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Chickens | Ghosts in the Theater
Walk onto the Wisconsin Union Theater's stage at night and you'll
find a lone light to guide your way. Nestled in a squirrel cage
on a stand, it is known as the ghostlight. It is there to ensure
that people don't crash around...and so that the theater's ghosts
have a light and feel welcome. Theater ghosts tend to be the spirits
of people who died in them. According to former Director Michael
Goldberg, the Union Theater is home to two ghosts. One is a construction
worker who died in a work-related accident in 1939, when the theater
was being built. The second was a percussionist with the Minneapolis
Symphony. The orchestra played here on March 12, 1950, introducing
its new musical director, Antal Dorati. Just before the intermission,
an unrehearsed crash was heard in the percussion section. The substitute
tympanist had a heart attack, collapsed, crawled off-stage and died
before a doctor who was in the audience could reach the backstage
area. After the intermission, the manager walked onto the stage
and announced the tragedy. The orchestra played the somber second
movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony while the shocked audience
Goldberg sometimes finds himself all alone in the theater in the
wee hours, after the last crew person has left and when all the
doors are locked. He has never seen a ghost but he has often felt
a presence, heard someone walking, or noticed some other sound that
didn't fit. He makes it a point to distinguish between the super-natural
and the supra-natural.
For people who have attended concerts here for decades, says Goldberg
who has been connected with the theater for some 40 years, the presence
of many past great performers is palpable. "Some loom very
large in my memory," he says. "When I look at a great
musician I can see other great artists who played here before, especially
when they play something I heard 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The richness
of the [theater's] experience is cumulative that way. The past enhances
As it is almost Halloween again, I thought it would be fitting to say something about my ghost encounters thus far during the course of my time working at the Union Theater. These are personal experiences only, and occurred at times when I was alone in a particular space. I don't have any other documentation other than my later entries in my personal journal.
I don't think any of the Union Theater's ghosts are threatening. They seem to be just hanging out in a space that they're perfectly willing to share, rather like a house cat I know that likes to sit on a particular corner of a couch to look out the window and meow at the birds and squirrels on the other side of the glass.
The first time I experienced something ghostly was about 2 years ago. It was very late at night, and I had forgotten one of my theatrical makeup projects in the Union Theater office when I was there earlier in the day. I was the World Stage Coordinator at the time, so I had keys to get in to the backstage door and our office doors. I let myself in and went to search the office for my missing project. I later found the project in the backstage kitchen area (remembered that I made it out of gelatin, and so had put it in the refrigerator), but while I was searching the students' computer area, I heard the sound of several young adult female voices softly talking and giggling coming from the dressing room 6 door.
Our computer area has a door that connects to dressing room No. 6, often called the Chorus dressing room, since it is the biggest one. This door is always locked from our side, and usually blocked by furniture, so no one in the dressing room could exit into our office or vice versa. It was a 'dark' day, meaning there had been no show in the theater. There was no reason for anyone to be there, especially at 11:30pm, unless they were a janitor, and this was not a janitorial crew. I ran down the hall and around the other offices to get to the dressing room 6 entrance, but, when I got there, there were no more voices and no one was there. The dressing room door was locked, and there was no light coming out from under the door, meaning no one was there.
It was at this point that I remembered my project was in the refrigerator, so I grabbed it and bolted out of there as fast as I could, closing the locked doors behind me.
The second time I had a ghostly experience was during broad daylight. It was earlier in the fall last year, and Ralph had asked me to go get some theater history books from the basement, which is the trap room underneath the theater stage. Courtney was working, and I asked if I could borrow her key to take the stage left stairs rather than the tiny spiral stair case. Courtney was preparing to take over Heather's duties as the development and production coordinator for a while, since Heather was soon to be on maternity leave. Because of her new temporary position, Courtney had a master key that opened most of the doors in the theater, and I assumed her key would work for the basement doors.
I had followed Bruce, the house manager, down there earlier in the week to get some of the books, and took the same route down, going to the stage left stairs rather than the spiral staircase. When I got to the bottom, I tried Courtney's key in the basement door several times and ways, but it didn't work. I went back up the stairs to stage-level, and turned back towards the basement. I stood at the top of the stairs to ponder what to do since I am terrified of the spiral staircase (it's tiny, and I'm klutzy). I had Courtney's single key grasped in my right hand with the lanyard wrapped around my fist, which I did out of habit from doing that with my own keys. Suddenly, multiple keys jingled right next to left ear. I froze momentarily, then ran out on to the stage to see if Bruce or Jeff was around. I went back to the offices, and found out that no one had been out in the theater. Everyone was in their offices, no where near where I had been. At that point, I realized that no human could have made the sound I heard right next to me. I was terrified and ran back to the office to get Courtney to go down to the basement with me, since I still had to get the books. Courtney later said the ghosts must have gotten me good since my eyes looked about the size of golf balls when I came running back to get her.
I think this last ghost is the manager sort, who may have been telling me "you need a different set of keys to get down there, dummy" with his key jingling. I think it's a "he" because he seems like the house manager sort, and, from what I've heard, the theater has thus far only had male house managers. From what Ralph has told me, before Bruce, the theater had a guy who was the house manager for an exceedingly long time. I think it could be him, since he seemed to just be hanging out, checking in on the place he spent so many long days and nights in.
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