The Pittsburgh Playhouse


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania The lights dim to start the show as backstage actors rush to hit their marks. Peering through the curtains, an actor spies a lonely woman in the balcony pacing with a gun in her hand. He turns to tell the stage manager, only to come into the fetid stench of decay and rot. The scent is overpowering, and as he turns to get away, he meets its source. A man whose disintegrating green face is only inches away from his cackles maniacally, then disappears. The shaken actor backs away, only to bump into a man dressed in an antique tuxedo who gives him a good dressing-down for not being at his mark when his cue is spoken. He also fades away like mist.

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He becomes aware of someone, one of the actresses perhaps, sobbing in the darkened wings, her cries building to a fevered scream. As he tries to find the woman to help her escape this madhouse, he finds his way blocked by another man, this one red from head to toe. The red man leaps from side to side, closing the distance between them with every bound, until he leaps over the actor’s head and is gone. The shaken actor panics and turns to run from the theater when he’s caught by the stage manager, who tells him to calm down. It’s all part and parcel of working in the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Every theater, it seems, boasts its own resident ghost. Some are fictitious, the conjurings of minds filled with romanticism. Some are more the patron saint type, watching over the actors so they will give good performances. Others, however, are chillingly real and far from sainthood. It is considered good luck, and good manners, for actors to introduce themselves to the respective spirits of the theater before crossing the threshold of the stage door. To forget to do so is to invite tragedy and mayhem upon oneself.

The past of the Pittsburgh Playhouse is as strangely varied and unique as one is likely to come across. It first opened its doors in 1934, built by Richard S. Rauh. Over the years theater wasn’t the only form of entertainment to come out of the building. The top floor, for example, was a brothel. The Rockwell Theater portion was a church at one time. There even used to be a restaurant in the basement, but that area is now used for storage. The dressing rooms used to be row-houses, and there is a door behind the bar in the lobby that leads to a series of catacombs.

cs71 - The Pittsburgh PlayhouseAt some point in the early development of the theater, there was a fire that destroyed the row-houses behind it. Everyone survived the blaze but two: a woman and her daughter. Soon after, actors began hearing the sounds of a sobbing woman, whom they named "Weeping Eleanor," coming from the dressing room area where her home once stood. Later, an actress from the Hamlet Street Theater found out her husband was having an affair with one of the ladies in the brothel. In a fit of rage, she took a pistol up the stairs and shot her husband and his lover. She then jumped from the balcony, taking her life but not ending her misery.

Between 1950 and 1960 an actor named John Johns was quite prominent within theater circles, and it was at the Pittsburg Playhouse that he plied his trade. By all accounts he was quite a dashing fellow, usually dressed in a tuxedo and adamant that the show must go on. Then, one night, while attending a banquet in the basement restaurant, Johns collapsed. He’d had a heart attack. While waiting for an ambulance to arrive, his fellow thespians took him to his dressing room, No. 7. Johns never made it inside, however, as he died on the threshold of the room. Shortly thereafter, people began to hear footsteps climbing the stairs to dressing room 7, though they always stopped at the doorframe.

On Halloween night, 1974, the Pittsburgh Playhouse was manned by students whose charge was to turn off the lights and lock the building up. Before doing so, however, these five students decided to hold a séance in the middle of the main stage. Whether they were trying to contact the souls of John Johns, Weeping Eleanor, or any of the others, none can say; but what they got was entirely different.

After a few minutes, one student looked backstage to find a man dressed entirely in red, staring at them with a worried expression on his face. He began to pace back and forth from wall to wall in the wings, picking up speed with each passing, until he rose off the ground and began bouncing from wall to ceiling to wall and back again. At that moment, every telephone in the theatre rang, and when the students turned toward the audience, they swore they saw every chair filled with people in period clothing. The five students ran from the theatre, each of them giving identical accounts in separate interviews.

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One of the aspects of The Pittsburgh Playhouse that makes it so appealing is the sheer number of specters that seem to haunt this building. First, John Johns, who has been seen on numerous occasions, likes to check the props backstage and help with the set construction. Actors and technicians have heard heavy footsteps climbing the stairs to dressing room 7, though they always stop right at the doorway and are never heard to come back down.

The Lady in White, the spirit of the actress who killed her husband, has also been sighted on numerous occasions. One night a technician was working on the lighting catwalk when he saw a woman in a white dress standing a few feet away with her back to him. He spoke to her, and she turned, raising a pistol to his head and firing at him. He ran, unsure of how he survived unscathed, and quit his job the following day. Students have also seen her on the main stage dancing with a man in an old tuxedo. It seems that she found a companion in John Johns to pass the time.

Weeping Eleanor, who is often heard but never seen, cries at night. Her voice can be heard throughout the theatre but is loudest near the dressing rooms. Her row-house used to stand where the dressing rooms are now, and it seems she still mourns the loss of her own life as well as her daughter’s.

One of the stranger ghosts to inhabit the Pittsburgh Theater is somewhat of a prankster. His origin is unknown, as is his first appearance, but he’s been pestering people for years. His name of "Gorgeous George" is something of a joke in and of itself, as he is a horribly disfigured man, whose green face oozes with rot and decay. His favorite pastime, it seems, is tapping on the costume shop window and frightening those inside. He’s also been known to tap on unsuspecting people’s shoulders to give them a good scare before cackling maniacally and disappearing.

The man who first appeared in 1974 after the ill-fated séance has been dubbed "The Bouncing Red Meanie" by those who work in the theater. The Meanie appears, either as a man dressed in red or as a ball of red light, and bounces at breakneck speed from wall to wall to ceiling to floor, chasing actors, patrons, and technicians alike. Though not particularly dangerous, it is his origin that gives most people a turn.

Present Day:
The Pittsburgh Playhouse is now owned and operated by Point Park University and is open to the general public. This three-stage performing arts center houses four full-time resident companies producing professional theatre, Playhouse Jr. for family audiences and conservatory theatre, dance, and musicals. They keep a full schedule of performances and classes.

Best Times:
Though open year-round for performances, and most of the ghosts appear randomly, it seems that the Bouncing Red Meanie is partial to Halloween, the night when he was first called forth. Keep in mind, however, that this is a living theater, with productions and classes going on at all times, so finding a time to hunt around for the more permanent residents will be tough.

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson

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