2005-10-26 / Lifestyles

Phantoms of the Opera House

Two spend night in haunted theater
by ROBERT E. KUPCZYK Reporter

Bob Kupczyk of The Bee Group Newspapers, left, and filmmaker Thomas LaChiusa, hope to catch a glimpse of the ghostly Lady in Lavender for LaChiusa’s documentary “Haunted Theaters of WNY.” Actors have said they’ve seen the apparition from the stage. Photo by John Rusac Bob Kupczyk of The Bee Group Newspapers, left, and filmmaker Thomas LaChiusa, hope to catch a glimpse of the ghostly Lady in Lavender for LaChiusa’s documentary “Haunted Theaters of WNY.” Actors have said they’ve seen the apparition from the stage. Photo by John Rusac “Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

-The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

he above certainly does not apply to the Lancaster Opera House, where some say two spirits, Priscilla, aka the Lady in Lavender,

and William, walk among

living theatergoers.

I was intrigued by the Opera House after reading about the Lady and William in local supernatural historian Mason Winfield’s excellent book “Spirits of the Great Hill.”

I wanted to see for myself if these ghosts roam the Lancaster Opera House, so I set up a sleep-over, minus a sleeping bag and sleep, in the Opera House. Of course, I was too chicken to do it alone, so I brought a friend, Thomas LaChiusa, coincidentally, a local actor.

Bob Kupczyk explores the low-ceiling dressing room of the Lancaster Opera House, where the Lady in Lavender has been known to come through, bringing a cold chill and the scent of perfume. Photo by John Rusac Bob Kupczyk explores the low-ceiling dressing room of the Lancaster Opera House, where the Lady in Lavender has been known to come through, bringing a cold chill and the scent of perfume. Photo by John Rusac LaChiusa has been talking about doing a documentary on haunted theaters in the area for a few years, so I thought, kill two birds (hopefully not us) with one stone — I get a story and he gets something for the film. The ultimate goal, though, was to find some ghosts.

We arrived at the Opera House around 10 p.m. on Oct. 5, armed with three video cameras, three tape recorders, a digital camera, a couple of flashlights and, of course, extra batteries. In true ghost hunter fashion, I wore my Scooby-Doo sweatshirt.

Lancaster Opera House Executive Director Thomas Kazmierczak III, was our host for the evening. He gave us the story behind Priscilla and William in the dimly lit theater. I wondered if they were listening.

The two were romantically involved actors who performed at the Opera House. They eventually broke up and Priscilla moved to Virginia, while William continued to tour. William then decided to go to Priscilla. Before he arrived, though, she was murdered in Virginia. Kazmierczak said the two lovers have been calling the Opera House home for

years.

There are many stories from actors T who while on stage have seen the Lady watching performances from the audience right side of the balcony.

Kazmierczak said Priscilla is usually seen watching a performance that features young female actresses around her age or younger. He said she probably died between the age of 24 to 26.

As recent as during the run of “Over the Tavern” in mid-October, Lisa Brown of Buffalo Ghost Hunters told me she spotted a young woman in period dress in the balcony during a performance — two days after LaChiusa and I were there.

A young actress, Jennifer Dref, told me she saw the apparition in the balcony during a performance of “The Secret Garden” a few years back. She also said a friend in the cast saw the spirit.

Priscilla’s lover, William, is a friendly poltergeist who, according to stories, opens doors, runs the elevator after hours and moves papers around.

Joe Bucheker, a performer who has done some directing at LOH, told me actors wouldn’t use the elevator during shows because sometimes it would stop between floors.

We then received a tour with Kazmierczak as our guide, which included the theater itself, backstage area, dressing room, stairway area outside the theater, and the attic. We couldn’t get into the bell tower as it was unsafe, according to Kazmierczak. All other areas were open for us to explore.

We then set up shop. LaChiusa set up some cameras, one in the balcony centered on where the Lady appears, and one from the stage aimed at that area.

While he was alone in the theater setting up a camera in the balcony I returned with Kazmierczak.

“Were you guys just up in the attic?” LaChiusa asked. We told him no. He then told us he heard two loud thuds from above. It set a nice ghostly tone for the night.

Another strange thing was LaChiusa told me his camera kept going out of focus when pointed at that area in the balcony. I noticed the focus on my camera, too, was a little batty while filming.

I set up three voice-activated tape recorders, one in the balcony where the Lady appears, and two backstage. In the balcony, I stood on the step above where she is said to stand. It let out a loud creak, which was good if she happened to come by.

I did the usual ghost hunting thing in the balcony and asked a simple question out loud to the recorder, “What is your name?” Even though I knew darn well what her name was, I would have to listen to the tape later to find out if she answered.

After a while we took the cameras and did a little exploring. I took one to the dressing room, a long rectangle with individual cubicle-like small changing rooms. Here, I found the focus on the camera acting up a bit.

I opened the, literally, creaking cubicle doors slowly while filming, hoping to catch a glimpse of something. I took the camera in the claustrophobic space and sat down on a chair and closed the door, still filming. After a minute or two, I decided that with no one around, these cramped dressing stalls were downright creepy, and headed out the door leading to the backstage area.

If the dressing room, with all the lights on, was a little frightening, backstage was scarier with little light, except for the theater ghostlight, aptly named, as it shed a dim eerie glow that illuminated enough light for a ghost to see.

I came out onto the stage where LaChiusa was sitting with his back to me. He had headphones on to help in filming and reeled around quickly as he picked me up in the sensitive microphone. Laughing, he told me not to do that again.

The floor and balcony of the LOH has quite a creaky floor, which in the quiet theater quickly grabs your attention. The creaking never followed a pattern, though, like someone walking ... here a creak, there a creak, everywhere a creak, creak ... .

A little before 2 a.m., LaChiusa and I headed to the attic. The stairway is long and shadowy. While up there, the loud 2 o’clock bell chime came from the tower, making me jump into LaChiusa’s arms like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Not really, but it did startle two grown men badly.

In the attic, we asked the spirits if they were there to show us a sign. Did they? Of course not. I don’t think they perform on command.

The attic is spooky, as there are some old costumes that you imagine jumping to life and grabbing you. Also, the overhead theater lights are situated up there, casting their beam on the theater below. They also cast a strange pale in the attic. There are also pitch-black areas where you see nothing.

LaChiusa said he might want to spend some time alone up there filming. When I told him I was headed downstairs, he quickly followed. We never figured out what the thuds were that he heard earlier. Honestly, I wouldn’t have spent anytime alone in the attic either.

At 3:20 a.m. we headed to the balcony and it was lights out. I took a number of photos in the black, aiming the camera at the very spot where the Lady is said to appear, along with other balcony areas. I was hoping to trick her with the security of darkness. She was too smart for that, though. We then sat in the dark, occasionally aiming our flashlights at the creaky floor — then the cops showed up. Hadn’t planned on that.

After seeing “strange” lights coming from the theater, an officer investigated and found two amateur ghost hunters.

After going outside to the patrol car, and Kazmierczak explaining to the Lancaster officer what we were doing there, he asked us what we had found. We told him we heard some suspect sounds.

We then headed back to the theater and spent the last part of the night in the dark. We left there around 4:30 a.m.

What did the evidence of our very unscientific ghost hunting adventure yield? The voice-activated tape recorder in the balcony had about half the tape used, which was promising, but I also knew we were up there a lot.

I picked up one sound on the tape recorders. Co-workers I played it for said it sounded like everything from a gust of wind to a cat to a bat to a ghoulish scream. Ghoulish scream would have been great, but I determined it was a train in the distance.

As far as the video, the jury is still out on that as LaChiusa and I have not been able to review it yet because our lives outside of ghost hunting keep getting in the way. Darn the living, I say.

I can’t guarantee that we’ll see ghosts on the video, but what I can guarantee is that visitors to LOH on Saturday, Oct. 29, will see a ghost — during two performances of “Canterville Ghost” at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Oh, by the way, do me a favor, keep one eye on the stage and one on the balcony.

e-mail: bkupczyk@beenews.com

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