Thursday, July 16, 2015

Spiritied Energy! Or "Keeping Winnipeg Weird!"

I've heard all kinds of spooky stories about my fair city. From the secret Prohibition tunnels under the Exchange to the haunted Fort Garry Hotel, I've heard them all. So I decided to start a series focusing on the various paranormal and supernatural history and stories I can unearth about Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba.

The first topic of this series shall be the Pantages Playhouse Theatre located on Main and Market.

 January 24, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune. Picture from West End Dumplings

I was originally going to keep this series based solely on research I had done on the topics I will cover. However, I couldn't start this series without mentioning my own interactions with weird Winnipeg. I started working at Pantages Playhouse Theatre when I was 21. I got the job through a former friend and just loved the place. During my time there, the front of house manager was this lovely woman named Kym who I continue to keep in touch with. The Pantages was the stage for a wide variety of shows: from cultural events to bodybuilding competitions to little kids' shows. I started as an usher then became an assistant bartender. I loved the latter more as being an usher meant being yelled at by late patrons who couldn't be seated until an appropriate time during the show. Being an assistant bartender meant lots of coffee making, ice cream stocking, and drink pouring.

The Pantages is classified as a Canadian Historic Site as it is one of the few surviving and one of the best preserved vaudevillian theatres in Canada. The theatre was built over 1913 and 1914 and opens on February 9th 1914. The Pantages chain was widely known for its Vaudeville performances and Winnipeg was used as a proving ground for performers and thus had many great acts travel through. As a classic film nerd, I was really blown away by the history of the teen-20s era Winnipeg. Kym told me how Buster Keaton had performed at Pantages as a part of the "Three Keatons" act he did with his family.

Picture from West End Dumplings

I'm unsure if it's still there but, during my time, there was a room that Kym called the "sand room" just off from the heating/utility room in the basement near the rehearsal hall. The Sand Room is exactly what it sounds like: a room filled with sand. I was told it was originally meant to be a tunnel connecting City Hall and the theatre but had been stopped before it could be finished. The freezers for the ice cream were kept down there.

One night before the show, I was down in the sand room with an insulated bag gathering ice cream for the freezers near the bar. I hadn't bothered to turn on the light in the room and left the heater room door open and used the light from there. I was leaning into the freezer when I felt something nearby.  I climbed out and looked about the sand room and saw the outline of a person standing near me. It was like if you traced a person and cut the outline out of paper except it looked like a person.

I zipped up my insulated bag and hauled buns out of the room.

I saw shadow man one more time before I left Pantages for other jobs. We were having some sort of formal gathering in the new lobby area of the theatre. An added portion was built on the side of the old Pantages and it's pretty stylish. We were setting up and I was asked to grab a mirror from backstage. Rather than take the back stairs, which would have been long and winding, I took the direct route through the fire door into the theatre itself and climbed the side stairs onto the stage.

I still nerd out over the stage at Pantages. I've only been up there maybe three times but it's always a hoot. The eerie blue "ghost light" behind the stage was my favourite thing. I was told by a friend that the ghost light is a theatre tradition and it is always on. Whenever I was backstage, I would always sneak a look at that old bulb lit up eerily.

My shoes clacked on the shiny stage and I grabbed the mirror from the side stage and headed back towards the fire door. Something like a distant foot stomp got my attention. The theatre is incredibly quiet when there's no one inside even with the lobby filled with people. I knew I was by myself. We weren't going to use the theatre for the event. I heard the noise again and something caught my eye from the balcony. I looked up and saw the shadow outline standing in the balcony, looking at me. I could feel my spine curl in on itself at the thought of having to go under the balcony. I clutched the mirror tightly to my side and power walked off the stage, up the side aisle, and out the fire exit door. The whole time I felt I was being watched.

Other weird things happened during my time there. If you were by yourself in the dressing rooms back stage, you always felt like someone was in the next room. Once I had put aside some drinks in teh storage room to take to the bar, would get side tracked with something and I would come back to find them in a completely different place.

I never felt threatened. It was a lot like when I knew my sister was trying to freak me out by hiding in a closet or something so I was hyper vigilant for the sound of her giggling. I hope the shadow man is freaking out a new generation of ushers and bartenders.

Check out West End Dumpling for a historical and less paranormal look at the theatre

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