In 1976, we ran The Exorcist in our admittedly Gothic 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, and (a rare occurrence in those days of diminishing movie palace attendance) we sold out, thanks to the perfect match of theater and subject matter. What’s more conducive to creepiness than a vast cavern of shadows? Nevertheless, there were no actual ghost sightings at the St. George, although at least one of our ushers, Leroy, was convinced backstage was haunted, (attested to by his marked reluctance to go there and turn up the house lights). Given all the lives that had passed through that place before we came along, and those who followed us, it’d be a wonder if some or another ghost hasn’t decided to set up shop, but to my knowledge no apparition, phantom, poltergeist, shade, spectre, spook or wraith ever has. (I sometimes think it’s Dean and me as failed entrepreneurial ghosts, who haunt the rafters of our still-standing neighborhood movie palace, but then, we’re still alive, so we don’t really qualify — yet). Meanwhile, I have discovered in my researches, a number of theaters which do seem to offer up an otherworldly presence or two. It’s a popular subject. I wonder if horror flicks, over the years, have done well in theaters with permanent after-hours populations?
First to come to mind is the Pantages in L.A., a glorious palace with a glamorous ghost inside. He’s even famous! Howard Hughes owned the place from 1949 to 1967, and had an office over the theater. When the building was being renovated, his spectre appeared one day to a workman, drifting over the scaffolding and onto the balcony. When the hapless worker asked it what it wanted, it melted into thin air, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare. Hughes’ ghost is usually well-dressed, which doesn’t necessarily sync with his image, at least in latter days, when he became completely unhinged (syphilis? obsessive compulsive disorder? both?). A singing female spirit is said to keep him company (Jean Tierney? Rita Hayworth? Ava Gardner? — they were all at one time his lovers). Whoever she is, she’s said to have haunted a mic being set up for a performance. Banging noises and cigarette smoke also provide atmosphere for some of these haunts.
The Strand in Skowhegan Maine has a big rep and a very angry ghost, apparently. Built in 1929, it’s a small palace, originally 900-plus seats. Someone died in an apartment over the theater back in 1978, and the ghost exacts a kind of revenge on people, especially workmen. (Why always workmen?) Several were shocked by their own electrical tools, despite the fact that they weren’t plugged in. Stains appeared on newly-painted walls, and a piece of balcony ceiling tile was thrown at someone. Handprints found on the movie screen seem dubious evidence of anything to me, but you never know.
The St. James Theater in Wellington, New Zealand was originally home to silent movies, but there’s nothing silent about it these days. For one thing, a “wailing woman,” supposedly the ghost of an actress who was booed off the stage, demands an encore. Some blame her for the misfortunes of current successful actresses, who’ve fallen and broken various limbs. A WWII boys’ choir sang its last performance at the theater before boarding a ship that was lost at sea. It is said the choir sings every now and again for staff and stagehands. Then there’s Yuri, a Russian acrobat, who fell to his death in a performance, and is credited with putting on a periodic light show.
What is it about theaters that seems to welcome the paranormal? Carney folk are notoriously superstitious: actors can’t run lines from MacBeth, or call that “cursed” drama anything but “the Scottish play,” except outside the theater; nobody knows exactly why. Whistling on stage is also verboten, and the expression “break a leg” — to replace “good luck” — is a theatrical invention.
A number of New York theaters are thought to be haunted, most notably Radio City Music Hall, which harbors the ghost of its builder, Samuel Roxy Rothafel. On the occasional opening night he appears, they say, accompanied by an elegant woman. Opening night hauntings would make sense. Radio City’s grand opening, December 27, 1932, was a notorious turkey, beginning at 8 PM and running to 2 AM, with so many acts and extravaganzas they literally canceled each other out. Film historian Terry Ramsaye observed, "...if the seating capacity of the Radio City Music Hall is precisely 6,200, then just exactly 6,199 persons must have been aware at the initial performance that they were eyewitnesses to...the unveiling of the world's best ‘bust.’” Roxy lost control of the deep-in-debt music hall soon after its debut and died a few years later.
The New Amsterdam Theatre harbors, supposedly, the ghost of silent film star Olive Thomas. That theater was the home of the Ziegfield Follies of which she was perhaps the greatest star (also, for a time, the lover of Flo Ziegfield). Thomas actually died of mercury poisoning in Paris, but it makes an attractive story to think of her as haunting the theater, a story the Disney folks have not discouraged.
I haven’t done the research, but assume there is a “ghost light” in many of the live theaters I’ve mentioned. That’s the solitary light on a post, center stage, when the theater is dark at night. It's practical purpose is to keep ushers or stagehands from falling into the orchestra pit before they manage to find the lighting grid, but there are lots of superstitions that surround ghost lights. Tradition holds that every theater has at least one ghost to deal with. The Palace Theatre, London actually keeps two seats open in the balcony for its resident ghosts. One of the perks of ghost lights, for ghosts, is the opportunity to perform onstage, an appeasement that may prevent them from cursing the theater or sabotaging the set or production.
Most movie palaces are, or have been at one time, live houses. We had a ghost light at the St. George in ’76, a shabby affair. Its cord was frayed, so we didn’t feel good about leaving it lit. How then to mollify the spirits? Leroy, one of our ushers, was convinced that, behind our giant stained screen, in the space below the fly loft, there were presences of one kind or another. Tired Vaudevillians? Expired managers? The ghosts of ushers past?
As Prospero reminds us in The Tempest, "We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on..."
So it goes.