Halloween

Haunted Theatres

Taylor Lockhart
Ah, October. ‘Tis the season for scary things isn’t it? You may or may not decorate your house with cobwebs and styrofoam gravestones. Perhaps at one point you trick or treated, or like me didn’t have a choice because from freshman year on, Halloween lined up with a run thru or with a tech rehearsal. Despite spending the holiday every year with the Gershwins, in 1889 attire, or costumed as a british schoolboy, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and since it’s this Wednesday, I’m excited to be able to give you one last spooky article before the end of the month.


Whether only slightly through the Phantom Of The Opera or historical documentaries you've probably heard of a haunted theatre before. Perhaps have your own experience of what may or may not have been a spectral encounter or a noisy janitor in a theatre of your own. However the actors and actresses in these theatres all over the world tell you their ghost’s are no joke.



The Real “Phantom Of The Opera” - The Palais Garnier

Odds are you’ve all seen, or at least heard of, the only musical that can give Les Miserables a run for its money. But if the words like Star Wars, Michael Jordan, and Mickey Mouse don’t ring a bell to you, it’s time to get out from out under that rock you’ve been living under. I for one can say that most of the time I should've been busy writing this I spent getting sidetracked watching chandeliers crash. You may or may not be surprised to know that the famous crash may have happened just not quite the way it does in Phantom. No, it didn’t involve a man cutting the chandeliers chains and it ripping through the ceiling before crashing into the stage and making a giant fire that quickly consumes the theatre (though the author has gone on to state the Phantom is and was real). In reality the story is believed to be that a counterweight fell killing someone. Who knows though, maybe a deformed man named Erik dropped that counterweight. Probably not, but if you’ve ever worked Fly Crew for a show, then you know that if those things ever drop from the catwalk or even higher than the catwalk it isn’t pretty and it lead to one person's death. Before we get off Phantom though, I want to address there is really an underground lake of sorts under the theatre. More of a water problem the theatre can’t do anything about, but you probably could possibly ride a gondola through it. Anyways with at least 1 death being confirmed and popularized in the the 143 year history of the theatre that it isn’t surprising the theatre is counted along with other more haunted theatres.



Ghost’s Of The Blaze- The Oriental Theatre

Today it’s called The Ford Center for Performing Arts Oriental Theatre. Once upon a time it was called the Iroquois Theatre, a theatre deemed absolutely fireproof, but as you may know calling anything along the lines of indestructible will almost always lead to its destruction and the fire at the Iroquois Theatre in 1906 claimed at least 602 lives when the doors leading outside of the theatre were barred shut and is the single most devastating fire in any american theatre. Its unsurprising then it’s often considered one of the most haunted theatres in the world. It was torn down years later and replaced with the Oriental theatre. It’s most haunted spot is often considered the alley behind the theatre given the nickname “Death Alley” because of how the dead bodies were stacked up there after the fire. There hasn’t been much more than things that can be chocked up to coincidence and the stories we have received from people apart of the production of Wicked there which have since been stated to be exaggerated. It’s no doubt that a disaster like that if not truly haunted the memories stick around as such.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.

The Iroquois theatre before the tragic 1903 fire.



Cut That Out! -The Huguan Huiguan Opera House

During World War 2 a man nearby the opera house built housing for the poor however in something straight out of a horror movie he destroyed a burial place to do so. You may if you travel to this theatre be able to hear sounds that have been pondered by people to be ghosts and most famously if you decide the throw a stone in the courtyard you may hear someone tell you to, Cut it out! Sounds to me less like the ghost of an ancient native, or of a poor man, but of one of the theatre’s previous stage manager. If anyone ever find gaff tape laying around and no one knows where it came from we’ll know thats true.


Spirits On A Bridge -The Colorado Creede Repertory Theatre

So, I’m just going to say this and you tell me if its stupid or not. You’re performing in a show and you hear the theatre may be haunted so you go out onto the bridge behind the theatre and shout, spirits come join me on stage! Thankfully since then, Annie Butler the actress on the bridge would agree. She hired an exorcist and may or may not still be haunted but the theatre that was built to entertain miners is theorised to be. The director has gone on to state its not a surprise the theatre is haunted and that they’ve observed most of the stuff haunted theatres are known for footsteps when no one’s there, whispering, etc. The real reason I chose to write about this was just to let you all know if something is haunted never ever invite them in. Seriously just don’t try to talk to ghosts. Real or not, why would a Ouija board ever be a good idea.


Bones Under A Music Hall- The Cincinnati Music Hall

Throughout the entire history of this theatre, through excavations and remodels, human bones have been discovered. It is believed the theatre was built over a potter's field. It should be stated building anything over a burial site is always a very bad idea. Those working at the music hall claim that it is in fact very haunted. There have been numerous sightings and experiences but the one that stood out most to me was of an employee who brought his 3 year old boy Charlie in one day. Charlie enjoyed pretending like he was performing. Charlie stopped and asked his dad who was that in box 9. He looked up and the father said no one’s in box 9. The 3 year old then said yes there is, he’s waving at me. They then quickly left. This seems a possible coincident for its only one of many experiences that you can find on the Music Halls own official site and possibly for yourself in one the halls guided ghost tours.


Goodnight Olive Part 2- The New Amsterdam Theatre

The New Amsterdam Theatre, currently home to Disney’s Aladdin is my favorite haunted theatre in America and the entire world and its due entirely to the woman who haunts it, Olive Thomas. Avid readers of the blog may recognize this is not my first time talking about Olive previously including her in my top 13 superstitions article and how cast and crew of the theatre often say goodnight to a picture hanging up of Olive Thomas. However Olive is not a feared spectre or unwanted guest like other theatre ghosts on this list. Olive is akin to New Amsterdam’s Casper. She has been heard replying to conversations in various ways, seen sliding across the stage blowing kisses to the crowd. Historically Olive was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies, the theatres most popular show at a time. She later married Jack Pickford and when the two went on a vacation she was later found having overdosed on mercury bichloride liquid solution, a medicine prescribed for syphilis pain. It is unknown and a matter of controversy whether the death was accidental confused with sleeping pills or drinking water, suicide, or even possibly murder. What is known is that Olive is not resting in peace. Perhaps at peace but like all great actresses never resting. The story of Olive’s ghost is interesting and is very hard to not run into when researching the theatre’s history. You can find a picture of Olive Thomas on the right in the main 42nd Street entrance. I encourage you if you see Aladdin or visit the theatre soon, to either give Olive a compliment or say Mary Pickford her sister in law was the best actress of the silent film actress. Either way, you may get a little reaction.


I want to take a brief minute to tell you about a recent creation around the Olive Thomas story that I think some of you may find interesting. I am talking about, Ghostlight The Musical. Not much has happened with this since 2015 and it even originally starred Phillipa Soo as Olive. It seems like the creators of this musical have since moved since its performances but I’d still love to see the rights available to this musical at some point. There’s not much more I can say just that I thought it important while we talk about Olive Thomas again to inform you of an incredibly interesting musical that I’d love to see more done with.


I had planned to talk about others ghostly theatre experiences here but unfortunately didn't receive enough responses. So here’s my backup.


It’s October 29th, Halloween is, as previously stated, in 2 days and you don’t have a costume. Well let me help you with 10 last minute DIY Halloween costumes.


A Newsie

This one is pretty easy, the most important thing is definitely the hat. You may be able to find one at a thrift shop for cheap but they still sell them at JC Penny’s and other clothing stores. Then a plaid shirt, vest, and perhaps a pair of cargo shorts that are too big and finally some boots. This is all stuff you may be able to find at thrift stores or may just have lying around.


Elphaba

All you need to pull off everyones favorite gravity defying witch is a black cape, some sort of black dress or cloak, a witch’s hat, and green face makeup. All of this can be found at stores that sell Halloween supplies or you may already have.


Enjolras

I’ll be doing the movie version since the broadway version is more complicated. You’re going to need a red jacket preferably suit like and a white button down shirt. Now you need a black tie make sure to leave it loose, Enjolras is rebellious and refuses to wear it properly and black pants and black boots. Bonus points if you can find some red fabric to tie around your waist and use the remainder of that fabric to make a cockade.




Tony

Ok so a tan jacket, white button down shirt, a really skinny tie, and black pants. Congrats you’re now Tony. Now just walk around all night singing Maria and terrifying little kids and you got it. Don’t accidentally stab someone though. Oh hold on, is that spoilers? Is it spoilers if the shows over 50 years old? What if it’s source material is hundreds older than that. Well uh, sorry if I did.



Heather

Which one you ask? That’s up to you. The fun thing about the Heathers is nothing has to be an exact copy just kinda similar. Try to find a green, red, yellow, or blue (if you’re going for Veronica) jacket, It doesn't really matter what you wear under it but the costume looks best with something white and a necklace. Next a skirt, again not all that important as long as the color choice looks good with the jacket. You will also need tall socks preferably with a bit of green, yellow, blue, or red. Finally a pair of stylish shoes, and if you can manage to find one a Croquet mallet. If you’re going as Chandler though the red scrunchie is very important. However if you want to pull off our other lead JD, all black and a black overcoat is really all you need or if you do need a bit of color keep it dark. The edgier the better.



“Ghost Light”

Have to tie it all in somehow. All you need is a white sheet and to cut out three holes for the mouth and eyes. You now have the classic ghost costume but wear a headlamp or hold a flashlight under it and suddenly you’ve become a “ghost light”. Warning: joke may not be very effective around non theatre people/



Well, you have a costume, you know where to, I’d say you’re ready for Halloween. If you’re a kid go out and enjoy yourself, trick or treating is one of man’s greatest achievements after all and if you’re an adult take advantage of the November 1st markdowns. I hope you all learned something today and that sometimes a haunted theatre is just a series of coincidences or a disturbing past and sometimes it’s all completely real. Who knows maybe you’re theatre is haunted. Perhaps it’s the ghost of a harmless actress or maybe its a malignant old director who was murdered and is back for revenge and will bring your entire proscenium crashing down to the stage. Probably not though. Happy Halloween! See you next time.




Attend a Tale for Halloween

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

It was a frigid February afternoon in New York City. My BFF was dragging me to a seedy cinema uptown to catch a British horror movie from 1936. If I remember correctly (and he can always correct me on here if I’m wrong), a friend of his had suggested seeing it.

In hindsight, it was a strange movie. Very 1930s British horror/melodrama. Greed was the motivation behind the monster doing all the killings. He’s caught in his murderous ways. A string of pearls and other valuable jewels stolen while men come in for a shave are recovered. All is right with the world once again. Or is it?

As we near the holiday of All Hallows Eve (a/k/a Hallowe’en), it’s time to drag out the scariest of scary stories, and certainly this movie—in its cheesy way and hammy performances—is a scary story. It’s based on an urban legend told often in penny dreadfuls, with British children in the 19th century warned if they didn’t behave, this villain was going to swoop down and eat them up—with eat being the operative word here, perhaps.

A successful barber with premises at 152 Fleet Street, this villain would seat his unsuspecting victims into his specially constructed barber's chair while lathering their faces. The trick chair would then flip around, throwing the victims through a trap door into the cellar below. If the fall didn’t kill them, the barber would polish them off with his razor. Then he robbed them and dragged their bodies to the basement of his mistress. In turn, she turned these victims into tasty meat pies, which she sold at her pie shop. The demons would relieve the victims of any valuables, including a string of pearls—which ultimately led to their undoing. A determined judge and a pair of lovers help bring the dastardly duo to justice, and they are put on trial at the Old Bailey.

Was this urban legend based a real person? Probably not (despite claims to the contrary). But it’s a great story. And perhaps indicative of the times; even Dickens refers to popping pussies into pies in Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit.

The movie version starred a British actor named (seriously) Tod Slaughter in the lead role of the lustful, villainous, greedy, demon barber on Fleet Street who slit the throats of his customers. Indeed, Slaughter had changed his first name after playing this role on stage because he became so enamored of the character; once a serious British actor, Slaughter had taken a career turn into British horror. In this film, the murderous barber and his next-door neighbor steal valuables off the dead gentlemen (who never thereafter were heard from again?). The trick barber’s chair is essential to the story, of course.


Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd

Ted Slaughter as Sweeney Todd


I’m hoping some of this is beginning to sound familiar.

Having seen well over 1000 musicals over six decades (including the revised and bloody Carrie), I believe Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (based on the play by Christopher Bond) is probably the scariest and bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen onstage (and I’ve seen plays with onstage simulated leg amputations—don’t ask). So, with Hallowe’en fast approaching, what better time is there to take a fresh look at slimy, vengeful Benjamin Barker, er, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

In the 19th century penny dreadfuls and urban legends, Sweeney is just a greedy barber with an evil and equally greedy neighbor. The brilliance of the Christopher Bond play (well worth reading if you can track it down) is giving Sweeney a more human and humane motivation—revenge for the loss of his wife Lucy and daughter Joanna by the truly evil Judge Turpin and his beadle.

Still, as my mother asked when I first described this story to her, “That’s a musical?”

Yes, that’s a musical:

·         A musical featuring an evil dentist/barber (long before Little Shop of Horrors had its own singing and horrifying dentist)

·         A musical with a song of self-flagellation—the Judge’s “Joanna” (Mea Culpa), cut from the original Broadway production but subsequently restored in the opera house version)

·         A musical requiring a gallon or so of stage blood spurting out of a specially-rigged prop razor

·         A musical ending Act I with “A Little Priest” and starting Act II with “God That’s Good” (what, you never made that connection before? It was intentional)

·         A musical ready to rhyme butler (subtler), potter (hotter), but not locksmith; with a “shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”

·         A musical with more onstage deaths than Hamlet

Well, it’s not Rodgers and Hammerstein (thank goodness).

At heart, it’s kind of a twisted love story. Nellie loves Sweeney, who loves his lost Lucy, while Joanna and Anthony love each other, while the Judge lusts after Joanna, and poor Tobias loves Nellie (until she tries to kill him, that is). And does anyone know whatever happened to Mr. Lovett? Just curious.

I first saw Sweeney Todd in the cavernous Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre two weeks after it opened with Len Cariou as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Nellie Lovett. Hal Prince decided it was a story about the grinding down of the working class in Industrial Age London (though there is only one oblique single reference to this in the script: “How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below”), perhaps with the Dickens allusions in mind. Designer Eugene Lee moved a Rhode Island factory to the stage, and every set piece had originated in that factory. It was friggin’ huge.

I returned to the Uris three more times: once with my mother; once to see the last performance with Carious and Lansbury (poor Len had completely lost his singing voice by then, and he had to croak his way through “Epiphany” that night); and once to see George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon as the leads. My BFF and I subsequently traveled to Philadelphia to take in the national tour and to NYC Opera to see the opera house version staged by Prince. Since then, I’ve seen big productions and teeny productions—and they all work no matter what. Sweeney Todd is indestructible.

It is a Grand Guignol-like masterpiece by virtuoso composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In subsequent productions of Sweeney Todd, Prince’s original indictment of the British class system (and decidedly Dickensian turn) has been swept aside—for the most part—with greater emphasis placed on the twisted humanity of the characters. And I could easily argue it is one of the greatest musicals (not operas, to be sure) ever written, as revolutionary in its own way as Show Boat and Oklahoma (both written by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II).

Which brings us back (don’t ask how) to Hallowe’en. There are plenty of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett costumes available online. Sweeney Todd themed parties are a favorite on Pinterest. Haunted houses decorated like a tonsorial establishment in 19th century London are easy to create (with a little imagination and a trick barber’s chair to lure unsuspecting trick-or-treaters to their “doom”—or maybe worse if those damn whippersnappers don’t stay off my lawn). Even cosplay events for Sweeney Todd readings have been staged by regional theatre companies (okay, I suspect they’re just using their costumes from their annual Christmas Carol productions—but these are a lot more fun).

Your good friend Sweeney is waiting for you this Hallowe’en. Are you ready to take up his challenge, bleeders? His chair awaits.

 

Michael Kape is a Grumpy Old Guy® and definitely a cynic, but he does so love a great musical. He also assiduously avoids horror movies though he’s been called a monster by those damn young whippersnappers when he tells them to get off his lawn.