Theatres are ripe for ghost stories, even though there should be no reason for the vast majority of them to be haunted. Few spend a great deal of their lifetime in a theatre, even fewer people die inside a theatre. I’ve worked in a lot of venues in my career, and most could be said to have a lot of energy in them. Several were described as being haunted. Some have no sensation of anything lingering at all. But then there is the theatre my college bought…
My college theatre was an old Shubert touring house in Chicago. Built around 1910, it was big and beautiful, seating just over 1200, spread between its main floor and two balconies. It was built in the middle of the block by the hotel operating on the east corner of the block, which also constructed a building for workers’ housing on the west corner of the block at the same time. Tunnels and over-alley passageways connected the three buildings for employees and steam pipes.
It was also built as a segregated venue. The upper balcony was “Blacks Only.” It had its own box office and entrance, and its staircase from the box office lobby did not connect to the lower balcony. There was no connection between the two balconies: they each had their own staircase on opposite sides of the front lobby.
To allow employees of the hotel to see shows for free, there was a passageway connecting the workers’ housing building to the upper balcony staircase, so they could bypass the box office. This doorway is still there, though the passageway and workers’ housing is gone.
As the segregated entrance was small, the upper balcony had its own full lobby under the upper third of the upper balcony, with two 3-4 stall bathrooms. (The lower balcony, by contrast, only had 2 individual bathrooms, and those were directly on the back wall of that balcony, in the house itself.)
The college bought the theatre in the late 1980’s, and rehabbed it as best they could. They removed the main floor wall so the box offices were all together, and no longer a separate outside entrance to the upper balcony. But the college was not normally using the upper balcony, so it installed a retractable gate near the bottom of the staircase and kept it padlocked unless it was in use. Student workers were given the combination to the padlock, but told to close the gate behind them (though not put the padlock on) when they went up to the balcony. It would make quite a racket when it was opened or closed. It would be incredibly difficult to climb over the closed gate, and impossible to do so quietly.
Working in the balcony itself was fine pretty much anywhere. The railing was even nicely padded, making leaning on it to hang lights on the balcony rail almost pleasant. The balcony lobby, though, was… odd.
The lobby was decently lit at all times, slightly darker near the stairwell, brighter at the opposite end, by the bathrooms. Men’s room closer to the middle of the lobby, women’s room at the far end. But no one ever wanted to walk down to that end of the lobby, even though it was fully visible and brighter, unless they had to use the restroom. Even when working up there, we would always take the first entrance into the seating and work our way through the seats to the far end, rarely if ever taking the easier way through the length of the lobby. There was literally nothing there: nothing to block the view, nothing hanging on the far wall, no weird wallpaper, no weird shadows, nor cracks in the far wall to fixate on. Yet when you looked down to the end of the lobby, you felt as though someone was looking back at you.
Working on the balcony but looking down the voms, or heading into the lobby through the voms, there was usually a sense that someone was in the lobby. Acoustically it was possible for someone to move the gate on the stairs without it being heard on the balcony itself, so the idea the someone came up while you were working down at the front of the balcony was certainly plausible. But the majority of the time the lobby would be empty.
But it was using the bathroom that was the hardest, because then it wasn’t just a feeling.
Daytime or nighttime, it was the always the same. You would walk into the bathroom, close the door, and pick a stall. Then the footsteps would start. You would hear someone walking through the lobby, almost always starting from the direction of the stairwell, but never sounding like they had been on the stairwell. Sometimes they would approach the bathroom door and walk past. Sometimes they would pause somewhere nearby, and then continue on. Sometimes they would seem to slowly pace the length of the lobby. But no one and nothing would be out there when you left the bathroom. The gate would still be closed, and no one would be on the balcony itself. There wasn’t even a difference when a few other people would be up there as well, except you could hear when one of your coworkers stepped into the lobby from the balcony seating, and it sounded nothing like the footsteps, which would then stop until the coworker went away.
For four years I heard the footsteps anytime I was in the balcony bathroom. Eventually I simply only used the bathroom if it bordered on an emergency, or I couldn’t spare the time to go all the way down to the lower lobby. And I eventually just expected the footsteps, and stopped being surprised when I heard them. It didn’t make them any less unnerving, just expected.
I met my now-wife my senior year at the theatre (she was a freshman). She and I both worked at the theatre that year, and together and separately would end up in the balcony working on something.
Years later, while talking with my wife about supposedly haunted places, I mentioned the upper balcony lobby of the old college theatre, and how I would always hear someone walking in the lobby when I was in the bathroom.
“YOU HEARD IT, TOO?!” she exclaimed. “I thought it was just me!”