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  • January 12th, 2011

Stage Fright

By Joel M. Vance

Ben Franklin said that death and taxes are the only inevitabilities in life, but I’d add the inevitability of being asked to perform in public.  Sooner or later someone will ask you to give a program, make a presentation, accept an award or otherwise put yourself at risk of humiliation in front of an audience.

“Imagine they all are naked,” is the advice often given to those with flop sweat.  As rampant as my imagination is (I can, for example, imagine Angelina Jolie naked with no problem whatever), I could not mentally disrobe an audience.  Instead I imagine them as Visigoths, armed with studded clubs, dressed in animal skins and with eyes as red as those of a hungry jaguar.

Death, taxes, public performance–of the three, the latter is the most terrifying.  You don’t have to think about dying.  You just do it and no one will be critical of the way you did it. Taxes are traumatic when you don’t pay them.  But an audience is chock-full of critics, all of whom are just waiting for you to fart loudly or succumb to projectile vomiting in the middle of your slide show.

A few folks have managed to combine death and performance.  The great Metropolitan Opera baritone Leonard Warren died on stage, ironically during a performance of Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny.”  And Brooklyn Dodger mogul Branch Rickey suffered a fatal heart attack while accepting his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Most people faced with their first public performance (or, for some, every performance) would welcome death rather than the terror of facing an expectant audience.  My first encounter with public performance was enough to queer the rest of my life, and I’ve often wished it had.  I was 15 years old and my mother talked me into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for the Methodist Church congregation.

Aside from a geriatric lady who fell asleep in a front pew, syncopating my quavering song with snoring, it was a sympathetic audience.  Then a somnolent wasp lost its balance and fell on my neck.  Apparently it blamed me for its clumsiness for it stung me and I exclaimed “God damn!” which was both appropriate and inappropriate, given the setting.

I didn’t stand before an audience of more than two or three for many years after that, but part of my job as a writer for the Missouri Department of Conservation was to make public appearances.

One was at a turkey calling contest in Hermann, a German town fond of its beer.  And there was an open bar during the contest. By the time I rose to give a stirring address on conservation there were a number of rowdy drunks milling around the beer tap.

My fervent pleas for habitat preservation were punctuated by guys demanding loudly, “Hey, gimme another one uh them sumbitches!”  Finally I ground to a halt, like an overloaded freight train.

A fellow who had spent most of the evening sampling the lager, weaved over to me afterward and said, “You Joel Vance?”  I modestly admitted that I was.  “You the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine?” he challenged.

Now that is the kind of question for which there is no saving answer.  You admit you write bullshit or you say that you’re not the guy who writes it, an obvious lie, making you both a liar and a purveyor of bullshit.  “Hey, Charlie!” he shouted at a fellow halfway across the gym.  Heads turned.  “You know who this is!” he bellowed, indicating me as if calling attention to a noxious bug.  “This is the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine!”

And I didn’t even get paid for the talk—it was part of the job.

My late boss Jim Keefe was a self-destructive type, his own worst enemy (he once walked into a parking meter while ogling a pretty girl and broke three ribs).  Once he was making a talk from a stage below which loomed an orchestra pit.

Carried away by his rhetoric, he gestured dramatically, lost his balance and fell with a thunderous crash into the orchestra pit.  There was stunned silence.  Then he rose from the darkness, clambered back on the stage, faced the crowd and said, “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to grab an audience!”

Rodney Green, an education consultant, now retired, from the Missouri Conservation Department, was giving a talk to perhaps 100 Girl Scouts and their mothers.  He chose to talk about snakes and brought a couple of non-venomous snakes in a snake sack.

One was a kingsnake which he had not gentled.  As he held the snake in one hand, he carelessly passed his other hand by the snake’s mouth and the kingsnake obligingly bit him and held on.  Blood began to stream down his hand and wrist.  The snake was firmly fastened and Rod said, “See how the snake’s fangs are recurved so it can hang on?  And it has an anti-coagulant in its saliva so that’s why I’m bleeding.”  The snake grimly refused to relax its painful grip.  “Does anyone have something to pry the son of a….the snake’s jaws open?” Rod asked.

With help he got the snake loose and silently congratulated himself not only on handling an embarrassing situation but doing it educationally.  He wasn’t done with snakes for the day.

He also had a black rat snake and, thinking it was somewhat more docile than the kingsnake, he hauled its three-foot length out of his sack.  While demonstrating something he passed the snake in front of him and it leaned over and grabbed the crotch of his britches, fortunately not all the way through to the tender bits inside.

But it startled him and he let go the snake which dangled from his crotch at which the 100 Girl Scouts broke into appreciative laughter and the mothers turned crimson.  Rodney, who knows a good story when he creates one, has refined and expanded the story into epic proportions over the years, but for most folks an experience like that would lead to an intense desire to crawl under a rock.

The perils of performance got summed up for me graphically once when I was invited to speak to an evening meeting of a local fraternal club.  Usually their meetings attract 30-40 members who manage to stay quiet for 20 minutes after the tail twister has done his inane job and they’ve inhaled a gob of roast beef and mashed potatoes and, in some cases, knocked back a couple of stiff drinks.

So I expected at the very least a free meal and a sizeable audience.  There were two men at the restaurant when I arrived.  Three more showed up close to meeting time.  “We usually have more…” the club president said, leaving unsaid what I assumed he was thinking “…but they heard you were speaking.”

There were no table settings and no one had appeared laden with steaming dinner plates.  We made small talk and I realized the five of them were waiting for me to do something.  “Is this a dinner meeting?” I asked finally—hell, we were in a restaurant for God’s sake.

“Oh…well, we all ate before we came,” the president said.  “But you go ahead.  We’ll wait.”  My stomach growled and I was miffed enough to take him up on it. So I ordered a cheeseburger and we waited for a while until it came, then they all watched me eat it.

Suppressing a belch, I got up to make my talk after which the

-30- president approached me with a paper sack.  “We have a little something by way of thanks,” he said and I hoped it was a fifth of Jim Beam.  God knows, I needed a stiff belt.

He withdrew a framed certificate from the sack and said, “Here,” thrusting it at me.  I started to take it and he jerked it back.  “Wait a minute!” he said.  He began to scrub at the glass with his thumbnail and I realized the price sticker still was on it.  It was one of those $.98 frames you get at Woolworth’s.

“That’s okay,” I said, half-jokingly.  “Leave it on—then I’ll know how much you thought of me.”

“I know,” he muttered, continuing to scrape furiously.


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  1. Sis in law (Pat Gilman)

    January 13th, 2011 at 12:05 pm


    Loved reading the blog. It gave me a laugh that I needed today

  2. Michael Patrick

    January 14th, 2011 at 9:58 am


    Ecellent, Joel. I’ve had exactly the same experiences from time to time.

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