Revenue / 10.27.20
Ghost Tours Are Scaring Up Additional Revenue for Theaters This Year
There is an old saying, “For everything there is a season.” Well, it’s been Halloween season this past month, and some theaters and performing arts centers have used October to overcome the rather scary prospects of empty seats and vacant stages. How? By offering special ghost tours!
If a theater has been around for at least a decade or more, chances are a ghost or two has crept in and become legend among the actors, directors, managers and patrons. In the pandemic era, many operators feel that if spirits have indeed taken up residence in their theater, they might as well help in generating some sorely needed revenue during these troubled times.
Some have been offering such tours for years now. Take, for example, the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, Illinois. Ticketing/Patron Services Manager Larry Frievalt says, “This is our fifth year doing the Genesee GhostWauk tours. Every year we announce the tour, it sells out. This year, we scheduled 18 tours running every 90 minutes on Friday and Saturday evenings. All scheduled tours sold out in seven days after the announcement.”
The Genesee’s tours have proven to be so popular that Frievalt and his staff have individuals purchasing private tours for groups of 10 to 20 people on nonscheduled days. “Although it’s not a huge profit,” he says, “we are generating revenue and getting the word out that we are open for business.”
The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, has also been offering ghost tours at its Belk Theater, McGlohon Theater and Booth Playhouse. Vice President of Marketing Wendy Oglesby still marvels at the tours’ success. The 21 Ghost Tours she and her staff have offered during October sold out instantly from a single email. “We didn’t even get around to posting them on our social channels,” she says. “Our learning from this is that the public is starved for fun, especially things that tie into things they especially miss — like the normal Halloween haunts and visits to our theaters. Our programming team is constantly looking for safe, socially distanced activities we can do in our spaces, in particular our outdoor courtyards.”
Richard Powers, Director of Ticket Sales and Customer Service for the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, was similarly impressed. “Of the 21 Ghost Tours,” he says, “around half of them were private buyouts where a single party bought out all the slots on the tour. From the money side, it is great to see a stream of revenue coming in, especially with such a low expense associated with the events.”
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center tours logo
Oglesby says, “With COVID-19 limitations, the financial benefit of our tours is appreciated. But that’s not really the point. These have been a great way to keep fans and our staff engaged and generate some revenue during a time when it is exceptionally hard for any theater to do either of these things. It also has been a great experience for our staff. Our Ghost Tour leaders were volunteers from multiple departments. So many folks who work for us have performance backgrounds, and this has given them an opportunity to do something they love doing: entertaining our guests!”
To convince the paying public to come back to their theaters for a nonstaged event, some safety precautions had to be put in place. With regards to the Genesee Theater, Frievalt and his colleagues mandated that all reservations must be made in advance — no walk-up sales. “This also gave us contact information to assist in the event of contact tracing,” he says. “In addition, all tickets are digitally sent by text to the purchaser. We have adjusted the flow of the tour so there is little overlap, and we provide additional time for our facilities staff to clean and sanitize all areas patron have walked through.”
Photo from a Genesee ghost tour.
Genesee staffers have also installed proper signage reminding patrons to maintain social distancing and have provided hand sanitizer in all areas, including at the top and bottom of all stairways. All guests are required to wear face masks. Tour guides, meanwhile, wear a face shield so patrons can read lips if they need to.”
Susan Rodenbeck, Ticketing Services Manager for the Tennessee Theatre and Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, also touted the measures her staff took to keep patrons safe while on the Bijou’s recent ghost tours. “We limited capacity to 36 people total and broke out into three groups of 12 to ensure social distancing,” she says. “We asked patrons a set of screening questions upon entry and checked their temperatures. Also, all attendees were required to wear a mask while inside the theater.”
Being involved with the planning and execution of ghost tours, those interviewed for this article couldn’t help but have a favorite spooky story of their own centered on their respective venues. Powers’ No. 1 comes from the McGlohon Theater, which was originally built in 1909 by the First Baptist Church and used as a sanctuary. It was restored and opened as a theater in 1980.
The McGlohon Theater
“During tech rehearsal in the McGlohon Theater several years ago,” he says, “there was a lady in a long blue dress sitting in the front row of the balcony. She would sit in one seat for a few minutes, then move to another seat, etc. She was seen by several the cast, as they were talking about how distracting she was backstage. On stage, it caused them to lose focus and wonder what in the world she was doing and why she couldn’t sit still. The stage managers hadn’t seen anyone come in, so they raised the house lights to see who was there. But when they did, there was no one there. She was gone! With the way the venue is configured, she couldn’t exit the balcony without someone seeing her. Even after sending someone upstairs to look for her in the front part of the McGlohon, she was nowhere to be found.”
Oglesby was quick to add, “The ‘Top Hat’ ghost is my favorite. We’ve had multiple employees see a man in a top hat sitting in the empty Belk and Booth theaters — they adjoin each other and share a backstage. He’s always close to the front of the theater, and several employees have seen him literally disappear before their eyes.”
Frievalt has been working for his venue since its 2004 reopening. He was recently designated its historian, so he was eager to chime in. “My favorite story occurred shortly after the passing of our accounting manager in 2013,” he says. “While doing a tour that same year, I was talking about unexplained phenomena. It was then both the guests and I were overcome with the smell of pipe smoke. Our accounting manager smoked a pipe. His clothes, office, everything he owned reeked of pipe smoke!”
Rodenbeck relates a more historical tale. The Bijou Theatre was constructed in 1909 as an addition to an existing hotel that was originally built in 1816. The hotel was also used as a Civil War hospital. “Sadly, many people took their last breaths in the building,” she says. “The most famous death that occurred here was that of General William P. Sanders. Many people who report having visual ghost sightings in the hotel/theater say they see a tall man in a solider uniform. So, we believe that’s General Sanders walking around keeping an eye on the place.”
So, why have so many theaters and performing arts venues become the sites of supernatural activity over the decades? What attracts the ghostly, the otherworldly and the undead to the stage and backstage? Powers had a thought: “Spirits tend to be attracted to places where they have fond memories and places that experience the full range of human emotions. Thinking about the impact shows have on people, making them laugh, making them cry, it’s no surprise they attract the supernatural.”
Rodenbeck picked up on Powers’ emotions theory, adding, “By nature, theaters evoke a great deal of emotion from thousands of visitors. And, over time, I think little bits of energy are collected and stored throughout the building, making it a hotbed for supernatural activity.”
Perhaps Oglesby had the best theory of them all. “Maybe even ghosts need to be entertained,” she says. “There would be a lot worse ways to spend eternity than hanging out in a theater watching Broadway shows!”
In the spirit of Halloween, check out these 13 theater superstitions from Broadway Direct!
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Tags: Theater , Venues , Leadership , COVID-19 , Coronavirus