Tuesday, November 17, 2009

... and things that go bump in the night

Posted by Bruce Miller
True story. At least I think it’s true. Sometimes I inadvertently make this stuff up. Someone please help me out if my memories fail to jive with reality.

About 30 years ago, right here in River City, an older woman (watch, it will probably turn out that she was in her mid- to late-50s, younger than I am now) died a week or so after falling off the stage into an orchestra pit in a darkened theatre.

Here name was Margaret Eddington. She and her buddy Jean Alfred used to volunteer at theatres all over town. Or maybe they were employees somewhere. I’m not sure. I guess I knew Margaret either from the erstwhile Children’s Theatre of Richmond, or Rec and Parks (at the Mosque, now Landmark), or Dogwood Dell—maybe all three.

Which brings me to the subject of ghost lights—our third theatre superstition of the week.

Almost every theatre I’ve ever worked in has had a ghost light. We have one at Barksdale at Willow Lawn and another at the historic Empire. And now that I think about it, I ought to run out this week and buy one for the stage at Hanover Tavern and another for the Theatre Gym (the new name as of two weeks ago for the former Little Theatre).

Ghost lights are basically night lights, or safety lights, but you’ll seldom if ever hear them referred to by that name by a theatre insider. The names “night light” and “safety light” have no drama at all, so why use ‘em.

Ghost lights also have their own unique look. Most of them roll on and off-stage on a built-in three-wheeled base. Traditionally, they have no on-and-off switch. To turn one on, you either plug it in or tighten the bulb; to turn it off, you do the opposite. They tend to have long cords, no shades, a single bare bulb of pretty high wattage, and sometimes a capsule-shaped steel cage built around the bare bulb to protect it.

Where does one even buy these things—at Home Depot? Pleasant’s? An occult shop?

Do places other that theatres use them? I don’t know. And if and when they do, do they refer to them as ghost lights?

Let’s face facts—theatre folk love their traditions. And if those traditions come attached to superstitions, all the better.

A ghost light has a very practical purpose. Before leaving the theatre for the night, the stage manager always plugs in the ghost light (or tightens the bulb) and rolls it out to center stage. Only then can the stage manager leave the building.

In practical terms, the ghost light is there to protect the dear Margaret Eddington’s of the world as they creep back on stage in a darkened theatre to retrieve a forgotten prop.

For the superstitious, ghost lights are uniquely theatre-centric. They are there … and I’ve heard both of the following explanations given, but I greatly prefer the first:

1. to continue to light the stage after all the Lekos, Fresnels and PARs have been extinguished, so that the ghosts of the theatre, who emerge only after the muggles have left the building, can once again enjoy their moment in the spotlight; or

2. to ward off evil spirits who otherwise would surely wreak havoc by sawing half-way through stage braces, hiding props, and removing the safety locks from trap doors once the stage manager is no longer watching.

I’ve heard many a story about the ghosts in Hanover Tavern, which surely must have them, being more than 200 years old. Jacquie O’Connor, I believe, has had a close encounter of the third kind.

I too have encountered a ghost or two in my time, but I’ve yet to do so in a Richmond theatre.

If I could only remember which Richmond theatre dear Ms Eddington was in when she took her tumble. Surely there must be a ghost there. I’d love to see her again just to get my facts straight.
Till then, I hope to see YOU at the theatre!

--Bruce Miller


HEK said...

Bruce, I thoroughly enjoy this examination of theater lore and legend. One of the most eerie uses of "the ghostlight" I've seen is when John Astin portrayed Edgar Allan Poe at the Modlin some years ago.

Anonymous said...

No need to buy a safety/night light for Hanover Tavern, there are lights that are left on when the theatre is dark. (a row of lights up against the back wall)

Bruce Miller said...

Oh, I know. There is illumination in the theatre at the Tavern. But call me a traditionalist. Illuminstion is illumination. But only a ghost light is a ghost light.

derek phipps said...

a few summers ago during the run of "odd couple" i found myself alone in the dressing room at the tavern. i'm the only one up there. just me reading my book in the quiet. i can hear the monitor with the faint sounds of what's happening on stage. as you know, if someone is up in that area, you hear them. if someone comes up to use the restroom, you hear them. well, as i'm reading, i hear a huge crash come from the restroom next door. i quickly get up to check it out. the round table that is in there (has candles and such on it, i think) is not just knocked over - it's completely turned over so that it's resting on its top. if it had tipped over because the contents on top of it caused the weight to change, it would not have flipped all the way over. it was neatly placed on it's top. i was there quick enough that i would have seen someone come out if they had been in there.
i dunno. seemed kinda weird. not sayin it's a ghost. as michael hawke would say - "im just sayin..."

thanks for the fun theatre superstitions and such. it's been fun reading

Jennifer Massey said...

These posts are very fun, Bruce... and informative. I thought I knew all this stuff, but I've learned a lot from your shared research. The facts behind the lore are fascinating.

Although, there was one brief moment where it almost sounded like you were saying that Jacquie O'Connor (herself) was 200 YEARS OLD -- and I wondered if you might become the next victim of an unfortunate and oddly mysterious theatre mishap -- but, thankfully, I see that I simply overlooked your proper punctuation the first time through. Nothing like good grammar to dispel a myth!!!

Tim Boucher said...

The stage, ancestrally, is an altar. The ghostlight, then, is the flame which never goes out on the altar which recurs across many religions: Catholicism, Judaism, Vestal virgins of Roma, Vedic tradition, Tombs of Unknown soldiers and various war memorials...

You honor the animating spirit of the theatre, the genius loci:


"In Roman mythology a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted as a snake. In contemporary usage, genius loci usually refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, or a "spirit of place", rather than necessarily a guardian spirit."

If that spirit is honored, it guards and enriches the enterprise undertaken within that space. If it is ignored, trifled with or defiled, it spells ruin for the enterprises undertaken within that space... Theatrical geomancy. Hoodoo. Folk magic.

Why we do theatre in the first place. Forgotten rituals preserved amongst the people in secret.