The Fireworks Orchestra


Not everyone appreciated the jokes, and English conductor Thomas Beecham had plenty of them up his sleeve.

In 1909 Beecham took his newly-founded symphony orchestra on tour, and within weeks it was notorious among railway officials. Whenever the orchestra’s train pulled into or out of a station, orchestra members threw lighted firecrackers onto the track, startling passengers and porters alike. The practice reached its climax in Birmingham, when the first cellist used a time fuse to set off a giant firecracker under a baggage trolley just before the train pulled out. The blast was so big that the station master had the train stopped and backed into the station. He stormed aboard and threatened to have every member of the orchestra arrested.

Beecham’s outfit soon became known as the Fireworks Orchestra.

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On one occasion when fireworks were unavailable Beecham resorted to other devices. Late at night in a Liverpool hotel, he and his accomplices climbed the spiral stairway from the lounge and collected high wattage light bulbs from each landing. They bundled the bulbs into a blanket, carried them to the top floor, and launched them over the balustrade, admiring the explosions that blossomed on the ground floor. In the resulting chaos, hall porters pursued the perpetrators up stairs and through corridors.

By the time they laid the blame at Beecham’s feet, he was ready to call it a night.

His tired reply: “Put it on the bill.”

But he had one more trick up his sleeve. It was customary at the time for hotel patrons to set their shoes outside their doors at night for polishing. Beecham got up early in the morning and switched the shoes around, taking particular glee in the fact that many of the guests were about to sail for the United States.

For Thomas Beecham, any day could be April Fool’s Day.