"Please don't say you've heard this one before," begs Mie Katsumata of San Francisco, who sent me an account of something that happened to a friend of a friend who was visiting Las Vegas.
I didn't have to finish the letter to suspect that it contained the one about Eddie Murphy and his bodyguards terrifying a woman on an elevator when they pile in and one of them says "Hit the floor!"Of course, Murphy and company mean the elevator's floor button, but the woman thinks they are muggers. She drops to the floor, holds up her money and pleads "Don't hurt me!"
I receive versions of "The Elevator Incident" about three times a week, even though I debunked the Reggie Jackson version in 1984 and found a 1973 prototype used on "The Bob Newhart Show."
Clearly, this legend relies heavily upon racial stereotypes. The story always involves black men who are all too easily perceived as threatening by a frightened victim.
In a column in June I identified Jackson, Murphy and Lionel Richie versions of the legend set in New York, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The tourists were said to have come from Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Denver and Edmonton, Canada.
The incident always ends with the celebrity apologizing. He usually identifies himself (or leaves a signed note) and pays for his victim's dinner, champagne or hotel room.
Occasionally people say it was Jesse Jackson or Michael Jackson on the elevator. Lionel Richie held center stage in the story for about a year, but lately Eddie Murphy has taken over the role.
In one version Murphy thinks the incident is hilarious and plays the part of a real mugger. Later he returns the tourist's money with a note of apology and a cash bonus.
The story is often published with specific details. For example, the Panola Watchman, a Carthage, Texas, newspaper, reported the victims to be "three Henderson (Texas) ladies" in Vegas.
Kathy Jumper, columnist for the Mobile (Ala.) Press Register, wrote that it happened to "a little lady from Mobile" visiting the Big Apple.
In Honolulu Magazine the victim was said to be "a 54-year-old local Japanese woman from Lanai" who met Richie in Las Vegas.
I've heard a version of "The Elevator Incident" starring Lionel Hampton, the octogenarian jazzman. Although Hampton does not seem very menacing, he was accompanied by husky bodyguards.
This version obviously confused two black musicians named "Lionel," and all we need now is for people to mix things up further and tell the story about some fictional character named "Lionel Jackson."
My latest letter about the story came from Doreen Bitner of Cumbernauld, Scotland, who heard several versions told about a woman from a small Scottish town who took "the holiday of a lifetime" in New York City. She had the usual encounter with Eddie Murphy in an elevator.
Without knowing how widespread the story is, Bitner commented, "I would love to think that this may be a particularly Scottish legend."
There is a chance that the story spread from a British original. I have an undated English story in which a parliamentary official in ceremonial garb spots a colleague in a corridor in the House of Parliament. He shouts, "Neil! Neil!" causing a group of American tourists to obediently fall to their knees.
Folklorist Sandy Hobbs of the Paisley College of Technology found a variation of this story in a book of classroom anecdotes published in Edinburgh in 1986. This one concerns a teacher who is showing two new students around the school.
When he shouts "Neil!" at an older student who is racing down a hallway, the two youngsters at his side kneel down!
It's not really so far from these "Neil/Kneel" stories to the very hot current ones about Eddie Murphy on the elevator saying "Hit the floor."
(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.