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Opportunity Knocked. They Didn’t Answer

George Bernard Shaw in the 1890s


Uppa/Photoshot/Zuma Press

The world is forever full of smart people who for one reason or another are afraid to take a chance on something new—something new that turns out to be big.

For all his theatrical success and worldly savvy, in 1906

George Bernard Shaw

made one of the biggest blunders an author can make in the play-writing business. After the highly successful debut of his 1894 comedy, “Arms and the Man,” a couple of Viennese writers approached Shaw for the purpose of acquiring the rights to turn his play into an operetta.

Leopold Jacobson


Rudolf Bernauer

would co-author a libretto based on Shaw’s work, set to the music of relatively unknown Viennese composer

Oscar Straus.

Shaw’s disdain for what he perceived to be an abasement of his masterpiece blinded him to the possibilities the proposed venture presented. He granted the adaptation rights but expressly refused to accept a royalty, dismissing the project out of hand. “The Chocolate Soldier,” as the operetta came to be titled in English, not only established Oscar Straus as one of the premiere composers of operetta’s so-called Silver Age, it quickly went on to be produced in London and on Broadway in sold-out runs, making its creators—all except Mr. Shaw, who never saw a penny from the show—a fortune in royalties.

Flash forward 60 years to Houston. A chemist at the Bettis Rubber Co.,

Norman Stingley,

invents a polybutadiene rubber substance dubbed Zectron with an unusually high coefficient of restitution—it was really bouncy. The suits at Bettis said no to Mr. Stingley when he offered his invention to them. Zectron wasn’t durable enough.

That didn’t stop Stingley. He took his creation to Wham-O Inc., makers of the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. By 1965 the Superball was born. Some seven million of the ornery orbs were sold that year and more than 20 million by the end of the decade. The Superball became Wham-O’s third super-seller in less than 10 years and is said to have been the inspiration for the naming of the Super Bowl. (The curious may google that part of the story.)

The cost of opportunities missed out of fear or envy can be immeasurable indeed. Be careful who you say no to. You may be taking a pass on the next Oscar Straus. Or Norman Stingley.

Mr. Opelka is a musical-theater composer-lyricist.

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Appeared in the October 22, 2021, print edition.


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