Ghosts of the Bardavon Opera House by : ~ Donna V., Bardavon Evening House Manager
Despite the pretty façade, like anything else, go another layer underneath and the Bardavon will reveal its aging energy. Dusty paths behind the mechanical equipment in the basement and beneath the upholstered orchestra, the theater will whisper ghost stories that seep from the basement doors and old rooms once used decades ago. Above the dome, the wooden skeleton has names scratched and graffiti from when there were more horses than cars in Poughkeepsie. All over and around the opera house is evidence of days gone by and the people who loved the building as much as we do now.
When I began working at the Bardavon more than 20 years ago, Bruce, the Technical Director suggested that I choose a “signature song” to sing or hum when in the theater alone. To calm the spirits, connect with them, bridge the living with the dead, vicariously existing in the theater they once loved or died too soon within our walls.
Poughkeepsie myths and legends are thick and juicy. Everyone claims to have been at the Police’s first concert at the Chance. Sting himself has declared that he can remember all 11 people there that night. What is more exciting than the idea of speakeasy tunnels that connected the buildings on Market Street, the furniture in the basement of the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank building in the 80s was described as if a raid had just occurred? Supposedly the Bardavon was the sight of two untimely deaths. A young boy run over by a horse and buggy in what is now the lobby and a stage manager shot to death by a member of the audience. Some say it was a copy cat murder after Lincoln’s assassination. To this day, cues are called from a crowded stage left. Despite the practicality of calling cues from stage right, for decades we insisted that for our superstitions, our homage to the dead, we call cues from stage left. Superstition in theater looms large.
There have been many quiet moments I have spent in the theater alone in the shadows over the years. I feel a physical connection to the building. The walls seem to sigh and sag during the summer months when we are on hiatus. The weeks when the shows come fast and furious, there is an electric energy. When I least expect it, I get “Rogered”.
Roger is the affectionate name we have for our ghost. Or ghosts. Understanding Roger is as much a part of working at the Bardavon as getting used to the theater keys. I believe that the Bardavon is so beloved by the community, there are so many people attached to our opera house, that it is a beacon for people’s energies when they transition from living to not living. Sometimes, I will walk thru the theater in the dark from the backstage to the lobby with only the peripheral light from the ghost light creating just enough spill for me to make it safely up the aisle, I will catch a glimpse of a couple in the balcony. A second look and they are gone. Backstage and under to the dressing rooms, I will hear the shuffling of a co-worker coming out of a dressing room and into the hall but there is no co-worker. As part of the security sweep in 2002, Governor Pataki’s bomb sniffing dog refused to go into the coal bin room in the basement, whimpering and crying pulling against the leash so as not to go in. Keys disappear and reappear. A lighting technician working alone in the middle of the night said she heard something tell her to check the fly floor. She did and discovered electrical sparking. Roger.
My very first show as House Manager was the Acting Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet. It was 15 minutes before intermission was to hit and the soda system kicked the Co2 tank. I panicked. The previous House Manager was so anxious to leave, her training left me to figure a lot of things on my own. I was at a loss. The bartender and I went through the Men’s Room to the basement where the system was housed. Jokingly, Rebecca called out to Roger for help. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a man walking toward us in the basement run. In a moment we realized it was the original House Manager who actually put the soda system in years ago. The three of us were puzzled by this chance meeting in the Bardavon bowels. Stephen (three House Manager’s ago) said that he was driving home and saw the Acting Company on the marquee. He came in the backstage to say hi and catch a little of the show from the wings. As he stood by the stage manager (on stage left), he felt the strong need to walk through the basement. Stephen taught me to change the tank; we thanked Roger and went on with the evening. Believe the stories if you will, but if not, you cannot deny the emotional air in our opera house. I have been lucky enough to be privy to many moments when great talents walk in and declare how amazing the theater “feels”.
There have been periods of aggressive haunting behavior, an intervention with a generous shaman from Highland helped with the transition back to peaceful coexistence. And before you ask, no – you can’t come with your equipment. You cannot spend the night. We do not give ghost tours. We commune and respect the energy that is part of our shared experience. No need to bring in outsiders. Our Roger is part of the building and we don’t encourage people to take pieces of the theater home with them. We need it all intact to keep that amazing energy flowing. From Mark Twain to Patti Smith, our Poughkeepsie gem holds onto those collective moments to create that quilt of inexplicable greatness you feel when you come inside.
By the way, my signature song is “Till There Was You” from the Music Man.