STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Ghost Sonata | Playbill

Special Features STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Ghost Sonata
Ever seen ghosts in a theater? I don't mean Ibsen's Ghosts, or even Strindberg's Ghost Sonata. I mean genuine ghosts.

Ever seen ghosts in a theater? I don't mean Ibsen's Ghosts, or even Strindberg's Ghost Sonata. I mean genuine ghosts.

You could have apparently seen apparitions at any of 48 legitimate, regional, dinner, and community theaters around the nation. So says Dennis William Hauck in "Haunted Places" (Penguin), his "national directory on ghostly abodes." We may not have a national theater, but we seem to have a National Ghost. He's at the National, "America's First Theatre," as it likes to call itself, in Washington, DC. Some say that back in 1830, this ghost was a star killed by an actor jealous of him. (Oh, let's hope not, huh?)

Alas, many ghosts were once people who met ghastly ends. The stagehand who'd lost an arm at the Lincoln Theatre in Decatur, Illinois. The construction worker who fell to his death while helping to renovate the Fort Peck (Montana) Summer Theatre. The young woman who was murdered at the Ventura (California) Theater. She now does a dance on-stage, but ends it with a scream. I'll opt instead the male ghost at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles. He comes out and does a one-man show -- in a 16th century costume, yet.

At least all of the above ghosts aren't hurting anybody. Others are far more mischievous. Cowboy ghosts toss things around at the Constantine Theater in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The ghost at the Playhouse in Lake Worth, Florida once choked a theatergoer. At New York Post Publisher Abe Hirschfield's dinner theater in Florida (called the Hirschfield, natch), there's a ghost who turns lights off, then off, then on again. My theory: He's not a troublemaker, but someone who in his former life was an usher who flicked the lights to end intermission.

Albuquerque first-nighters who patronize the KiMo Theater bring doughnuts for the young ghost who died there. If you don't, legend has it, he'll retaliate by tripping the actors or moving props on them. The Guthrie in Minneapolis is haunted by "an awkward English boy with few friends" who committed suicide. The cruel irony: The kid's name was Richard Miller, which is the name of the adolescent lead in Ah, Wilderness! He, though, was lucky enough to learn that teenage problems do work out.

At the Littleton (Colorado) Community Theatre, a ghost drops by in the middle of the night and messes up everyone's papers and personal belongings. Could it be a still peeved actress who didn't get Elvira, in either a production of that Blithe play, or that High-spirited musical?

There IS an Elvira who haunts the Woodstock (Illinois) Opera House. As Hauck writes, "(She) is said to haunt the balcony here, and even has her own seat DD-113 . . . a tall, very attractive young lady with waist-length blond hair, and is thought to be a frustrated actress who flung herself from the bell tower a few years after the theater opened . . . Shelley Berman encountered the ghost when he played here in the 1940's."

Hmmm, wouldn't it have been something if Berman, on the night he opened A Family Affair on Broadway, looked out, and there in DD-113 . . . No, I checked my "Stubs" and found there isn't a DD-113 in the Nederlander. Well, Elvira still might have made the trip. That would have made it more of a family affair for Berman.

Meanwhile, at the Orpheum in Memphis in seat C-5, a little girl was spotted by Yul Brynner during a King and I performance. A national company of Fiddler saw her, too. (Hauck doesn't gives dates to fill us in just which tours they were.)

That august place in Paris isn't the only opera house with a phantom. The spirits in the Grand Opera House of Dubuque hide objects, change lighting, and play pranks. The one in Woodland, California, plays host to a ghost who smokes in the second balcony. (He does come from another era, doesn't he?) In the Boothbay (Maine) Opera House, a ghost has been alleged to turn on the player piano (I'd love if it played "Maine" from No Strings.)

Two theaters in Austin, Texas, are plagued by poltergeists. Capitol City Playhouse's "rearranges furniture, moves lighting, and displaces small personal items." The Kleberg's have been blamed for "moving props, changing lighting, and stealing the actor's personal possessions." Sounds to me like the same guy is working both houses.

Some ghosts, thought, make productive use of their time. A man in a celluloid visor walks around the stage and carries a clipboard at the Bird Cage burlesque house in Tombstone, Arizona -- which, Hauck says, has also played host to "sixteen bloody gunfights . . . 140 bullet holes riddle the wall and ceiling." I'm wondering if someone counted those holes, or if he got his statistics from the ghost carrying the clipboard.

The Vokes, a community theater in Wayland, Massachusetts, hosts its founder Beatrice Heresford. Though she's been dead nearly a half-century, "some employees and patrons have heard her whispering voice or encountered her presence in the lobby or backstage." Classic problem with community theater leaders. Some of them just can't let go.

Neither could Paul Sorg, while built the Sorg Opera House in Middleton, Ohio, but now sends his spirit to the first row of the mezzanine. (It IS one of the best seats in the house, isn't it?) Herman Jochims, who built the Palace Theatre in Luverne, Minnesota, shows up from time to time, sometimes with his wife (or, should-we- say, widow?)

Fred Osterstock, who managed the State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania for 30 years, is said by some to still be on the job. Stage manager Percy Keene occasionally returns to the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh. That's dedication!

But wait! "Harold" at the Donald Reynolds Theatre in Carson City, Nevada reminds workers to turn off the lights before they leave. As helpful as that is, I'm even more impressed by "George" of the Missoula Children's Theatre, who, when a pianist once lost her place, is said to have whispered to her the correct page number. There's no ghosts like show ghosts.

Then there are the celebrity ghosts. Edwin Booth allegedly haunts the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia. Some say he's angry because he was a smash there in Hamlet, and the theater no longer does a Shakespearean-quality repertoire. Booth's brother, John Wilkes, is said to haunt, as you might have guessed, Ford's Theatre in Washington.

There's another ghost resulting from that same night when Booth rudely interrupted the performance of Our American Cousin. Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee had been sharing the presidential box with the Lincolns. Alas, Rathbone didn't bounce back from the assassination. He eventually married his fiancee, but later killed her and then committed suicide. Their spirits supposedly invaded their house in Lafayette Square, which so rattled neighbors that they insisted the Rathbone House be razed. It was.

By and large, though, most ghosts just seem to want a night out. The Syracuse (New York) Area Landmark Theater plays ghost-host to both a male and female ghost. The McConnelsville (Ohio) Opera House has three: two women, one man. One woman walks, while the other two float. The Melodrama and Vaudeville Theater in Moonpark, California has a male ghost who sheds some light in the lighting booth.

Also requiring the services of a ghostbuster is The Sacramento Theatre Company, where no fewer than five ghosts have paid calls. Two of the others perform, one on the mainstage (a Hungarian woman who wanted to be an actress but didn't make it), one in the second space (a tall thin man who, some say, was once janitor there). Another woman ghost has shown up so often, she's been named "Pinky."

Most theaters, though, haven't felt at home enough with these visitors to give them names. At the Majestic in Milwaukee, he's simply "The Balcony Ghost." At the Grand Opera House in Meridian, Mississippi, she's merely "The Lady." Not a grand enough name for a Grand Opera House ghost, don't you think?

How about, "The Ghostess with the Mostes' on the Ball"?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger
You can e-mail him at

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