Every theater worth its salt has a ghost. We had one at the old Guthrie Theater. His name was Richard Miller.
Bullied in school, ignored at home, Richard was a loner all 18 years of his life. He discovered skiing and it became his passion. Freedom. Excitement. There was people around him, some even envious of his skill; and he didn’t have to interact with them. He was gaining confidence, self-esteem. And then he took a bad fall. He worried that he might never be strong enough, physically or mentally, to ever ski again.
He did work up enough courage to enroll at he U of Minnesota and to get a job as an usher at the Guthrie Theater. Being a student was a disaster; but he loved being an usher, helping people without having to interact with them. His fellow ushers respected his distance and his desire to not mingle with them. He loved the plays and concerts. He was feeling good again.
But gradually the hell he was experiencing trying to stay in college began to outweigh the peace he was experiencing as an usher. Severe headaches! Severe depression! Until…
He borrowed money from his mother on the pretext of buying ski boots. Then he went to Sears and bought a gun instead. He parked his car in the far corner of the Sears lot. And he ended his life.
In the letter he wrote, he asked his parents for their forgiveness for what he was about to do. And he asked that he be buried in his Guthrie usher uniform. He said the hours spend at the Guthrie were the best times he ever had in his life. His parents complied with his request.
The parents offered to buy his uniform from the Guthrie; but it was not necessary because that style uniform was going to be replaced in a few weeks. The Guthrie was doing away with the old fashion uniform with epaulets and braids. The new uniforms would not be ornate and brown, but simple, and a dark blue color.
After Richard’s death there was occasional talk of a ghost haunting the theater, but such talk occurs in many theaters. And nobody connected the possible haunting with the death of Richard Miller. It wasn’t until a small group of ushers used a Ouija board to contact the Ghost of the Guthrie, that the legend became ‘fact’.
Many of the ushers lived commune style in an old house not far from the theater. They lived only for the day and their motto was: A little wine, a little weed. That’s all we need. Oh, also some munchies.
Kevin, the Guthrie House Manager lived there also; but unlike the others, Kevin was also a grad student a the U, and was working on a thesis concerning ghosts in the theaters of America. He got Scott H. and two other ushers to help him find out if there indeed was a ghost in the Guthrie. He promised them a little weed, a little wine, and they said fine. Oh, also some munchies.
After the show that evening they hid in a room until they were sure everyone was out of the theater. Then they set up a folding table and four chairs. Kevin took the Ouija board and planchette out of a cloth sack and began to explain how it would be used and expounded on his research and paper to date. The other four each had a glass of wine from the carton and passed around a joint.
The atmosphere was perfect for their project. The only lights present were the various red exit signs and the ‘ghost light’, a low incandescent bulb on a mic stand to prevent anyone who had to go into the dark theater from getting hurt in the dark. It was the last task stagehands always do before quitting for the night. Kevin called his crew to order.
The first question asked if there was a ghost in the theater. To the surprise of the four, the planchette went to the YES. That got their attention. What is the ghost’s name? The board spelled out RICHARD. The wine glasses were drained and the joint passed around before the next question. The four looked out in the house where the ghost light was projecting a weak glow and creating weird shadows. Kevin asked softly, ‘Where is the ghost now?’
SUGGEST LOOK TO THE TECH ROOM
The term ‘tech room’ stumped them until Scott thought maybe it meant the lighting/sound booth. He said he looked to the back of the house, to the booth above the last row of seats in the balcony. He pointed and froze. The others looked to the booth.
The booth was dark except… There was a figure of a man standing in a hazy glow. Either he was in the booth proper or was floating high above the seats in front of the glass of the booth. He lifted his arm and waved.
The wave broke the ice. Kevin managed to grab the board and planchette but everything else was left as the four broke for the side door.
Mickey, a shop carpenter, came on stage in the morning to put the ghost light away. When he saw he went into the shop and got help removing the remains of the night. The only thing not mentioned when the story went around the theater of what they found on stage, was the dime bag of grass. Scott thought Mickey maybe pocketed that for himself.
The name Richard was connected to Richard Miller. Sightings became more frequent and believed without a doubt by the Guthrie employees. Some customers called to complain about the usher that stood in the Alpine Slope aisle, Richard’s favorite aisle to work, and watched the play, or walked up and down, up and down during the performance. One customer called to extend thanks to the usher who pointed out that his cars keys had fallen on the floor by his seat. And usually the callers thought the usher was perhaps the head usher because his uniform was a different color and fancier then the others.
At various times he was seen by actors, musicians, wardrobe people, and stagehands. Cliff, the head shop carpenter, was the last person you would think who would believe in ghosts; but after he got off the elevator to the supply room on Level 8 and saw a figure standing in a hazy glow at the far end of the room, he quickly got what he came for, went back in the elevator, and became a staunch believer.
Joey B., the stage carpenter, had at least two encounters with Richard, both times in the little Green Room in the basement. The first came when he popped in for a cigarette. He saw a figure in an old usher uniform standing in the corner. Joe said he thought maybe he was having a problem with his eyes, the figure was kind of hazy.
‘Look’, he said to the ‘usher’, ‘This room is off limits to you guys. I won’t rat you out but…’ The young man said he was sorry, and according to Joe, just disappeared into thin air. When it was explained to Joey who he had chased from the little Green Room, Joe scratched his head and said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned!!
The second time was when an actor asked Joe to look in the little Green Room for a prop, a little money sack, that he would need later on in the show. He looked all around his dressing room and figured maybe he had dropped it when he was in the little Green Room. Joey looked around the room and didn’t see it. Just as he was about to give up, a voice said, ‘Joe, suggest you look on the floor beside the sofa.’ Sure enough there it was.
Joe looked to where the voice came from and saw the now familiar figure standing in his hazy glow. ‘Thanks, Richard,’ Joey said and brought the prop to the actor’s dressing room.
No one ever accused Richard of trying to scare anybody on purpose or of doing anything malicious. For the most part people were startled, not scared, by an encounter with the Guthrie ghost. Sometimes well after the fact.
An actress new to the company had lucked out and found a parking place right in front of the theater. It was raining hard when she ran to her car only to find that her car wouldn’t start. After several tries there was a knock on the window. A Guthrie usher was trying to tell her what to do. She opened the door and told him to get out of the rain.
He did and suggested she wait a bit and then hold the gas pedal to the floor when she pushed the start button. It worked. She asked the usher if he had a ride and he said no. She asked where he was going and he said down by Sears. She said she would take him. When she stopped at the red light at the end of the block, she turned to talk to the young man; but there was no one in the car with her. She hadn’t heard the door open or shut and there was a wetness on the seat where the usher had sat.
She told the story in the dressing room the next day. The dresser asked her what kind of uniform the kid had on. When she described it, the every one in the room agreed that she had met the ghost of the Guthrie and filled her in on Richard. She screamed! But she confessed at the end of the season, each time she drove past the Guthrie’s main door, she looked to see if Richard was standing there. She never had a chance to thank him for his advice.
Some, like Oscar, a college student and the evening Stage Door man, were deathly afraid of meeting Richard. When Oscar checked at night to see that all the proper doors were locked in the theater he carried a machete with him. He said he wasn’t afraid of running into anybody who shouldn’t be in the theater, he carried the machete in case he met Richard the ghost.
We pointed out to him that a ghost has no substance, just vapor. He could swing at Richard all night and only cut air. I told him about the old saying that you should never bring a knife to a gun fight, and I added, or to an encounter with a ghost. Oscar realized what we said was the truth and he gave his two weeks notice the next day.
A few took a meeting with Richard as just a matter of fact. Eva, an older, very proper, extra got on the backstage horn during a performance and demanded to Milt, the stage manager in the booth, that he teach that young ghost, Richard, the proper etiquette of theater.
She told how she had to exit down the Stage Left tunnel, hurry to her dressing room, change costumes, and hurry upstairs for a backstage crowd entrance. She said she almost missed the entrance because that young ghost, Richard was standing right in her way in the tunnel. She had stop and ask him to please move.
‘Well, did he?’ Milt asked.
‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘But only after going on and on about how sorry he was. Then he just… Dissipated. Poof! You have to instruct him proper stage etiquette. He could have caused me to be late for my entrance.’
‘And how do I get in touch with him?’ Smoke signals?’
‘Of course not,’ Eva said sharply. ‘Just leave him a note on the Call Board.’
‘Okay, I will,’ said Milt, ‘But Eva he’s just a ghost. If he ever gets in your way again, just run right through him.’
‘I will not! That would be rude!’
Milt quickly turned off his talk button so she wouldn’t hear us laughing up in the booth.
And then there others who joked about possibly encountering the ghost.
After each time I had to lay out on a catwalk thirty feet above the stage or stand on a full extended extension ladder to hang or focus or work on a lighting instrument, I swore that if I ever met Richard I would ask if he would want to work on the crew. He would have no problem floating up and doing that kind of hairy work. Joey B always agree with me that Richard would love to work on the crew.
I was up in the catwalks, just finished with the electric’s change over into the next evenings show, and was heading to the elevator on Level 8. I stopped when I heard someone say, ‘Hi, Don.’
He was surrounded by a hazy glow in the center cove area. But he wasn’t standing on a catwalk. He was floating over the hole thirty feet above the stage floor.
I answered, or at least think I did, ‘Hi, Richard.’ Then I turned forgetting all about taking the elevator past where Richard was, and walked back and climbed down the ladder to the booth. I took the long way to go down to the stage that night. And later, while having a much needed beer in the Dram Shop, Joey B asked me if I had offered Richard a job on the crew.
‘Ah, darn it,’ I confessed, ‘It completely slipped my mind.’
Over the years there was always some ritual to help Richard cross over into the next world. There was a minister, then a priest, a rabbi, Wicca priestess, even a Druid. None of the rituals worked longer than a few weeks except for the Druid’s.
The Druid was an Irish-American actor from Chicago, who one night after a lot of refreshing drinks up in the Dram Shop loudly proclaimed that he was a Druid. He grabbed a broom handle for a staff and announced he was going on stage to exorcise the ghost of Richard Miller.
From what I heard it was a show to behold. A lot of shouting the same Gallic words over and over along with some altar boy Latin and a lot of banging the ‘staff’ on the stage floor. Ended with some Xrated Chicago language ordering Richard Miller to begone and never darken the door of the Guthrie Theater again.
The spectators loved it and bought drink after drink for the Druid. It didn’t go well with Richard though. The very next performance a few customers complained about an usher standing at the top of the Alpine Slope and actually booed when a certain actor made his first stage entrance.
Then a Native American shaman was enlisted. I had quit the theater so I wasn’t around when the shaman performed his ritual. It started at sunrise and went until sunset. Spectators walked in and out of the theater proper and watched the dance, listened to the drum and the singing, smelled the smoke from a small charcoal burner that was fed with different kinds of grasses. The spectators all agreed, it was a beautiful show. And it worked! Richard Miller was never seen again. The Guthrie had lost its ghost.
I have mixed feelings. I am happy for Richard that perhaps he has finally crossed over and is at rest at last. Yet I am sad at losing him. Richard was an important member of the old Guthrie’s family and history for over two decades. But I am also glad that Richard wasn’t around when they tore the old Guthrie building down. That would have really shocked his system. I know how it affected mine.
There’s a new Guthrie Theater now. It is an exquisite theatrical complex on a high bank overlooking the Mississippi River. I know Richard would never have gone to the new theater. It lacks some important things that the old theater had – memories. Memories for Richard, memories for those of us who were fortunate enough to have worked in the old Guthrie.
And to those of you who do not believe in ghosts, I offer these words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet for you to ponder:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
That are dreamt in your philosophy.
And that’s a wrap.