Tales of the Haunted South
Excerpt from Letters from Backstage by Michael Kostroff
January 26th, 2004
There are, among the traveling backstage crew of Les Misérables, men who have been on the road for years. Eight, twelve, fourteen years. These guys aren’t flighty, sensitive actor types who deal in concepts and feelings. They’re bikers. Drinkers. Guys with tattoos and long rock’n’roll hair. They smoke Marlboros, and they’re not trying to quit. They have grown kids . . . somewhere. Sure, they’re more intellectual and more sensitive than their carny roustabout predecessors, but still, these guys lift heavy things for a living, and often go days without sleep when the show moves to a new town. In fact, they’re the ones who move it. They deal in solids and tangibles. And they’ve seen it all. For them, most of the theatres we visit are familiar territory, having played there before, and they know them inside and out.
So when Revo, the burly, grey-haired, Harley-driving tour veteran who operates the stage left half of the barricade, said to me:
“You know this theatre is haunted, right?” I gave it special weight. “Oh yeah. Guy died. During the renovation a few years back. Crew guy. Fell off the grid.” He pointed to the slatted wooden floor way, way up above the stage just below the ceiling. “Guy got impaled. Fell on the pin rail. There’s still blood up there. He’s around.” “Seriously? You believe in this stuff?” “Well, I don’t not believe in it. I’ve seen things.”
Now, my attitude about ghosts is this: I don’t believe in them, and I hope never to be proven wrong in that belief. I don’t go looking for them, and I’d appreciate it if they’d stay away from me . . . if they exist . . . which I’m not saying they do.
But I do know that, according to experts on the subject, the presence of ghosts is often accompanied by mechanical failures and sudden drops in temperature. I also know that theatres are thought to be among the hauntedest places of all.
And so it was here in Greenville, at the Peace Center (which clearly wasn’t named for the dearly departed crew member) that mechanical difficulties, both explainable and unexplainable, plagued the entire run, so much so that our stage manager, in his nightly written show report to the producers, included the comment: “Many of our company members have begun to believe the rumors that the theatre is haunted.”
Now, our revolving turntable stage is crucial to the show. Everything—blocking, set changes, lighting—is designed around this particular device. All of the turntable’s movements—its speed, number of revolutions, starting and ending points—are programmed into a computer, which is operated by Billy, our “automations” guy. Automations is a crew position which has become standard in today’s highly motorized musicals. The automations person controls everything on the stage that moves automatically.
Well, on opening night in Greenville, the turntable went all screwy. Billy’s computer lost its information, and stopped responding properly to commands. Onstage, we’d find ourselves moving when we shouldn’t, or not moving when we should, or revolving right past where we were supposed to stop. Well, what the hell? We kept singing and made the most of it, while backstage, there was a mad scramble to troubleshoot the situation.
Finally, when a set piece failed to line up with its track, the stage manager had to make the difficult decision. He phoned the conductor in the pit and told him to stop playing. He announced over the backstage PA that we were holding. Meanwhile, Amanda, who plays Cosette, had been singing alone onstage. She heard the orchestra stop playing, and made a little curtsy, followed by her best attempt at a graceful exit. The curtain came down. Our ghost—if you believe in them, which I don’t—had stopped the show.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties. There will be a pause . . .”
Audiences love this stuff. Seriously. It’s the story they can go home and tell their friends. Things like this make the evening even more of an event: “Well, we went to see Las Miseryables, and would you believe it, Madge? The turny thing got stuck right in the middle of the show and we had to wait while they fixed it! Isn’t that exciting?!”
And to be honest, folks, people in a long-running theatre piece also love this stuff. It sure jazzes up the evening and breaks the monotony of what can become a fairly repetitive job. And so the news spread backstage like wildfire as half-dressed soldiers, whores, and magistrates watched suddenly busy crew members dash by: “We’re going manual!”
Still relatively new in the show, and this being my first turntable breakdown, I had to ask: “What’s ‘going manual?’”
The turntable mechanism, I learned, has a backup. Billy sits at a button controlling the movements “manually” while the stage manager guides him via headset. (And you thought they had to get out onstage and push the darn thing, didn’t you?) Every touch of the button moves the turntable forward. At certain points it has to be lined up precisely, which is tricky.
So after a brief, unplanned pause, we picked up where we’d left off, with Amanda bringing us right back into the story as if we’d never left it. And for the rest of the show Billy had to sit, listening intently to the voice on his headset telling him, “a little more . . . a little more . . . stop!” as he deftly manipulated the green button on his console with a series of light taps. It was a long night for Billy. For those of us onstage, it was like sitting in two hours of rush-hour traffic: Go a few feet, stop, go another foot, stop, and try to avoid crashing into the guy in front of you.
We continued to have weird turntable malfunctions during the Greenville run. And as it turned out, that wasn’t all . . .
There was a huge boom from backstage one night as a large, metal, garage-type door near the loading dock suddenly came crashing down, and, spookily, none of those burly crew guys were able to get it open again. As chance would have it, the door landed on a crate, so they were still able to slip under it to get to where they needed to be.
Toward the end of another otherwise normal performance, as Jean Valjean was writing out his last confession before dying, his candle went out. There’s no breeze in a theatre. Was someone reading over his shoulder?
Instead of the scrim that was supposed to come down from above the stage, a bridge, which wasn’t supposed to appear until later, descended early during one show, nearly flattening our hero.
Another night, the sound engineer had his ghostly encounter as the effects for the big battle scene started going off in random order, forcing the onstage revolutionaries to improvise reactions to, among other things, an unexpected, and poorly timed, cannon blast. I don’t think this dead guy likes musicals.
John, who operates the stage right half of the barricade, made an unexpected debut one night. He was engaged in his normal duty, moving a column onto the stage, when the column got stuck for a moment in the wings, delaying his entrance. By the time he got it on and locked it into place, the stage lights were up, and there was no way to exit without being seen, so he hid himself behind the column. What John had forgotten was that the entire stage was about to revolve. So, as Marius scrambled over the garden wall to be alone with Cosette, the couple, as well as the audience, discovered that they had company: a strange man in the garden, smack-dab in the midst of the lovers. He bowed curtly, and strode off.
The fact is, every department was affected by the ghost in one way or another, except for the wardrobe department, where everything was running smoothly. For some reason, they enjoyed an entirely haunt-free run. And then, on the very last day, during the load-out from the theatre, the wardrobe supervisor got hit in the head by a falling ladder. I guess the Greenville Ghost wasn’t letting anyone leave without a reminder that he was there.
Our next stop was the very haunted Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, where paranormalists have identified no fewer than eleven different entities. The place was lousy with ghosts. But only one of them is so famous and widely acknowledged that she’s featured in the official coffee-table book about the theatre:
Many years ago, a little girl named Mary was killed just outside the Orpheum. Mary loved the theatre. In fact, she was crossing the street on her way to a show when she was run down by a streetcar. They say she still attends every performance at the Orpheum, and that she always sits in one of the lower left box seats. If Mary doesn’t like the show, she lets you know. Performers have reported looking up at that box during curtain call and seeing all the chairs facing away from the stage. That’s Mary’s equivalent of a bad review.
But what she really doesn’t like is when a show uses those box seats to house speakers, equipment, or performers. This is what’s not in the book. The Lion King had percussionists set up in that box, and they had the worst run of their whole tour. Our very own Revo was up there once, before he’d even heard the story, setting up equipment for another show. He says that in the center of the booth there was a circular area where the temperature was twenty degrees colder than anywhere else. He could step in and out of it and feel the difference.
And it was here at the Orpheum that, on the second night of the run, our turntable . . . well, this is how the stage manager put it . . . our turntable exploded. From what I hear, there were shooting sparks and loud pops and flaming wires involved. And the thing simply stopped working. In a case like this, there is no such thing as “going manual.” The computer shuts down entirely, and the turntable is disabled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties. There will be a pause . . .”
Here we go again. This time, the audience was invited to take a break and stretch their legs. This was going to take a while. There is, I learned, a “Plan C”: a backup turntable drive. But it takes a while to switch over. So, as the audience chattered in the lobby, enjoying what would now be the first of two intermissions that evening, wires were replaced, and plugs were transferred. Ten or fifteen minutes later, after some test spins, we were up and running again. And, other than ending the show late, everything went fine for the rest of the evening.
We remained undisturbed after that. Maybe Mary decided she liked Les Mis after all. Even still, just between us, I will admit to you that I often glanced toward Mary’s booth at curtain call to make sure the chairs were still facing the stage.
If ghosts exist, why do they like theatres so much? I posed this question to little Nadine, one of our young performers. She’s nine, and when I asked her if she believed in ghosts, she got a big smile on her face and nodded emphatically. She liked the idea.
“So, here’s my question. Do you think theatres are more haunted than other places?”
“And why do you think that is?”
“Well, maybe because a lot of theatres are old. So more things have happened there.”
That made sense to me. And if I believed, which I’m not saying I do, I might also theorize that in a theatre, reality is shifty to begin with. What year is it? What’s the season? Where are we in the universe? It all depends on the play. And maybe ghosts find, among the old props and costumes, reminders of the times in which they lived. Nadine thought that was a possibility too.
Another company member noted that theatre people, perhaps more than others, often suffer from unfulfilled dreams. Maybe they never got that great role, or the great love, or the great success for which they yearned. And so, they hang on, unable to rest, and mess with the rest of us. When I die, I wouldn’t mind haunting a theatre or two. But I’m thinking my hang-out would be the chorus girls’ dressing room. Hey, don’t judge. To each ghost his own.
Every night, after the audience has shuffled out, and the actors have removed their make-up and changed back into their street clothes; after the ushers have picked up all the discarded programs, and the musicians have packed up their instruments, and the backstage computers have been shut down; when all the sounds of post-show chatter have drifted up the street and evaporated into the air, and everyone has gone home, a theatre falls into silence and darkness as it’s locked up for the night. But before the last crew member exits, he places a single light on the stage—a bare bulb atop a metal stand. You’ve seen it in movies, whenever they have an onstage audition scene. That light is called a ghost light.
If it’s true that theatres are more haunted than other places, maybe it’s because here, spirits are honored. In fact, ghosts often appear onstage, as characters, portrayed by living representatives. Such plays as Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Blithe Spirit, A Christmas Carol, and notably, Les Misérables—to name only a few—all feature ghosts. (In the case of Les Mis, that’s largely because almost everybody dies at some point, so it’s either singing ghosts, or go home early and call it a night. There’s even a version of the Les Mis tee shirt that reads, “It’s not over till the dead lady sings.”) Maybe ghosts haunt theatres because they feel welcome there.
Two quotes wrap up this report. One from Revo. He says:
“I never feel alone in a theatre. Not so much the new ones, but the old ones, definitely. Sometimes I’ll know I’m the only living soul in the building, and yet I’ll know for sure that I’m not alone.”
And then there’s this from Glenn in the prop department. He’s one of the younger members of our crew, and a brilliant guy:
“You know, I believe in ghosts. But I also believe that when a turntable mechanism is fourteen years old, parts may need to be replaced.”
I’ve encountered a number of mysteries in my time on the road. Like, why do hotels provide that little plastic bag to line the ice bucket? They don’t line the water glasses, and you drink out of those. And why on earth do they always put the coffee maker in the bathroom? And whatever happened to that little sewing kit they used to give you? I liked those! Most of these mysteries will remain unsolved. But in the case of theatre ghosts, I think I’m perfectly happy not knowing.
Hope you’re all in good spirits,