People have asked us why, in theater, we leave a single cage light center stage when everyone goes home for the night. The answer is obvious: to appease the ghosts, of course.
We all know there’s no business like show business, and the old joke goes that actors don’t retire; they die. However, even death can’t keep some actors off stage, and superstition holds that every theater has its ghosts – some more active than others.
Judy Garland still appears at the Palace Theater on Broadway, for example, by the special entrance the theater constructed for her during her last performance there, and stage workers across the country report opening a theater to find mysteriously rearranged set pieces, things that go missing and reappear in odd places, apparitions, voices, strange laughter.
It is hard to get rid of the theater bug, even for those who should be walking into the light instead of tap dancing underneath it. Thus: the ghost light, a solitary pole light that has a metal cage around its incandescent bulb, placed downstage center when a theater is not in use.
In a business that competes only with sports in its reliance on the practice of superstition, the ghost light stands as a centuries-old tradition that helps illuminate a dark, lonely theater for the ghosts that linger, waiting for their chance to perform. Happy ghost actors are less likely to interfere with a live performance or sabotage an actor by making a sudden appearance before a cue. The last person to leave a theater is responsible for igniting the ghost light; the first person to arrive in the morning extinguishes it. This way, there is never an empty, dark theater, and the specters enjoy another run in the spotlight.
The Straz Center for the Performing Arts has no known ghosts – yet. “We’re not that old,” says Michael Chamoun, director of production services. “No strange occurrences. Unfortunately. But we leave on the ghost light for the same reasons – to appease any ghosts that might be here and give them a chance to perform.”
If a theater is around long enough, eventually tragedy shows its face, usually as a death on stage or the passing of a beloved (or despised) actor or theater worker. In Tampa, the most well-known theater ghost is “Fink,” the former projectionist who remains in the Tampa Theater casting shadows, creeping over new projectionists with the cold chills, or opening doors. “I’ve known a lot of projectionists at Tampa Theater,” Chamoun says, “and they all have the same stories of cold winds and such. We [at the Straz] are only going into our 26th year, so we’re lucky that we don’t have anyone to haunt us.”
Still, the three main stages – Carol Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater – all sport ghost lights through the night, for two main reasons. “It’s bad luck if a theater goes dark, so we keep the light on as part of that superstition, but the reality is it’s for safety. People walk where they’re not supposed to, and the light at the end of the stage keeps people from falling off.”
The last reason explains why there is no ghost light in the Shimberg Playhouse or the TECO Theater: these two houses don’t have elevated stages, so there is no threatening precipice. Be certain though, that should the need arise, Chamoun and his electrical staff will supply these theaters with a ghost light if the Straz ever finds itself with a Fink or Casper or Judy Garland of its own.
One suspect legend of the origin of the ghost light states that a burglar stole into a theater at night and fell off the stage into the pit, breaking his leg (there is an acting joke in here somewhere), and later sued the theater—and won—for not providing adequate lighting. Thus theaters began to leave the ghost light to avoid litigation, although the idea of ghosts holding phantom versions of vaudeville acts at 2 a.m. is more plausible than the Tale of the Litigious Thief.
Another historical speculation about the origin of the ghost light dates to pre-electricity, when theaters were heated with coal-burning gas lamps. The lamps, powered by coal gas generators, would build up gas in the lines and cause them to blow up until someone figured out that burning a lamp during the night prevented gas explosions. However, a live flame in a wood theater overnight did not prevent fire, and hundreds of theaters burned down from 1800 until Edison perfected his electric light bulb.
Somewhere between fact and fiction, fun and function, lies theater. And so it is with the ghost light as well, our solitary beacon through the night promising that, no matter what, and for whom, the show must go on.