Monday, January 11, 2010

The Ghost Light.....

One of the charming and enduring traditions of the theatre is the employment of the 'ghost light', a single light bulb mounted vertically on a pole left turned on center stage when the theatre is closed.  The stories of the origin of this illuminating tradition are colorful, varied, and --like almost anything to do with actors-- mostly complete and utter humbug designed to distract the mind from some uncomfortable truth.

The first known use of a 'ghost light' was back in the late 1800's.  The Tivoli Regardi,* a fashionable upscale theatre in St. Louis, was experiencing a downturn in business and --as a consequence-- was just beginning to host what were called, 'Playbills': a form of entertainment that would eventually evolve into full-scale vaudeville.**  The performers of these early skits and songs were called 'Pagemays' and were a simple and superstitious bunch. The term 'Pagemay' seems to have come from the the French 'ne paye jamais' which translates roughly as 'never pays', which would make sense as they were, after all, actors.***  Curiously, we get our term 'pajama' from the same phrase and people, who often wore colorful patterned clothing when sneaking out without paying late at night.****

The Pagemays hearkened from a simpler time, a time when there were ghosts and you appeased them in order to cement your chances of good fortune in the future. They had simple values and clear, if not altogether logical beliefs: the restorative effect of whiskey, the curative powers of strong and regular bowel movements, and that ghosts were scared of the dark. While the latter does not necessarily follow from the first two, you'd do well not to have argued the point with a late 19th-century Pagemay. They'd knock back a shot of rye, take a powerful dump, and talk your ear off.*****

In fact the three beliefs are connected. Late at night, Pagemays who had been evicted from their rented rooms for ne paye jamais would fortify themselves vigorously with whiskey and stumble into the darkened theatre for some place to assuage their digestive imperatives. Like as not, in the oppressive dark of the deserted theatre these lurching time bombs would plunge into the orchestra pit where any number of difficult-to-clean things could, and often did, happen.  The ghost light and legend provided a simple and face-saving way to keep this from happening.

And it does look cool and classy.  Even if no one is around to see it.

*            This theatre seems to have never existed
**           I am pretty sure that none of this is true
***          While amusing, this is almost certainly false
****        A blatant lie, as even the most cursory of investigations will tell you
*****       All in all, a sequence of events to avoid with a stranger

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