KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone goes ghost hunting on San Diego’s stages.
Related Story: Are San Diego's Theaters Haunted?
CAVANAUGH: There's a small light left burping overnight in most theatres called a ghost light. You might imagine us to make a big deal about that name considering that it's Halloween. But the theatre ghost light can't really be for ghosts, can it? KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone went looking for that answer which slowly began to materialize right before her eyes. Hi Angela.
CARONE: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: What is this ghost light? What does it look like?
CARONE: A ghost light is a single light bulb on a stand, and it's usually encased in a wire casing, and it is on -- most theatres have them, and it's put on the stage, and somewhere in the middle of the strange or by its edge, and the reasons for it are very practical. It's for safety. You don't want anyone walking into a dark theatre. There are generally, like, set pieces there, there can be wires and cords, and then of course you want to know where the edge of the stage is if it's dark, right? So most theatres havem this. It's the last light that's left on at night before the theatre is closed down. So there's always a light burning overnight in the theatre.
CAVANAUGH: That's really interesting. I don't think a lot of people know that. You said okay, you said the practical reasons. What are other reasons?
CARONE: Well, there are superstitious reasons, and these go back quite a bit in history as well, dating back not surprisingly to even Shakespeare. And that version was the candle burning, right? So basically this is the superstition that a light is left on because when everyone leaves the theatre, that's when the ghosts come out. And some believe that the ghost light is left on to ward off ghosts torque keep them away. Others take a friendlier approach, and they believe that you leave the ghost light on because the ghosts might want to come out and perform their -- a play overnight. I've even heard that there is a tradition of leaving three or so seats in the front down because the ghosts might want to watch!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: So there is this whole idea that a number of the ghosts who inhabit theatres are actually dead actors, and so I guess presumably they want want to hone their skills overnight and put on a performance. So you leave the light on for them.
CAVANAUGH: Another time on stage. Now, what happens to a theatre if they don't go along with this and don't have a ghost light? Is that bad luck?
CARONE: Terrible things, Maureen. Terrible, disastrous things.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: I did hear about a local theatre here in town that doesn't have a ghost light. And the stage manager there thinks that because of that, they do have a ghost. And apparently this is sort of terrifying the crew. The front of house chimes will go off with no reason, they'll see strange people in the theatre, stuff will fall off the walls with no explanation. She thinks all this is happening because they don't have a ghost light.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this really sort of plays into the whole idea of theatre people being very superstitious, right?
CARONE: Yes, absolutely. I've probably heard the most famous superstition in the theatre world is that you don't say McBeth in the theatre or you'll curse the production. And you have to say the Scottish play, and there's this whole ritual if you do say McBeth, you can right the wrong by going out the theatre and you spin around to your left three times and pit over your right shoulder, and then you swear, and then you knock on the stage door and have to ask to be let back! Haugh laugh
CARONE: And the reason for superstitions, she talked a lot about how live performances can be a dangerous endeavor. Going back through history, theatres would burn down because there are flammable objects around and candles burning. And modern performances, Spider-Man after dark, we know what happened there. Then there's just the nature of live performance. You forget a line, you have stage fright, all these things feel dangerous. So superstitions are one of the ways that you get the spirits on your side. The professor I spoke with, Emily Roxworthy, she's a historian and she talked about the superstition that you don't whistle in theatres. And here's what she had to say.
(Audio Recording) ROXWORTHY: One of the superstitions that is still very, very much followed is that you don't whistle in a theatre because historically, when the fly systems in theatres, set pieces that come down from the rafters by ropes, and again today things are more automated, but back in the day, those were run by sailors because sailors were very experienced by ropes. So they were brought into the theatres, and as the saying goes, they're often drunken sailors, and their sign on a ship to pull the ropes would be to whistle. So even if an actor were whistling on stage, the sailor might drop the fly on the actor's head. So you didn't whistle in the theatre because it might call the flies in.
CAVANAUGH: Now, while you were researching this piece, not only hearing about these fascinating superstitious lore that go with the theatre, were the ghost stories that people said happened in theatres were their accelerates between them?
CARONE: Absolutely. Yeah, I heard a lot of dead actor stories, the woman who didn't get the part she wanted or was spurned by a lover so she hung herself from the fly ropes backstage. Lots of cold spaces. People talking about part of the stage that remained cold when everything around it was warm, or cold dressing rooms, lots of sounds, unexplainable noises. Lights flickering, that kind of thing. Sean Murray who is the artistic director at signet talked a lot about the kinds ghosts that he has been acquainted with over time. And here's how he described them.
ROXWORTHY: There's something -- I don't know, again, there's something about the space, a theatre space where there is an energy, a puckish energy that will move things, change things. You set something down, and you'll find it somewhere else. I personally have seen in this theatre at the Old Town theatre, I see things out of the corner of my eye, I'll see movement or -- I don't want to say a person, but I see movement or something like somebody walking past. And there's nothing there. But I'll see that out of the corner of my eye, I'll see a grid where I think somebody is walking along the top of the grid, and you look up and there's nothing up there.
CAVANAUGH: Now, are they pulling your leg? Does Sean Murray really believe this?
CARONE: He does believe it, actually. He has -- the one thing I did learn in doing this story that I can say for a fact is true is that theatre people tell very good stories.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: They are great storytellers. And Sean has some great stories. He talked about performing at the old lyceum theatre downtown, and he wasn't the only person to tell me that that theatre had ghosts. It was an old vaudeville theatre and --
ROXWORTHY: And the other four of us, we were all on stage -- offstage left waiting for her to finish. And as we were watching her perform, one of the girls said, look out there. And we all kind of looked offstage, onto the stage, and the lady was out there performing by herself, facing the audience. And right next to her and right behind her was a kind of shadow figure mocking her, doing her movements with her, and kind of making fun of her. We could -- and all four of us saw it.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: Are you screened out?
CAVANAUGH: A little bit.
CARONE: Yeah, and Sean said that afterwards, they talked with her, and she said that she felt like the performance was really odd. Before they told her when they saw, she felt something off about the whole thing, and she felt like she was being watched. And that was the other thing that I heard too. A lot of people talked about just the sense that they were being watched. The security guard at the Old Globe, and I talked to some people who work in the admin building there, and the administration building for the globe is really old. The theatre burnt down in the 70, so it's newer, but the admin building is very old. And I heard story of late at night furniture being moved on the second floor, or the rush of foot steps behind someone in the hallway, they could feel the vibration and the sound of footsteps. The security guard said she thinks that Craig knoll who is the founder of The Old Globe Theatre, that his ghost hangs around the theatre late at night. And she can smell the faint smell of cigarette smoke, and I guess he was a cigarette smoker. And she can still smell that in different places in the administration building.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let's just get serious about things here! Is this because theatres are, you know, if there's not an audience, they're just big, empty places with a lot of noise and a lot of lightning of different effects and things of that nature?
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: I think that's part of it. I think it comes down to how you explain unexplainable things. I've been in a lot of empty theatres now, having worked on this story, and they are spooky places because they are so big and cavernous, and a little noise will startle you, and it's dark. So yes, I think there is -- the story that I heard from security guards and people who work in the tech, in the background technical aspects of theatre, and making it all happen, they tend to have these stories and beliefs as well because things that they have to fix, sometimes they can't fix them or something goes wrong. So there are all those kinds of stories. I think that there's also a lot of reverence for old theatres in the community. I think you -- a performance, a fantastic performance happens and there's no way to capture it. It just hangs around. And so there's this reverence for what the theatre -- that old theatre has witnessed. It's sort of a testimony to all of that. And I also think that as I said, theatre people are great story tellers, and like a game of telephone, they tell their story, and the next person amps it up a little bit more, and it becomes this great legend.
CAVANAUGH: We heard about the actress on stage, and the actors in the wings, and the technical people seeing ghosts in San Diego theatres. Do audiences ever see ghosts?
CARONE: Well, based on my interview, it seems that the ghosts come out at night and are kind of only visible to theatre people. I didn't talk to any audience member who is have seen them. So they tend to come out late at night. And the stories tent to be known within the theatre community. So I think audiences can feel like they're safe.
CAVANAUGH: When I heard your feature that played this morning and I knew that we were going to be talking about this, I found out that there are these legends like London's Drury lane theatre, very old, has a man in gray. And he wears riding boots and a powdered wig, a tricorn hat. But they say he's the apparition of a fellow whose skeletal remains were found in a walled up room in the late 19th century.
CARONE: I had two people tell me at their theatres they have a ghost, and separately they said their name was Charley. Like I don't know if that's -- I haven't been able to find that that's a common occurrence throughout theatres. But they both happened to name the ghost Charley. And it goes back to what Sean said about it being this kind of puckish energy that just disrupts things, that makes things go wrong before a production. I think the same theatre that you were talking about also, there was a story about a ghost who got in a fight with another actor and stabbed him over a wig.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CARONE: So he still haunts the theatre.
CAVANAUGH: This is a perfect Halloween story. Thank you so much.
CARONE: You're welcome. It was fun.