Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Phantoms of the Pittsburgh Playhouse

image from Point Park University

This legendary Craft Avenue site is possibly the most renowned haunt in Pittsburgh. Built by Richard Rauh, it opened its doors in 1933, variously known as the Hamlet Theatre, the Summer Playhouse, and the Civic Playhouse. And the theatre wasn't the only entertainment venue located in the house over the years.

The upstairs was used as a brothel, the theatre served as a church, and the basement was a restaurant at various times. Part of the building was the Tree of Life Synagogue and another section served as a social hall in 1910. And it was built over the rubble of a neighborhood of old tenements, which segues right into our story.

The first ghost is Weeping Eleanor, who is never seen but whose sobbing and moaning can be heard at night. She was the victim of a fire that claimed her Oakland rowhouse, once standing where the Playhouse dressing rooms are now located. Eleanor and her daughter perished in the blaze, and she's been lamenting their fate ever since.

The Lady In White is next on the list. She was an actress who discovered her husband was having an tryst with one of the ladies from the upstairs bordello – on their wedding day! The reception was being held in the downstairs restaurant after they were married in the Playhouse church. She climbed the steps in a rage, found them in flagrante delicto, and shot the amorous pair dead. Then she committed suicide by leaping off the balcony, which she yet paces, gun in hand.

The lady has appeared to people on numerous occasions, always in a white dress. She once pointed a ghostly pistol at a stagehand's head while backstage and pulled the trigger. He dodged the spectral bullet, but ended up somewhat the worse for wear – he promptly left the building, never to return.

The third spirit is that of John Johns, an accountant by day and stage actor by night who began performing at the Playhouse in the thirties. It's said that he suffered a heart attack while at a banquet in the downstairs restaurant. His castmates carried him up to his dressing room, #7, to wait for the ambulance, but Johns died before they could get him inside.

Since that day, people have heard disembodied footsteps climbing the stairway to room #7, always stopping just short of the door. Johns occasionally appears wandering the Playhouse, often dressed to kill in his tuxedo.

Caveat emptor with him. As the only spook who is clearly identified, we researched him a bit, and came away with enough to know that the trouper did exist and was a Playhouse regular, but we couldn't find his obituary.

A reader, Deb, wrote that "When I was a student at the playhouse, I was told by Bill Leach, who was the director of the Playhouse Jr. and who had known John Johns, that the actor died at the Veteran's Hospital in Oakland, not in the dressing room." As for the other stuff, she adds simply that "I had some experiences at the Playhouse..."

JJ has sometimes been spotted dancing on stage with the White Lady (We guess she got over her meandering hubby after crossing to the other side.) Johns also checks the sets and fancies himself a director, intently watching the rehearsals from the seats, and will occasionally share some tricks of the trade or a criticism with the actors.

Following in the illustrious line of spooks is Gorgeous George, a misnomer if ever there was one. His claim to fame is that he has a green, oozing face and an unmistakably rank aroma. He likes to tap people on the shoulder and watch their shock when they turn and see his rotting visage. Then he *poof* disappears, cackling maniacally. No one knows where exactly he came from. Maybe he just enjoys the Playhouse company.

The latest ghoul to join in the fun is the Bouncing Red Meanie, sometimes called the Bouncing Loony. On a Halloween Night in the seventies, a group of students held a séance to try to communicate with the ghostly gang at the Playhouse. They conjured up a little more than they bargained for.

During their trance, they looked at the stage. On it was a man with a gashed gray face, dressed in red from head to toe, pacing back and forth. He picked up steam every time he crossed the stage, until eventually he was going so fast he rose in the air and began bouncing of the walls. As that happened, the house phones in the theatre began ringing, distracting them.

One student's gaze again turned towards the seats, and the other eyes followed hers. They found that the auditorium was completely filled with people dressed in turn of the century outfits – starched collars, dark jackets, and evening gowns. A spotlight focused on the Bouncing Red Meanie. He turned toward the crowd and the audience broke into a silent ovation, his reward for the evening's performance that the seance had so rudely interrupted.

The Bouncing Red Meanie manifests itself now either as a man or a red ball-shaped light, and his pleasure is to chase people around at breakneck speed.

There's also alleged to be some ghostly shenanigans that occur in the ticket office, but its mischievous poltergeist pales compared to the antics of the phantom posse working the building.

The Pittsburgh Playhouse has been owned and operated by Point Park University since 1973. It's home to three performance spaces for shows staged by The Rep, Point Park's resident professional theatre company, and three student companies: the Conservatory Theatre Company, Conservatory Dance Company, and Playhouse Jr.

A think tank has suggested that the University relocate its renowned theater department from Oakland to its downtown campus. It might be the smart move for PPU, but would break the hearts of local theatre - and ghost - lovers.


Alexis said...

Hi Ron - thanks for your post. Sadly enough, the think tank has won out, and Point Park is moving their theatre. My fiance contacted the Historical Landmark society regarding saving the theatre. As you know, it could get purchased and torn down by the neighboring businesses. The society has essentially recommended we start talking up a group of people to purchase the playhouse. Would you be interested in working with us to save the Playhouse? We are just tossing around ideas. Contact me via my google account!

Ron Ieraci said...

AP - I'd be glad to offer a hand. Actually, I was born on Dawson Street, just a bit up the road in Oakland from the Playhouse. Send me an address and we'll get started - Ron

Unknown said...

I was actually present at the 1974 seance, and descriptions on this site of the events of that evening are incorrect. If you'd like an accurate account, please let me know.
Jennifer Ford
Playhouse Lighting Designer 1973-2008

Ron Ieraci said...

Jen has been kind enough to promise to provide us with the actual results of the famous seance, and hopefully we'll have them posted on this article next week. Thanks, Jen!

Sheila said...

Interesting material, but PLEASE fix your apostrophes!

Ron Ieraci said...

Sorry, Sheila, I hate it when I get busted by the grammar police. It was a mess, but I think I cleaned them up. I'm glad you caught them scattered all over the post before my fifth grade English teacher - a nun who wielded a wicked yardstick - did! Thanks.

Ian said...

I love how my intial inital type up of the Pittsburgh Playhouse Ghost stories have made their way around the internet and given their own spin by so many! I was in many productions at the Playhouse, and during my time there learned so many of these stories, gave tours to my friends and even was once shot at by the Lady in White, and took her picture in the dressing room area! Did you ever get Jennifer Ford's account of the seance? I would love to hear the first hand story, and if you would like to hear mine, feel free to contact me!

Ian Janosko

Deb. S. said...

About John Johns: When I was a student at the playhouse, I was told by Bill Leach (I think that was his name), who was the director of the Playhouse Jr. and who had known John Johns, that the actor died at the Veteran's Hospital in Oakland, not in the dressing room. By the way, I had some experiences at the Playhouse...and I remember the group who held the seance; at the time, they all refused to discuss it, as I recall.

Unknown said...

I was also one of the students present at the seance and Jen is correct. I'd also be happy to share what we saw and what really happened.

Unknown said...

Was my account of the seance story ever posted? I was just reminded of this site, read it again, and don't see any corrections.

Ron Ieraci said...

If the seance story is yours, sorry, I never found it credited to anyone. Give me a name and I'll be glad to add it to the post. And if this is Jen, I did send an e-mail asking for the details way back when and never received a reply. If that's the issue, plz send me the correct tale at; I'll be more than glad to run with it -Thx

Unknown said...

Let's save the playhouse and the ghosts! Jen ford and we're those who did the seance. Would love to share the real story and when more of a set was painted than before we took a break
Wayne B