died of TB, a second died in the First World War and he was injured in a devastating fall, but he achieved his loftiest goal — becoming resident organist at Notre Dame Cathedral. "Louis Vierne, who became organist there in 1900, left behind six great symphonies and other works that are still played all over the world today," the Washington Post reported after Monday’s inferno gutted the architectural treasure.

On the day of his death, Vierne was performing what he claimed to be his 1,750th concert in the cathedral. It was all fine, until the moment came for him to improvise a piece on a theme submitted to him on a piece of paper. Here’s what organist Michael Murray says in his book French Masters of the Organ: "Having reflected a moment and drawn some stops, Vierne slumped toward the keyboards, his hand clutching his chest, and fell from the bench, hitting a pedal note that reverberated down the nave. In the throes of a heart attack, he began to lose consciousness before the echo faded away. He died a few minutes later."

As the silence grew in the cathedral, it became clear that note was his last. "Vierne often stated that it was his wish to die at his console. Whether or not he was serious, Vierne got his wish," according to the website grunge.com. And the same might be said of everyone on today’s list.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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