Bristol, Indiana – Rehearsal isn’t going well. Actors are missing their cues, songs are not quite up to tempo, and someone keeps moving the props around. From backstage a blood-curdling scream is heard in the women’s dressing room. When the actress, half-dressed and terrified, storms out the door, the director stops her and tries to explain. The man in the dressing room isn’t a pervert; he just doesn’t like musicals very much. And that she saw him means he likes her. Oh…And he’s been dead for years.
Theater folk are a superstitious lot. Among them are innumerable traditions, all designed to appease the muses and give them a good show. In many theaters it is bad luck to wish an actor “good luck,” hence the “break a leg” call. In some wearing another person’s costume ensures tragedy. In many one is never to be addressed as an “understudy” or at least never by the part he or she is understudying, lest some tragedy befall the lead actor.
No matter the theater there are two things that remain constant. First, while they all have their individual traditions, a few of them are pretty much universal to the theater crowd (never recite a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a theater if you wish to be welcome backstage). Second, and most important to many performers, every theater has at least one ghost.
There isn’t much remarkable about the history of the Bristol Opera House. Research shows that it was built in 1896 by Cyrus and Horace Mosier and that it opened with a production of “U.S.S. Pinafore.” What is known is that, like many other buildings that are over 200 years old, it has been a number of different things in its life. From a music hall and cinema to a skating rink, the stately old building saw itself deteriorate slowly. By 1940 the old building was crumbling so badly that it could only be used for storage and was marked for demolition.
In 1960, however, the Elkhart Civic Theatre company saved the site by leasing it for performances. It took them more than a year of hard labor, but it reopened in 1961 to large crowds and a theatrical tradition. Before that, however, a strange legend was born.
During its original run as a theater, the owners took pity on a man named only as “Percival,” whose house had burned down. With his family homeless, the owners did the charitable thing and let them stay in the theater until they got back on their feet, in exchange for Percival’s service as a handyman. History doesn’t show what happened to him, or his family, but Percival must’ve enjoyed his time in the opera house because it seems that he never truly left.
There are actually several ghosts in the building, though at least two of them appear to be nothing more than wishful thinking. “Frank” and “Tad,” first identified by a psychic with an Ouija board, have never actually been sighted, nor have there been any recorded incidents attributed to them. However, the other three can be frighteningly real. From behind stage left a little girl is often seen peering through the curtains at the audience, as if trying to count the filled seats. The actors call her “Beth,” and several actors claim to have seen her. The second, a woman referred to as “Helen,” is believed to be a middle-aged woman whose role in the theater is decidedly protective of the producers and directors. Seldom seen, but often felt, many feel that her purpose is to protect other from the other entity when he throws a temper tantrum.
The third entity is none other than “Percival,” the handyman who sought shelter in the building in his family’s greatest time of need. Reputedly the source of missing tools, misplaced props, and electrical problems, Percival has been seen by many of the actresses hanging around in the women’s dressing room as well as frequenting the right-side aisle of the theater. He has grabbed actors, pulling them backward when they go to make their entrances, and is believed to be the source of many strange noises and cold spots in the theater. Why would the production team think odd noises were the work of a ghost instead of just an old building settling? Because when they address him (always as Percival, never Percy) and ask him to quit, the noises stop. While he is generally considered a benign spirit who just loves the old building and the women that work therein, it is also a well known fact that Percival hates musicals.
In addition, there is a belief that more spirits come to the theater that are otherwise unconnected to it. An investigation of the theater by a ghost-hunting group and a psychic put forth the notion that, in the building’s sub-basement, a vortex exists through which restless souls can enter the theater. They are, according to the psychic, attracted to the energy and excitement the actors pour into their performances.
Since the 1960’s the Bristol Opera House has been the home of the Elkhart Civic Theatre company. It is through their hard work, determination, and passion that the building survives and thrives as a living theater. Largely recognized as one of the best community theaters in the Midwest, and in the United States in general, the company continues to operate a tight schedule of productions including comedies, dramas, children’s theater, and musicals.
Percival and the others appear at random, often in the wee hours during rehearsals or during set construction. However, they have made their presence known on numerous occasions during performances. The best bet for getting a glimpse of the phantom handyman or any of the other entities who reside in the opera house is to purchase a ticket for one of the many shows performed, and keep your eyes open. For more information about the Elkhart Civic Theater, such as performance times and dates as well as other events, visit their website.
See you next time!
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