'Take Me To My Seat!', a Theatre Ghost Story for Halloween
- New York Columnist
Daisy is a musical from 1966, which starred Ethel Merman as a woman so in love with her garden that she imagines the flowers and bushes and trees become animated and act out stories for her. Or is it not her imagination at all? It’s my favourite musical, but it has never been revived, so I’ve only seen it in a few amateur productions, and I was in it in high school. I never would have imagined being so happy to be cast as a tree my senior year. When I heard that it was returning to Broadway for a fiftieth anniversary production, I naturally auditioned. I went to the tower where rehearsals were being held, I waited in the hall for five hours straight, and I was one of about a hundred people told that they were done auditioning and we could all go home or to our next audition at the end of the day.
Well, I thought, I’ll just save up and buy a ticket. But, oh, where would I get the money? I searched and searched on job sites, wrote and sent out cover letters, but no one was asking me to come in for an interview. Persistence was not feeling all that virtuous, but then I saw an advertisement for the job of usher at the Kern Theatre. I stared at the name for a moment, then I realized that that would be the home of the revival of Daisy. I carefully constructed my finest, most impressive cover letter yet, and I e-mailed it to the house manager. Then, I didn’t hear anything for three weeks, but when I had about given up and taken a paper application from a nearby bookstore, I got the call to come in for an interview. I aced the interview.
On my first day, I learned the geography of the theatre, which was pretty basic: side and center sections on the first and second floor (excuse me, orchestra and mezzanine), rest rooms and bars, a little nook to buy souvenir t-shirts, magnets, and key chains, and the basement lounge for people who paid a little extra for their ticket or donated a lot to the company. I got the hang of seating people pretty quick, it was like playing Tetris: there’s a number of seats to fill and a number of people coming up the aisle; I just have to maneuver them right. I got good at spotting rule infractions, but that is where my skill at the job hit a wall: I was plenty good with my voice, but telling people not to do things they wanted to do because those things were not allowed…I was a bit shy about that. That would take some getting used to. And theatre patrons, especially those who pay the most for their tickets, can be difficult.
After the first preview performance, when we had cleared everyone out of the theatre, I went down to take a look at the basement lounge, which I would probably be assigned to look after at some point. Black carpet, dark blue walls, forest green furniture and a dark yellow bar blended into a beautiful, comfortable looking room art deco room. The lights were made to look like stars, hung at different levels from the ceiling. I could see why this was a place the company made people pay a little extra for access to. Wandering from one end of the room to the other, I felt a chill. The air conditioning must have come on, I thought. Then I heard a voice, a very quiet voice. I looked around, but I knew I was alone, because other than that voice, it was silent. There was not even the sound of the air conditioning. The voice came again, louder this time, and I thought it said, “Take me to my seat.” Just in case there was someone there, I said, “What?”
“TAKE ME TO MY SEAT!!”
I almost fell over, and when I regained my balance I hurried up the stairs to punch out and get some fresh air.
It seemed like a bad idea to share what had happened with anyone at work. Or my roommate or family. I wasn’t sure what to do, except avoid the lounge, which I knew I could not do forever. There were no bad dreams, and no other voices. I thought and thought about what might explain it, telling myself again and again that I was not crazy, that it was, perhaps, an odd fluke in…something. I could find no explanation for the next week, at the end of which, my boss said to me, “You know, you’ve done every post except for the basement lounge. Think you can handle that tonight?” I answered in the affirmative, perfectly naturally, because I was in no position to say no, and there was no logical reason I could give for not being able to do it. By the time the house opened that night, our first sold out performance according to the box office, I was getting sweaty, but the first part of the job was just getting people in, looking up their names on the list or making sure they had the right card. I did that for twenty minutes. Then I was told to make sure everyone came back up. Telling everyone to do something they don’t want to do is kind of like the reverse of telling them not to do something they want to do. Almost exactly. But, I had to do it, and so down I went.
The lounge was crowded, I could barely see all of the great colors through the very important people. I walked up next to the bar and said, not as loudly as I could but as loudly as my reservations about people would allow me to at the time, “We are about to begin the show, please make your way upstairs and to your seats at this time.” One person left, the one right next to me. I took a deep breath, and walked around to the individual groups, saying the same thing, not as loudly. At times, it was close to a whisper. The responses were not encouraging. “Yeah, ok, just wait.” “There’s no hurry, I know how these things work.” “Let me finish this drink, I just bought it, and I don’t want to take it with me.” This went on for about five minutes. My boss came down, gave me a look like, “You couldn’t do this simple thing?” and proceeded to tell people to leave, more confidently and aggressively than I had, and it worked.
As the room cleared, I started to discern a familiar voice, and the room got colder. “Take me to my seat.” I wasn’t supposed to leave until it was empty, and my boss was already on to other things that had to happen before the show could start. The voice got louder, still saying the same thing, not yet as loud as it had gotten before. As the last two people made their way upstairs, and the bar tender left to go to his office, I gave the room a quick look over, and backed up toward the stairs. Suddenly the lights went out, and I heard, “TAKE ME TO MY SEAT!” as loud as it had been before, and this time I couldn’t see at all. I ran into a wall before I remembered I had a tiny flashlight in my pocket, the better to help people through a dark theatre. I took it out and used it to trip up the stairs. Pointing the beam at the switch, I noticed it was off. The VIPs must have turned it off on their way out. I was told to help the ushers in the back of the orchestra section during the intermission; my boss would handle clearing the lounge.
Back in my apartment that night, I could not sleep, so I retreated to the internet, and decided to do some research I had been meaning to do about Daisy, like finding the original Broadway review, which I had read before, but not in a long while. I googled “Daisy Opening Night Review” and the first return was exactly what I wanted, but the second return was what caught my eye: “Death At Kern Mars Opening of Merman Musical.” I clicked.
“A man died moments after the house opened at the Kern Theatre last night, at the opening of ‘Daisy,’ starring Ethel Merman. Jasper Green, 67, tripped while descending the stairs to use the bathroom in the basement. Paramedics pronounced him dead at 7:35, after the opening night curtain was to have gone up. The cast was informed, opening went on at 8pm, in a significantly subdued environment.”
There was no picture, not that it mattered. I immediately connected this to the voice I’d heard, as absurd as it made me feel to do. It’s not a ghost, there are no ghosts. I said this over and over again to myself. This distraction had not brought me any closer to sleeping.
Another two weeks went by, and we came to opening night. I had had surface assignments for all of those two weeks, and, after what happened in the basement lounge before, I was pretty sure I would be given surface jobs for the rest of my time there. Then my boss said to me, “I think this crowd will be more respectful of the start time, being mostly industry people themselves. Think you can handle the lounge a little better this time?” “Yeah.” All I could say. It was very confusing. Why would he do this? I’m bad at that job. And there’s a ghost down there that apparently only I can hear.
Well, I did it. I spent 20 minutes letting some pretty famous people downstairs, stopping to look up their names even when it was obvious who they were. It was policy, and it annoyed them quite understandably. At ten minutes to curtain, I was told to go down and clear it out. I walked very carefully down the steps. It was more crowded than it had been the last time. Carefully, slowly, I squeezed by everybody between me and the bar, and just as I was turning around, I was smacked in the head by a tall woman’s purse. “F*^k you.” I didn’t say it, I just thought it in my stunned moment of silence. Then it came to me. “F*^k you all, I’m in charge here, and it’s time for you to go up to your seats so we can start the show, get out!” Again, I didn’t say it, but it was the strength behind my announcement that night: “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE PERFORMANCE IS ABOUT TO BEGIN, PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY UPSTAIRS AND TO YOUR SEATS AT THIS TIME!!!”
Silence. I’ve got a big voice, even if I sometimes have a hard time using it to its full effectiveness with strangers. But I was louder than everyone else in that room put together, and even the bar tender was staring at me. The VIPs started making their way out like the liquor still pouring out of the still tipped bottle in the bar tender’s hand. The room was almost empty by the time he realized he was spilling, and he had to run out to his office to get enough paper towels to clean it up. As I listened to the last footsteps reach the top of the stairs, the lights went out. I was still feeling pretty powerful from my literal command of the room, so all this got out of me was a sigh. “TAKE ME TO MY SEAT!” “I’ll need to see your ticket.”
Suddenly, a silvery glowing man appeared in front of me, held out his hand and said, “Here you go.” I looked at him for a moment, and he shook his hand at me, indicating the ticket. “Oh, sorry,” I said, looking down at the transparent, illegible rectangle. I considered for a moment. “I’m sorry, I cannot take you to that seat at this time, but I can put you right close to the stage, and you can claim the seat on your ticket during the intermission if you wish.” “Alright.” I turned on my little flashlight to lead the way up the stairs, then reconsidered. “If you would lead the way, I need to make sure the room is empty.” I followed the glowing man safely up the stairs, grabbed a small cane back chair and put it next to the left aisle at row C. He sat down. “May I have a Playbill?” “Right away.”
I did not even think how I would go about handing it to him, but I went to grab one. My boss came by as I was picking one up. “Nice job down there, the bar tender said it only took one try. Knew you could do it. Why did you put that chair there?” “Someone…requested it. It’s alright.” “Alright.” I went back with the Playbill, and he wasn’t there, so I put it on the seat. As the pre-show “no phones” announcement came on, one of the other ushers, who had worked there for years, said, “You sat the ghost? Why didn’t I think of that?” I looked at her, slack-jawed. “You mean you…” She had to let someone in and guide the person to his seat, so I didn’t finish, not that I had anything to say. Apparently I wasn’t alone.
The production was amazing, I should say. I could really enjoy it for the first time since the first preview, because suddenly I wasn’t feeling as much anxiety about the job or the place. My lips automatically followed the lyrics, but I put no voice behind the words they were making, and during the intermission all I had to do was show up in the lounge, which was significantly less crowded, and people started leaving. Now that is how you treat an usher.
I did not see the silvery man again until the end of the show. He became visible again when we were released to go to the opening night party, and most of the staff had already left. I was just putting on my coat when he walked up to me. “Thank you, I was expecting to sit in the balcony. It was so nice not to have to use my opera glasses.” “Did you enjoy the show?” My responses were automatic, even with a ghost. “Why yes. Shame Ethel Merman had to miss her own opening night, but her understudy was wonderful. I’ve been so looking forward to this production.” “Me too.” We stood there for a moment, then. “Well, thank you again.” “Get home safely.” “Goodnight.”
He just disappeared. I’m not sure what I expected. As I walked out, my boss joined me. “Never would have occurred to me to seat him. Huh. Good thinking.”
Aaron Netsky writes about musicals (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and books and culture (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) on his personal blogs, and has written a yet unpublished musical theatre novel. His writing can also be seen on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, ThoughtCatalog.com, and Medium.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.