Ghosts of Proctor's Theatre

Will limped past the box office where Carol stood under the array of Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling and patiently listened to an irate customer. She had the frozen smile and glazed eyes of someone who has been listening for too long. When she caught sight of Will, her face came alive with hope of salvation.

“Here’s our Head of Maintenance. Will, this man has a problem. I hope you can help him,” she said.

Slowly, Will turned toward them.

Carol started and said, “What happened to your eye?”

“I fell down the stairs. I’m going for ice.”

“The Head of Maintenance fell down the stairs in his own theatre,” the man said, shaking his head. He was a short guy, compact, everything about him tidy. “How long have you held your job?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years. Well, you have a dog running around in there.

“We don’t allow dogs, not even in the arcade. Unless you saw a guide dog.”

“No. It was alone and it wasn’t in the arcade. It was in the theatre. It was right behind me for the whole movie. I could feel its breath on my neck.”

“It was probably a draft. Somebody must have left a door open,” Carol said.

“It was a hot draft and it smelled like dog breath.”

Will said, “Did you turn around to look at it?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t see anything. It was too dark. When the movie was over, I heard it’s claws clicking, and it was gone by the time the lights came up.”

“I haven’t seen any dog come through the arcade,” Carol said.

“It drooled on me.”

Will said, “It was Azzy. He’s a German Shepherd. Mr. Proctor brought him in to guard the theatre.”

“Will,” Carol said warningly.

“Oh. A guard dog.” Acceptance gradually turned to suspicion on the man’s face. “Wait a minute. Mr. Proctor? Does he have a descendant who brought this dog in? Because from the plaque under his picture in the lobby, I thought F.F. Proctor was dead.”

“He is. He died in 1929. He brought Azzy here when the theatre opened in 1926.”

“Azzy the dog.”

“It’s short for Asbestos. The old theatres all had asbestos fire curtains they could drop to contain a fire if one started. That’s how he got his name: he was a kind of protection, too.”

“And Azzy the dog is still alive?”

“No. He died in 1939. Here in the theatre. He just hasn’t left.”

“Seriously?” the man said, scowling. “I don’t like being mocked. You people have a loose dog in here, and you’d better round it up before it bites somebody and you get bitten by a lawsuit.” He turned and strode toward the doors.

“He’s harmless. Everybody loves him,” Will called after him, then turned to Carol. “I don’t see how he could have been much of a guard dog.” There was something different about her. Hairstyle? Color? “You’re not wearing your reindeer antlers.”

“Christmas is over, and they were demeaning. We all gave our antlers a final salute and tossed them in the trash.” Carol folded her arms. “So what stairs did you fall down?”

“The ones to the third story. Della pushed me again.”

“Della’s dead.”

“It hasn’t improved her disposition any. She’s still out to get me.”

“I don’t see why: you didn’t kill her. You should put a brighter bulb on those stairs: that would solve the Della problem.”

“I didn’t get into her office soon enough to save her; that’s what she has against me.” Will suddenly felt tired, on top of the fact his eye was throbbing and it hurt to put weight on his right leg. “I’m going to go downstairs, get some ice, and lie down in my office for a bit.”

“Do you want me to call you when the medium gets here?”

Will nodded, which was a mistake. “Ow,” he said. “Yes.”

“Take some ibuprofen. Isn’t anybody from the Historical Society going on this tour?”

“No. The medium wants full access to the theatre, and she wants to do her thing alone. We’re not about to hand over the keys, and she won’t work with a crowd, so I’m the compromise.”

“You probably know your way around the theatre better than anybody else, anyway,” Carol said. As he was leaving, she called after him, “And elevate that foot.”

Downstairs, Will swallowed a pill with a glass of water, laid down on his office couch with a bag of ice over his eye, and enjoyed the quiet of the windowless, low-ceilinged room. His cave. He loved it, even if he did have to duck so as not to hit his head on the ceiling beams.

The quiet wouldn’t last. Not on December 27, not on the anniversary of the theatre’s opening. There was already a crackle of excitement in the dressing rooms, giggles and a click of high heels on the stairs. Vaudeville might be dead, but it doesn’t know it.

He was just dozing off when he was startled by heavy footsteps running toward his door.

Not already, he thought, getting up and looking into the hall just in time to see a big blond guy stomping by, his face flushed and angry. He took no notice of Will as he ran past, but continued to the end of the blind corridor.

A gunshot reverberated in the enclosed space.

Will knew what he’d find down there, and almost went back to his couch. But maybe this time it would be different.

He limped down the hall to where the chair sat, and had sat for as long as he could remember. An antique, maybe a theatrical piece, it had wooden arms and legs carved in the shape of lions. The upholstery was a Native American print and to Will’s mind didn’t go with the chair, but hey, he was no interior decorator.

As always, the chair was empty, the blind corridor was empty, and there was no gun.

Will was ready to bet there would be birds in the top floor of the Carl Company building.

He retraced his steps. Between the ibuprofen and the adrenalin surge the serial suicide or perhaps murderer had given him, he was feeling less pain. After navigating the maze that connected the theatre to the adjacent Carl Company, he got on the elevator and pressed the button that would take him to its top floor.

The old elevator shook with the effort of rising, and he hoped this wasn’t one of those days when it would quit between floors.

It wasn’t. The doors opened onto the wide-open, gutted top floor, where all the beams and studs were exposed. He stepped onto the floor, which was stable, but littered with rubble.

The wall facing State Street held one huge arched opening filled with windows that didn’t open. That’s where he usually found the dead birds.

There were three today, medium-sized black birds, necks broken from throwing themselves against the glass. They found openings to enter, but couldn’t seem to find their way out.

A live bird flew overhead, avoiding him.

“If you’d let me catch you, I’d take you outside and let you go,” he said.

They never listened. They wouldn’t go into Have-a-Heart traps. Why they were in Schenectady at all in the dead of winter, he didn’t know. He didn’t know, either, why they chose the top floor of the old department store as a place to gather at the end of December.

There would be more before the end of this day.

And all of them dead by morning.

His cell phone rang. Carol.

“Hey, Carol,” he said,

“Your medium is here. And she’s a rare one.”

“I’ll be right down.”

“She’s over there,” Carol said when Will stopped by the box office. “Peeking inside the GE Theatre.”

Will saw a woman in purple who filled most of the doorway and tried to think how to describe her without getting into too much trouble. Large? Plump? Plus-size? Definitely not fat. That never went over well. “The buxom one in purple?” he said, and Carol laughed, so he knew he’d said something politically incorrect, but not bad enough to get a scolding.

“She said to call her Madame Arcati,” Carol said, smiling.

Will guessed that should mean something to him, but it didn’t.

Madame Arcati turned away from the usher she’d been talking to and came toward them. Floated, almost. She was surprisingly graceful for her size, and had a wide smile emphasized by red lipstick.

“You must be Will Bradley,” she said, holding out her hand to him. It was covered in rings, many of them set with faceted stones, probably glass, and he shook it tentatively, not wanting to get cut.

“I hope you had no trouble finding the theatre,” he said.

“None at all. It’s a lovely place. So modern,” she said, fluttering her hand toward the walls. “I was expecting something quite different, quite run down even, of a place built in the 1920s. But this is marvelous. All those stacks of seating you can move in and out, and the marvelous big screen. And this entrance to it… it’s huge.”

“That’s the GE Theatre. It’s new. We use it for movies and small shows,” Will said. “The entrance to Proctors is across the arcade.”

“Oh. How silly of me.”

“They came in from the alley,” said Carol.

Will said, “That explains it. Let me show you the actual theatre.”

As he led Madame Arcati toward Proctors’ house and stage, a wispy mouse of a girl carrying a heavy satchel followed them.

“Your assistant?” Will said. He tried to catch the girl’s eye, to introduce himself, but she was hanging her head and a shock of black hair fell across her face.

“We’re quite the dynamic duo. Oh, this is wonderful,” said Madame Arcati, opening her arms wide as she entered the lobby. She floated on down the carpeted aisle toward the stage. “That dome, that crystal chandelier! All that marble! All that gold leaf! Magnificent. It must have cost a fortune.” She stopped at the orchestra pit and turned toward Will. “Who will be paying our emolument?”

“The committee,” Will said.

“And you’re their representative?”

“To show you around the theatre, yes. The treasurer will send you a check after you’ve submitted a report on your findings.”

“I see,” said Madame Arcati, narrowing her eyes. “Well.”

“It’s in the contract.”“Of course.” She wagged a finger at him. “You know the spirits won’t like it if you’re less than generous with us.”

The girl had made her way onto the stage and, still burdened by the satchel, was taking slow steps, then halting and staring into space.

“What do you sense here? Any spirits?” Will said to Madame Arcati.

“Oh, many spirits. Many, many spirits,” she said, waving her arms wide. “So much human drama has happened here.”

“Yeah, it is a theatre,” Will said, wondering how binding the contract was. This woman seemed to have the psychic ability of a rock.

There was a thump: the girl had finally set her satchel down and raised her head. She was looking up into the darkness at the back of the theatre.

Both Will and Madame Arcati fell silent, watching her.

“What’s that light?” the girl said.

Will looked up. “There is no light.”

“There,” she said, pointing with a thin white arm toward the highest, most distant part of the theatre.

“The projector’s up there, but it’s not on. There is no light.”

She smiled then, and lowered her arm. “Nora: a chair. There’s one in the wings.” She motioned toward stage right.

“Yes, Awena,” Madame Arcati said, scurrying to fetch it.

Awena bent down and pulled a sketching pad and pencil out of the satchel.

“What are you going to draw? It’s dark up there.”

She looked at him then: her eyes were as blue as flax in flower, but her gaze sent a sliver like ice into the back of his head. He told himself it was because of the contrast with her white skin and black hair. Hair that had a sheen like the feathers of the birds in the Carl building.

“I’m going to draw what I see. If you could see it, I wouldn’t have to draw it for you.”

Nora came back with the chair then. “Here you are, Awena.”

The girl sat and gave her attention to pencil and paper, and what she saw in the dark/light.

Her companion tiptoed away and joined Will in the orchestra.

“So it’s Nora, is it?” he said.

“To my intimates. It’s Madame Arcati to you.”

“What kind of name is Awena?”

“Welsh.”

“And she’s the medium.”

“She has the gift, yes.”

“Why pretend it’s you?”

“I run interference for her. People are always chattering at her and asking questions just when she’s first meeting the spirits and trying to listen to them. And I never said I was the medium; you assumed it.” She lowered one of the plush upholstered seats, brushed off some invisible dust, and sat. “By the way, the preferred term is psychic.”

Will was thinking he’d liked her better as Madame Arcati, but he took the seat beside her and watched the girl.

She seemed engrossed by what she was seeing, never taking her attention from it even when she glanced at the drawings taking shape beneath her hand. The things she saw made her smile, frown, startle, grow sad; a panoply of emotions passed over her face, and they all seemed genuine and subtle. She was a good actress, he had to give her that.

But you can only watch reactions to something you can’t see for so long. Will looked at his watch. There were things he should be doing.

He was about to ask Nora how long this was likely to go on when Awena suddenly dropped her sketch pad, stood up, and put her hands over her ears. She took a deep gulp of air, lowered her hands, and said, “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what, dear?” said Nora.

“The baby elephant.”

“What were you watching?” said Will.

“Movies. Old movies going by really fast. They came from there,” Awena said, pointing toward the dark at the top of the house.

“From the projector, yes. That’s where movies would come from.”

“There were a lot of movies here. A lot. And there’s a juggler waiting in the wings.” She pointed toward stage right.

“Proctors had vaudeville and movies both. Five shows a day. After Breakfast, Go To Proctors — After Proctors, Go To Bed.”

“It must be very busy here,” Awena said.

“We still do shows. Not vaudeville, but Broadway tours, dance… practically everything. And movies, too. Of course it’s busy,” Will said.

“Yes. And besides that, all this is going on at the same time.” She gestured toward the projector with one hand and the stage with the other.

A tennis ball rolled out from the stage right wing and stopped at Awena’s feet. She turned her head. “He’s getting mad. He wants me to leave the stage.”

“Who is?” said Nora.

“The juggler.” Awena turned toward the unseen man waiting in the wings. “Do you want me to introduce you?” There was a pause. “All right. What’s your name?” Another pause. “Well, I’m sorry, but you were famous before my time.” She took a step forward. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the world famous juggler Bobby May!”

Awena started to leave the stage, stopped, said, “Sorry,” and went back to clear the chair, sketch pad, and her bag from the stage. When she was seated with Will and Nora, an athletically thin man walked to center stage, picked up the tennis ball, and tossed it into the air. He followed the first ball with another, and another, and another, until he was juggling seven at one time.

Will saw a semi-transparent man dressed in loose fitting trousers, a suit jacket, dress shirt, and necktie.

“Can you see through him?” he asked Awena.

“No. He’s as solid as you are.”

“What about you, Nora? Can you see though that man, or is he solid?”

“What man?” said Nora.

“The man with the tennis balls in the air.”

“What tennis balls?

Bobby May leaned back and caught a falling ball on his shoulder, let it roll down his body to his hand, and did that again and again in rapid succession. Then he threw a ball straight up, jumped to the side as it came down, and when it bounced, it bounced toward him and straight into his hand.

“He’s good,” said Will.

Awena said, “Yes. But he’s not what I’m here for.”

She got up and walked toward the back of the theatre.

Will and Nora followed her, Will saying, “Isn’t it rude to leave him alone out there with no audience?”

“He has an audience. He has a full house.”

In the lobby, she handed Will the sketch pad.

She had drawn some quick portraits: not fully executed, but enough of the facial essence that he recognized a young Jackie Cooper in a straw hat, Laurel and Hardy, Will Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, John Barrymore, Garbo. The second page had two men prizefighting. The third had animals fighting in a jungle: a python with a tiger, a tiger with a black panther. And elephants with their trunks raised, one of them a baby.

“Is this all movie stuff? I recognize the actors, but what’s this last one, a Tarzan movie?”

“It’s Frank Buck’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive. They went to Malaysia to film it, and they make a big deal of him capturing that baby elephant and taking it away. You can hear the elephants crying for their lost child, and the baby crying for its parents.”

“It’s just a movie,” said Nora. “You shouldn’t upset yourself over it.”

“It’s horrible. All the other movies are make-believe and acting, but this one is real. Well, this one and the prizefighting. The Sharkey-Schmeling Fight.”

Will said, “The Championship? I’d like to see that. They filmed it in New York City, flew it to Schenectady, edited it, and showed it here the next night. I hear that was something.”

“Schmeling should have won.”

“That’s what 75,000 booing fans said.”

“The vaudeville people and the old movies are a treasure, but there’s more here. I need to explore the building.”

“I’m happy to give you a tour,” said Will.

“I’d rather go alone. It would be counter-productive to have someone telling me what to see.”

Some people just won’t take no for an answer, Will thought. “You’d get lost in the basement and your cell phone won’t work down there. I promise not to try to influence you beyond warning that you’re about to fall into the moat and be eaten by crocodiles. Just kidding. Where do you want to go first?”

“Is there anyone backstage?”

“No. We have a show loading in tomorrow, but nobody’s there now.”

“Let’s start backstage.”