Winneshiek Theater is the oldest continuous running amateur theater in the United States. With that claim to fame – small wonder that it should have its own ghost.
The ghost of Winneshiek has been heard by many – but never seen. Often actors standing backstage can hear the familiar footsteps upstairs in the Green Room, but no face has been placed with the sound.
My favorite encounter with the dramatic specter was on a clear spring day. We had opened the theater for auditions for “Freeport, Ho!” a local production honoring the Lincoln/Douglas Debate and the history of Freeport.
We had propped open the front door, but had mainly used the stage door for the talent, eager to sing and read for us. After several hours of auditions, we were all very tired, and so, without a thought, locked up the stage door and drove away.
It wasn’t until I was nearly home that I remembered the propped open front door. So, I turned my car around and headed back to the theater.
The door was still open as I walked into the front lobby. Then I heard the footsteps – definite footsteps – coming from the second floor. At that point, I didn’t know if it was a ghost or perhaps some mere mortal intruders trying to steal some of the sound equipment.
I rushed to the box office and called 9-1-1. They told me to immediately wait outside and they would have someone there in a few moments.
They were true to their word, within moments several police cars pulled up and several officers entered the theater. I was asked to stand on the corner and watch the two exits and, should anyone exit, yell – loudly.
I waited to do my part, watching the doors, waiting to be part of the excitement – hoping I wouldn’t do something stupid like forget to scream.
However, I didn’t have an opportunity to test my bravery, because after about twenty minutes all of the officers left the building.
“There’s no one in there,” one officer explained.
“But I know I heard footsteps,” I said.
He nodded, started to say something and then stopped.
His partner came out a few moments later.
“Oh, by the way,” he said, as he started to get into his car, “We turned on all the lights in the theater — you’ll want to turn them off before you lock up.”
The police car left and I walked back into the theater a little puzzled. Why hadn’t they just turned off the lights?
Then I heard the familiar shuffle of feet above my head once again. I knew that no person could be in the theater. Perhaps that explained why I was left to turn off the lights.
During that experience, I was pregnant with Andrew, my youngest son. Perhaps it was because I directed the play when I was pregnant with him, but the stage bug bit Andrew and ever since he was little, he loved being on stage.
Years later, as my family participated in local theater, we would often hear the shuffling and knocking of the ghost when we were backstage at Winneshiek. It was just one of the little quirks of the building. Fast forward to last year. Andrew, a college student, is in a play at Winneshiek Theater. The ghost doesn’t really bother him because, well, because he’s my son and kind of used to paranormal things.
A practice is scheduled for early evening. It was during the winter, so early evening was dark. Andrew finished his classes at the local community college and decided to go over to the theater a little early and wait for the practice to start, rather than drive all the way home.
He types in the security code and lets himself into the empty building. He turned on the lights to the backstage and then climbed to the second floor where the “Green Room” was located. The Green Room is a room that actors use to get ready for performances. It generally holds dresses rooms, costumes and, in Winneshiek’s case, it’s also the way to the sound booth.
One of Andrew’s favorite spots in the Green Room was the bumpy, old couch. It was very comfortable for an afternoon nap while you were waiting for the other actors to arrive. Andrew laid down on the couch and closed his eyes. He was just drifting to sleep when he heard it. Knocking. He sat up and looked around. No one had come through the door because the door was heavy and loud and he would have heard it. But, he walked over to the door, opened it and looked down the steep staircase. No one was there.
He shrugged and returned to the couch. Maybe it was his imagination. He laid down again and closed his eyes.
This time it was from the second floor. He sat up and looked around. Could it have been the heating system? Just the ducts heating up?
He slowly started to lay down again. This time the knocking came from the wardrobe area just behind him. And it wasn’t just a couple of knocks. It was several knocks. Actually, it was seven knocks.
How could he remember the exact number? Well, this time, the knocking came precisely as the old song, “Shave and a haircut, two bits.”
Probably not the heating ducts.