Monday, October 31, 2011

There's Something About Mary (And It's Not Scary)

The Grand Opera House burned down and was rebuilt as The Orpheum in 1928
 With Halloween upon us, our thoughts turn to the spookier side of life. Here at The Orpheum, some creepy history lives close to the surface year round. Like most old buildings, The Orpheum has a long memory, and not all of it is pleasant.

A spritely man sporting a bow tie, glasses, and curled mustache, Vincent Astor has a long history with The Orpheum. Since the late 1960s he has worn many hats here, from serving popcorn when The Orpheum was a Malco movie theatre, to manager, to organist. The last role remains his favorite. When asked if he'd be interested in talking to us about The Orpheum's spookier side for this blog post, his first question was if the organ would be available. Sadly, it had been put away in the basement for Tosca's performances over the weekend, but Vincent was still willing to talk ghosts.

When people think of Orpheum ghosts, Mary is often the first one to come to mind. But according to a team of parapsychologists from the University of Memphis who performed an investigation at The Orpheum several years ago, Mary is only one of several Orpheum spirits. This is backed up by accounts from many employees over the years. One of these other spirits is said to dwell in the Upper Gallery. House manager Stanley Hightower once bolted from that area after seeing a luminous figure making its way down the aisle. Current building manager Richard Reinach spoke of a particularly creepy encounter several years ago during a bomb sweep of the building prior to a visit from Anwar Saddat's wife. "It was just me, a cop, and the bomb sniffing dog, everyone else was cleared out of the building. We go up to the Upper Gallery, and the dog just lays down and won't move. We're trying to drag him, get him up the stairs, but he's not having it. This is a trained dog. We all just left, we didn't want to be there anymore." Others spoke of feelings of sadness and discomfort in the women's bathroom on the gallery level. "I've heard people call her Eleanor, but I don't have anything to back up that name. She's just very unhappy." When asked for details, Vincent is reluctant to talk about her. "Once I was changing a light bulb in that room, and I just had this feeling, like sticking your hand in cold liver. It was awful."

But when it comes to discussing The Orpheum's most famous ghost, Mary, all of his reluctance vanishes.

"Her story isn't a gory one. It's very sweet."

Stories about Mary first began to circulate years ago. Workers heard a high, girlish voice in empty hallways. Tools were moved when backs were turned. A little girl in a white dress and braids was spotted in the lower gallery box, third row, which is now known as her favorite seat. Although "C5" is  what her favorite seat is called most often, it hasn't actually been C5 since the Malco folding seats were removed during the first major renovation in 1986. "It's not a good seat for watching" says Vincent. "You see everything at a slant. But it is a great seat for being seen, and I think that's why she likes it."

Vincent and Mary have known each other for years. He and some friends performed a seance on The Orpheum stage in April 1979, using a Ouija board and some atmospheric blue light. Her name and the date "1921" appeared over and over. Vincent decided to play the organ. What happened next was frightening. From The Orpheum History:
Teresa Spoone was with a small group of people.  They were in the theatre late, and they also were listening to Vincent Astor play the organ.  Each time he played Never Never Land, the theatre became ‘deathly cold,’ as Spoone describes it.  A couple of people in the group noticed a faint light dart in from the lobby and jump down behind some seats in the back.  Spoone admits that she was ‘scared to go into the lobby, because I knew something was out there.  It was just on overpowering feeling.’  Upon looking in the lobby Spoone and two others saw a little girl with brownish hair dancing in the distance.

Against her will, Spoone felt compelled to go to the little girl.  This was ‘ extremely frightening,’ she said ‘ because while my mind was telling me there’s no such thing as a ghost, something was drawing me to this particular spot.  You just see this form of a little girl and you have to go to her.’  Spoone made it halfway up the center aisle before she caught herself’ It was like she was calling me. That really scared me, because I felt if I went near her, I’d never come back the same.”

Two members of the party did, however venture into the lobby.  When they got there, the apparition disappeared.  At this point a furious rattling and rumbling began in the broom closet just off the lobby.  Neither of the two could muster the gumption to open the door and look into the closet.  They quickly returned to the others.  The rattling stopped.  But the little girl returned.  All in all, the appearance lasted for over 45 minutes.  The intense feeling of being watched, and the cold, persisted for the remainder of their stay in the theatre.
Although the experience was startling, Vincent doesn't think Mary is dangerous or scary. "We think she died outside the theatre, wandered in, and decided to stay. She doesn't mean any harm."

When asked about why spirits find the Orpheum so attractive, Vincent smiled.

"When actors get on the stage here, they're spending a lot of energy to make you, the audience, believe something that isn't really happening. When the audience comes inside The Orpheum, they suspend their belief at the door. And when those two energies meet at the floor lights, anything can happen."

Some believe The Orpheum rests on powerful ley lines, making it an attractive place for lonely spirits. But as Vincent explains, the source for some of the spooky occurrences may be a bit more mundane.

"I used to see this flash of light fly through the theatre, and could never explain it. Until one day, a bus drove by the front of the building and I saw how its windows caught the light, beamed it through the glass, and finally came in the theatre through a cracked door. I was pretty excited when I figured that out." Later, he takes us to the Upper Gallery, where several staff members have reported uneasy feelings and negative experiences "If you stand here and lean back and forth, you can tell that the floor on this level is actually tilted. If you're not aware of it, it can really make you feel off."

Vincent Astor playing "Never Never Land"
Of course, not everything that happens here can be so easily explained. And although Vincent tells me that during the last ghost investigation he was involved with here an investigator claimed that they had helped Mary "move on", he thinks she's very much still present. "She likes it here. It's a place for magic and make believe, and she chooses to be here. It's a good place." Before we go, he plays "Never Never Land" on the piano (a poor substitute for his beloved Wurlitzer organ, sadly). Still, as the last bars drift away into the silence, he smiles. "She was listening, I could tell."

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