Posted by: wrmcnutt | September 22, 2009

A Haunt in a Modern Theater


First off – you people are lame when it comes to sharing ghost stories.  Only one or two responses.  Honestly.  The second of my two brushes with the surreal was in young adulthood, and I do remember many of the details clearly.  The following is an account of exactly what happened.  Any inconsistencies with published fact are faulty memory, as this was a quarter-century ago.  Nothing is made up or embellished.

Mid-Fall in Charleston, South Carolina is somewhat hit or miss.  Some years, it’s a humid, sweltering extension of the sub-tropical summer.  With the mid-Atlantic less than six blocks away, and sandwiched between the Ashely and Cooper rivers, autumn humidity in Charleston can make you feel like you’re breathing water like a fish, and sweating like the proverbial pig.  But not that year.  It was October, and actual Fall had come to the lowcountry.  Chill blasts of wind prowled the streets, and the sky was constantly the dull grey of un-polished steel.

I those days, I was an aspiring Theater major.  Hard to believe, isn’t it? The dumpy network administrator, working in the fabric-covered box day in and day out once had aspirations to a personality.   But in a previous season, I had won an award for my contributions, and was Most Promising Techie of 1984.  Had my name on a plaque in the Green Room and everything.  ‘Course, that was back before the Green Room was divided up into faculty cubicles.  Anyway, previous reliability and performance had earned me an unusual position for an as-yet undeclared major:  Assistant Student Director.  The production was to be Fiddler On The Roof, and I was to student-direct.  Mind you, we had a faculty director,  an Englishman whose name escapes me.  I was really just his assistant.  I took notes, ran errands, and did jobs nobody wanted to do before the next rehearsal.  College theater is no different that any other amateur venue.  Everybody’s got a day job, so rehearsals are at night.  If you’ve got technical work to do, it either has to be on one of the scheduled Tech nights, or after rehearsal.  My task couldn’t be done with the Talent on stage, as I would be raising and lowering battens from the flyloft, and I hadn’t wanted to stay late the previous night.  Rehearsal had run late, and I had had an early morning.  I had fully intended to get over to the theater while it was empty on Sunday, but, hey, I was young, I had a date, and a tiny amount of money.  By the time my date and I were finished squeezing the last drops of delight out of those two twenty dollar bills, it was almost ten o’clock at night.  Not late to a twenty-something, but if I wanted to be in bed by two AM, I needed to get moving.

Randall Hall

Randall Hall

So I headed across campus.  The Emmet Robinson Theater is located in the Albert Simmons Center for the Arts. It’s kind of on the edge of campus, where St. Phillips Street crosses George Street.  The Center takes up most of the St. Phillips Street side of the block.  From where the dorm where I dropped off my date, I had to walk past, but not through some of the oldest parts of campus.  And for a New World city, Charleston is old. It’s the custom of the Charleston City Council to take one look at enemy troops outside the city, and immediately surrender.  Thus, although occupied by English troops in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and Yankee’s during the War Between the States, the city has never been sacked or burned.  Detached carriage houses 250 years old are common downtown.  And so it is with the CoC.  Randolf Hall is one of the oldest college buildings still in use in the United States.

Porter's Lodge

Porter's Lodge

Today, it’s mostly an administrative building, although there are still some classrooms in it.  Randolf, together with Towell Library and the Porter’s Lodge, surround “the Cistern,” a paved-over artifact used for Commencement Ceremonies, outdoor concerts, and the like.  The Porter’s Lodge, in particular looks like a mausoleum.  Ancient Oaks and other trees provide shade during the summer months, but that time of year, bare branches clawed skyward, reaching for the sunlight and warmth as though they were gone forever.    Huge colonies of Spanish moss swayed in the chill October breeze.  The antique part of campus hadn’t put in many lights in those days, so was dark.  Back-of-the-closet-dark, broken up with stark white balls of light where the few lights had been installed.  This was the area of campus where you could be startled by the leaping fences.

Charleston, like all coastal cities, has a substantial storm drain system, and from time to time, the water in them is significantly cooler than the air, and huge clouds of steam rise from manhole covers, as specters from the mound. They can look pretty eerie all by themselves. But they have help.  The quad, and many other parts of campus, are surrounded by ornamental ironwork.   When walking across campus at night, sometimes the bright lights will shine through the ornamental iron, casting shadows across the landscape.  Gothic, but not particularly startling.   Until the wind changes and a column of white steam suddenly pops up in front of you with the shadow of the fence cast on it in sharp relief.  The sudden onset of a iron fence in your path when you’re trotting through the dark will mess with your mind to no end.  Especially when you plunge through it because you can’t stop in time, and discover it’s not really there.

This, then, was the atmosphere I walked through on my way to the theater for my business.  The cold wind gusted up St. Phillips street as I passed the  steam plumes in near the Cistern.  Leaves crunched under my feet as I pulled the collar of my leather jacket tighter around my neck.  I’d had to leave my motorcycle two blocks away, due to lack of parking anywhere near the theater.  I looked up.  In the dimness, the red bricks that made up all of the modern buildings on campus washed out to a reddish gray.  The polarized glass on the faculty sockets were empty holes.  They looked like eye sockets in a bloody skull.

At the south entrance, I used my sacred and holy key #1. I was an undergraduate with a key to the building.  These were handed out only to the rare few that were Assistant Student Directors.   I walked past the vending machines, whose lights flickered as I passed.  Did they always flicker like that, or was it just tonight?  There we no lights on inside, except the standing safety lights. I moved through the student art gallery and down the hall.  In broad daylight, the sculptures were surreal.  Nobody seemed to want to sculpt realistically.  But in the dark, the room look like an homage to H. R. Geiger.

I moved past the creepy statues to the  stage door, where i used sacred and holy key #2, a temporary endowment, during production of a show.  From here, I had access to the scene shop, which opened on to the stage.  The door creaked open.  I felt rather absurd. I’d never noticed that the door creaked, and I looked into a black pit.  There are no standing lights in the scene shop, and the inside of your boots have more light in them than the shop did that night.  On impulse, I flung every switch on the wall.  A moment, and the florescents kicked in, flooding the shop like a gymnasium, or an operating theater.  I moved much more confidently over to the main loading doors onto the stage.  I unlocked them from the shop side, and threw them open.

Another black pit.  Two exits signs, and the power lights from some electronics up in the lighting and sound booth glowed eerily green.  What little night vision I had had was destroyed by the lights I’d put on to cross the shop.  I stood there for a few moments, silhouetted against the brightly lit workshop behind me.  I groped for the work lights.  Once on, the work lights washed out my shadow on the stage and forced the darkness back about a third of the way up the house.  I did my task.  I don’t even remember what it was, but I wanted it done, because our director was a bit short tempered, and I didn’t care to get “fired.”  (Being that I was not yet a Theater major, I had a certain independence.  He couldn’t hurt me in the short term.  But who needs all that, well, drama?)

The Emmet Robinson Theater was a little unusual.  The House was small, even tiny.  It seated between three and four hundred people at the most.  Sharply raked, the House had  orchestra seating below the floor and the “balcony” seating in the back up on the second floor of the building.  But I could casually throw a Frisbee to the back of the house with no effort whatsoever.  The ceiling went higher, though.  There’s an entrance onto the catwalks on the third floor of the building.  Take a right, and you were headed toward the lighting booth at the center of the house.  Left went along the built-in catwalk to the spiral staircase that goes down to the stage floor backstage.  And the acoustics were magnificent. When all was quiet in the house, a whisper on stage could cue a follow-spot to be ignited in the catwalks.

But for all of it’s small size, as a training theater, Emmet Robinson Theater was state of the art.  This meant that there was a web of catwalks hangs from the ceiling.  Hundreds of lights festooned the rails.  Of particular interest to us is the integrated catwalk at the top level.  Rather than a metal catwalk hanging from the ceiling, it was a shelf integrated into the walls of the building that ran all the way around the theater. It had an exit in the back of the House that led onto third floor of the building, far to stage right.  The soundproof lighting/audio booth was in the center.  And instead of a railing, there was a solid brick half-wall all the way around the outer catwalk.

As I was working, though, I got the feeling that there was something . . . wrong.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  Something left running when it should have been off?  Something off when it should have been running? I finished my work and started hunting around.  I couldn’t find anything on the (now) well lit stage, or in the wings.  All the power equipment down by the orchestra pit was on stand-by.  (You didn’t actually power that stuff down during a production.  It caused excessive wear.)  All the doors were closed and locked.  All the brakes on the fly system were dogged down.  But something was wrong, and I couldn’t find it. As the last one out, I was responsible if something was wrong.  Doubly so as the Student Assistant Director.  I looked out into the half light of the house again.  Enough of this crap.  I needed to be able to see.

Well, I am was a stage manager.  If it’s one thing I knew how to do, it’s deal with darkness. I went out the stage right proscenium exit and hit the house lights.  All of them.  Then I added the catwalk work lights. Neyland Stadium was not so well lit.  I checked the first floor house doors. The door to stage right opens to the hallway and art gallery I’d come through earlier.  Secure.  The other opens to a parking lot behind the Center for the Arts.  Secure.  I looked up the steps to the door at the back of the house.  With a sigh of annoyance, I plodded through the house and up the aisle that led to the exit at the back.  Secure.  Back down to the stage.

Well crap.  I looked up at the third floor door.  It looked shut.  In fact, it was never actually unlocked.  During the day it was propped open so that John, our lighting designer, could conduct his class in the catwalks. Or we put a stick between them to keep it from locking us out.  So if it was closed, it should be locked.

It was at this point, I began to get the feeling that I was being watched.

I was going to have to go out through the shop, lock the door behind me, out into the little lobby, unlock the elevator (sacred and holy key #3), go up to the third floor and go down entire length of the theater to the door, and confirm that it was secure.  Then come all the way back.*grumble*

Wait, no.  I stepped into the stage right wing. The spiral staircase, deep in the wings stage right goes right up to that catwalk.  I’ll just run up there and . . .

* KA-BAM * rattle-rattle

We’ve all heard the sound of a loosely hung industrial double-door slamming shut, right? That mechanical, sort-of-but-not-really-hollow noise?  It came from the upper catwalk, stage right.  Someone had just slammed the third floor door I was just about to go up and check. The door that I had just visually confirmed was already shut. I think I’ve mentioned the acoustics before.  If you’re paying attention, and I was, you should be able to hear the doors open. I hadn’t heard the latch click, or the door open. I stepped back out of the wings and looked up.

With the work lights on, I could see the catwalks clearly.  I could see every blob of paint, dangling cable, and dust bunny in stark relief.  The door was still shut.  Nothing moved.

Then I heard the footsteps.  They slowly went from the door at the top of the catwalk toward stage left.  It sounded like nothing more or less than someone wearing sneakers stomping across the Berber carpet on the main catwalk.

*whap* *whap* *whap* *whap* *whap*

I followed the sound with my eyes as someone, or something walked from the door, past the lighting booth, and up the stage left catwalk.  And then back.  Slowly at first, but then faster and faster, as though they realized they were late for something.  When the sound reached the upstairs door again . . .

Nothing.

The door did not open. No one spoke.

I am not without valor.  I admit to being thoroughly creeped-out by this point, but I had a responsibility to the show, the department, and the college.

“OK!  Who’s in here?  I need to lock up. ”  My voice filled the hall.

Silence.

“Come ON!  Professor O. will have my hide if I leave this place unlocked. I need to see you out.”  The rafters rang with the sound of my voice.

Silence.

No one moved.  No one spoke.  I waited, and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted.  This was just creepy.

It was possible that one of my colleagues was playing a prank,  lying prone on the floor behind the skirting that ran around the upper catwalk.  I waited. And I waited.  It was also possible that one of the audio techs had been playing with the sound system, and faked those footsteps. It would have been easy to do.  I could have done it.

Of course, nobody knew I was going to be here tonight.  Nobody at all.  I’d planned to be here in the afternoon.

I have said I am not without valor.  But what do they say is the better part of valor?  I am also not without discretion.  That I did not go up there and check that door bothers me to this day.  Nothing ever came of it, though. Nothing was reported stolen.  Or broken.  On the other hand, nobody ever fessed up to pranking me.  No sidelong glances.  No razzings about mysterious footsteps.  No teasing at all. As far as I could tell, I was the only person on the cast and crew who had been there that night.

One more thing.  After all that, I want you to imagine me having to plunge that theater back into darkness.  I was not coming in the next day to explain to the Technical Director of the theater why he’d come to work and found upty-ump kilowatts of wear on the work lights because I was too creeped-out to turn them off.  Having to turn those light panels off and retreat back through the shop as the darkness came closer and closer was one of the more challenging things I’ve done.

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Responses

  1. Okay, Will.

    When I was doing summer stock during grad school, a decade ago now, I was in crazy rep, doing Streetcar Named Desire, All in the Timing and 42nd Street. One night, I was the first to arrive before a Streetcar performance. I went into the dressing room, which connected to the costume shop, and began putting my makeup on.
    I’m playing a very spitfire Stella, and my very tall friend Becky is playing Blanche…
    I’m diligently applying the layers of makeup to my face, and out of the corner of my eye, I see a very tall young woman with fine brown hair, wearing a yellow dress, enter through the costume shop and begin walking toward me.
    “Hey, Beck.” Keep working on my base layer. No response.
    I turned to see Becky, and instead find myself looking at a tall pale woman who is NOT Becky, who has a very 1950s look to her, and who is, um, transparent. She breezes past me and is gone without a trace.
    Moments later, Vickie, the costume mistress shows up to do my hair, and I relate this story to her. She’s equally surprised, but neither of us is really freaking out – it’s a theatre, they’re supposed to be haunted, right?
    That night, things just go haywire – props go missing, stuff falls almost injuring people, and the TD hears voices backstage after the show (he’s never told me what they said, just that it scared him enough he killed the power, locked everything and left asap.)
    We all retired to a favorite bar, and shared stories after the show. Beer made things seem pretty okay. The next morning the stage manager called us all to tell us the set painter had been killed in a plane crash at the time of the show.
    Another actor, who’d been working at the theatre for awhile, insisted the ghost I saw was an actress who’d worked there frequently, who had recently died of cancer. I had never seen her, but she matched the description I gave.
    We ran the rest of the summer, and nary a disturbance, but the night Chrisha died – things were awake and afoot through the whole theatre.

    Gwen

  2. okay. I don’t need air conditioning today. sheesh!!! Goose bumps!

    Get Martin to tell the one about his haunted theatre some time.

    • He needs to post it here!

  3. that would involve getting him somewhere NEAR a computer. Which is nigh unto impossible these days.


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