Friday, July 29, 2011

Is Sangamon Auditorium haunted?

The Legend of Ruby
By Chad Wester

Is Sangamon Auditorium haunted?  Many venerable performing houses have ghosts.  Whether they are theaters dating back to the 1800s like the National Theater in Washington D.C. or 20th century theaters like the Lincoln Theater in Decatur, few are immune from rumors of haunting.  According to legend, Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Springfield acquired its requisite ghost almost as soon as it opened.

In the fall of 1986, just five years after the opening of the auditorium, a woman allegedly collapsed in seat E-7 of the orchestra pit during the intermission of a performance.  She died before she could be transported to the hospital.

The UIS campus police have no record of a death in the auditorium, but few theater buffs doubt its occurrence.  They just can’t agree when.  Auditorium director John Dale Kennedy places the death at a time before the autumn of 1986; technical director Scott Wilson asserts that the death occurred in the autumn of 1986; and head flyman (a term for the person who controls the curtains and lights of the auditorium) Robert Taylor estimates the untimely death occurred earlier in 1986.

Wilson says he remembers exactly when Ruby, as the ghost is named, made her first appearance.  Two weeks after the unfortunate incident, during a rehearsal for the Flying Karamazov Brothers (a traveling acrobatic group), a small child of one of the performers came crying to his father saying that he was scared of the lady down in front of the stage.  The child pointed right to seat E-7.  The performers had no idea that a death had occurred in that very spot only days before.

Wilson says, “I didn’t believe in any of that stuff, but that really got to me.”  Although he has not been visited by Ruby personally, Wilson claims that several members of his staff encounter her on a regular basis.  It is convenient to blame missing equipment and unexplained noises on the ghost, so Wilson lets the Ruby-mania run wild backstage.

Not all of the staff approach Ruby with such nonchalance.  One person has seen Ruby up close on more than one occasion.  Taylor has twice seen Ruby, or what he believes to have been Ruby.  Several weeks after Ruby made her first appearance, Taylor was walking with a coworker on one of the rails where the curtains and lights are controlled.  Taylor says he saw something “like a cloud, like a light, but not quite as bright, about the size of a human body” descending a staircase in front of him.  The apparition came down the stairs and then flitted away into the shadows.  Taylor stopped so suddenly that his coworker ran into his back.  Taylor asked him what he had seen and the worker described the same spectacle.

Taylor describes an even more dramatic encounter with Ruby that occurred months after the first sighting.  Late one evening, while the crew was taking down the orchestra shell on stage, one worker was assigned to turn out the lights in the sound booth in the center of the auditorium.  Robert Schleyhahn (no longer employed by the auditorium) dashed up the stairs to turn off the lights.  As he did so, the same light that Taylor had seen months before began moving rapidly across the auditorium towards the running man.  Another stage crew member saw the apparition and called out to Schleyhahn to look out.  Schleyhahn made contact with the apparition and came to a complete halt.  Taylor described the look on Schleyhahn’s face as stunned.  “He kept asking what happened,” says Taylor.  “I asked him what it felt like, and he said that it felt like he ran into a person, even though there was no one there.”  Taylor says that the hair on the back of his neck has stood on end only two times in his life- both in the presence of Ruby.

It has been several years since Ruby has been spotted by any of the staff, but strange things are still blamed on the ghost.  Taylor admits that the stage crew often tries to scare new employees with the Ruby phenomenon.  Practical jokes like leaving speakers turned on low and making strange noises into microphones are common backstage.

Taylor is not sure why Ruby has not been spotted in the last few years, but he says that he would not be surprised if she came back.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires auditoriums to keep at least one light on at all times for safety reasons, even when there is no staff working in the building.  This lone bulb is often referred to as the “ghost light.”  Rumor has it that the light is to keep the ghosts happy, but some say it is to keep the ghosts at bay.  Whichever is the case, Wilson says that he keeps the light on because “OSHA is more of a specter to me than any ghost.”

Chad Wester is a former graduate assistant at Sangamon Auditorium.

(Previously published in Springfield Magazine, June 2001.)

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