Leadership / 10.21.20
Ghost Lights: Historic Tradition, Spooktacular Stories, Symbol of Resiliency and a New Podcast
Shadowy figures walking across the grid, the silence of an empty theater broken by the slapping of seats in the unoccupied balcony above, a men’s room faucet that often turned itself on … mysterious sights and sounds are commonplace in many theaters across North America and abroad.
“I have worked in multiple theaters that I swear to God are haunted,” says lifelong arts industry professional and actor Joe Guglielmo. “I wouldn’t say I ever felt cold, scared or frightened, but you definitely knew that there was a presence there.”
Indeed, according to Playbill magazine, no fewer than nine Broadway theaters boast of a ghostly presence. And, not so long ago, a headline in England’s Daily Mail newspaper asked, “Is this theater haunted?” after security footage in a small 19th century theater building captured the spooky moment when a chair moved on its own, hours after a medium’s show had ended and everyone had gone home. More than 2 million people have since viewed the footage on YouTube.
“We had multiple things happen when I ran the Majestic Theatre in Boston,” Guglielmo says. “People were either freaked out by it or totally embraced it. I would say no one ever felt unsafe that I know of, and people were pretty chill with what was going on. Occasionally, someone would be completely freaked out by something happening, but most of the staff at the theater would say goodnight to the ghosts on their way out.”
After many years as an actor, producer and theater manager, Guglielmo is now Director of Consumer Ticketing and Membership for AudienceView. His job and life outside of work would normally keep him too busy to be idly speculating about ghostly encounters. But, with the ongoing pandemic and much of the industry still waiting in the wings due to COVID-19, these recent months were the perfect time to indulge in the stories surrounding historic venues. Thus, while sitting at home “going stir crazy” on one dark, cold night in April, Guglielmo decided to channel his passion into a podcast, which he appropriately called Ghost Lights.
“I was trying to figure out names, and Ghost Lights kept coming up,” he says. “I was thinking, ghosts of the past, how did something begin? How does it continue? The ghost light always being on. It just seemed to be an image that kept coming up. I kept looking at images of venues where there were ghost lights sitting on stages, so it just kind of happened.”
Ghost lights sitting on stages? Yes, indeed. As most who work in arts and entertainment are well aware, all these darkened theaters are not quite as dark as the public might think. Most have a solitary light that is left on at all times, “usually on a stage, so you never leave a theater completely dark,” Guglielmo says.
The origin of the ghost light is somewhat murky. While there is no doubt that the light is left burning for safety reasons — you wouldn’t want someone accidentally falling 10 feet into the orchestra pit — the whole thing has taken on a life of its own. One superstition suggests the light is meant to keep spirits away, while another says the light attracts actors who are no longer with us back to the stages where they long to be once again.
“When people think about this sort of thing,” says Guglielmo, “they think about historic theaters that have been around a while, that have a pedigree of having great performers and amazing things happen in them. I am a firm believer that theaters have energy within them from the people who go through them and the performances that have played there. I think that want of connecting the past to the present is really where this comes from.”
Making that connection is also how Guglielmo’s Ghost Lights podcast materialized. He chooses a theater and tells its story — past and present — in an engaging soundscape available wherever you find your favorite podcasts. There is also an option for his audience to listen and view photos via the Ghost Lights website.
“The podcast is going to introduce you to who actually built the theater, the history of what has happened to that theater from the time that it was built until today, a little bit about the architect of the theater and the design of the theater, and usually a description of what is happening within the theater. These buildings are community icons. They tend to anchor communities. They tend to be a central gathering place. They are a place to create memories. And they are a place that harkens back to the past a lot of times where, for example, a parent and a child will go see something in the same theater or you walk into an awe-inspiring experience. We may be building new theaters, but we do not build theaters that look like they did in the 1920s or 1930s anymore. That is not really today’s design aesthetic, nor do I know if we could actually afford to build theaters like that anymore. I think connecting the dots of why things look the way they did then, what the experience was meant to evoke and how the building was used all gives us a connection — not only to our past, but also to current times.”
Guglielmo started with a theater that he was very familiar with, Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, where he was House Manager for six years. Among other tales from that venue, he recalls a story of the first musical to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
“‘Of Thee I Sing’ went through major birthing at the Majestic where songs were thrown out, scenes were discarded, major parts were rewritten,” says Guglielmo. “That lives within that building. It was one of the Gershwin’s first huge hits … so there are fun little pieces and granules of history to be found as well.”
At first, Guglielmo stuck with the familiar, but he soon started to spread out into other areas of interest with later episodes.
“After the Majestic, I started featuring theaters that I had played or visited, places where I had firsthand knowledge of what the inside of the venue looks like. After that, I started choosing theaters with an interesting past or otherwise significant story of some kind,” he says.
Because of the pandemic, Guglielmo says this is the longest period of time since 1987 that he has not physically set foot in a theater. And still, as much as he longs for the pandemic to end and the venues to again fill up with paying customers, he also misses that unique and rare occasion when he could just sit by himself and soak in the atmosphere.
“I love a dark, lonely theater with nothing on but a ghost light,” he says. “That solitary moment is one of those experiences that only people who work in the theater get. It is just a very different feeling from when the theater is full. It is very still and reflective and evolves into that whole ‘the theater is the temple’ kind of analogy. But it is different to sit around when it’s dead quiet with a ghost light on when you know that there’s going to be a show tomorrow.”
Still, while the floodlights may be darkened, that one solitary ghost light has become a beacon of hope for our industry, which has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
“I think the ghost light has come to symbolize resiliency. I think similar to a lighthouse or a beacon put in somebody’s house, the idea that there is something waiting for you there, that the theater is waiting for you to come home, that there is still love, respect and the ability to want that type of experience and the lights to be on. I think it is just becoming more and more of a symbol of resiliency as this pandemic goes on and on.”
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Tags: Venues , Leadership