Friday, July 16, 2004


Backstage It's Always Halloween

            It doesn't have to be October. Anytime can be the time of year where all those in the theater world have that discussion close to our hearts and minds… Are there really theater ghosts? As far as this reporter is concerned, to quote that Neil Diamond tune made famous by The Monkees, I’m a believer.
            When beginning my Equity apprenticeship as assistant stage manager at Shady Lane Playhouse in Marengo, IL, one of my first tasks was to assist the stage manager in cleaning up the backstage area. This was no small job, as it had been trashed by two former disgruntled employees. When these two had been informed that their services were no longer going to be needed, their last good-bye to the small dinner theater was to hurl anything not nailed down in any direction they saw fit.
            Marengo is a small town, some 60 miles outside of Chicago, and Shady Lane Playhouse was a location perfectly suited for campfire tales. The theater was literally in a former barn, with a restaurant and gift shop in adjacent buildings. Actually, my first task was to remove the bird nest from the air cleaner of the company station wagon.
            The backstage area at Shady Lane held two large dressing rooms, a prop storage room, a tool area, a refrigerator and the costume loft.
            The stage manager and I arrived one week before any of the actors were due, and we had the place to ourselves. We spent the first day on the job getting to know each other making small talk while engaged in our drudgery of the massive clean up. Several hours into a very long day of picking up props and tools, sorting them into an organized, sensible manner, and mopping or spraying every dressing room surface, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me. I looked up to the costume loft and saw a man, dressed in a white jacket, looking at me and smiling. The man looked nothing like the stage manager, who was a young, attractive blonde woman from New Jersey.
            I ran up the stairs to the costume loft looking for the intruder. It was the only entrance.
            “What happened?!” She called out to me, nervously.
            “I saw somebody up here!”
            “Oh, my God! Don’t say that!”
            I tore through the loft looking through every pile of clothing. Nothing. She joined me in my futile search.
            “You must have imagined it. We’re tired.”
            “I was sure I saw something!”
            “Well, there’s nothing here.”
            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
            Months passed. The incident was forgotten. Shady Lane had the longest summer stock contract in the U.S., some 40 weeks. The season started with a cast of three and ended with four, with shows in between having casts of up to ten actors. Actors were cast out of New York, and three were with us for the duration, with others having shorter runs in between. Some of the actors had worked there before.
            As each new actor arrived, the standard “getting to know you” sessions would take place. We were all confirmed city people out in the middle of nowhere, working in a theater adjacent to one of Illinois’ largest hog farms.
            One of the later arrivals was an actress who had worked there for several seasons. For her, working at Shady Lane was sort of a summer get-away and qualify for this year’s health insurance gig. We engaged in small talk surrounding the theater and its oddities.
            “So have you seen the ghost?” She asked me.
            “What ghost?” I said with a tone of incredulity.
            “The theater has a ghost.”
            “Yeah, right, sure, the theater has a ghost.” I was totally dismissive.
            “He hangs out in the costume loft and wears a white jacket. We think it’s Frank, the original owner. Several people have seen him over the years.”
            Chills immediately washed over me. I had never mentioned the incident again and it was her first day there. I saw his face. Now I’m a believer. Not a trace… of doubt in my mind… 

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