Last Friday night (All Hallow's Eve) I ventured 40 miles north of Chicago to the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan for the Fourth Annual Ray Bradbury Storytelling Festival - Literary Ghosts. Several master storytellers spent the evening regaling the audience with ghost stories from authors as diverse as Ambrose Bierce, William Shakespeare, Bradbury (one of Waukegan's favorite sons), and of all people, Oscar Wilde. The evening was a rollicking affair, and for those who haven't had the pleasure of seeing a performance in one of Illinois' oldest and most revered theatres, I highly recommend doing so.
Built in 1927, the Genesee Theatre is baroquely old-school in every way, suffused with deep orange and red ornamental patterns, crystal chandeliers of insanely monumental girth hanging from the ceiling above. For decades, the theatre was a beacon of sorts for the Waukegan community, but as the city began a sad downward economic spiral in the late twentieth century, the Genesee declined alongside, and was finally forced to close in 1989. In 2004, though, at a cost of $23 million, the city of Waukegan re-opened a newly renovated Genesee Theatre, and for the past five years it has enjoyed a mostly brisk business. Waukegan is still hurting, and continues to remember better days, but the Genesee oddly stands alone as a beacon once again, the only visible ray of light on weekend nights in a mostly deserted downtown.
MC Jim May kept his tongue firmly in cheek all night long, sharing playful stories of hauntings that have been reported in the Genesee throughout its history. He mentioned that the Genesee was originally not just a theatre, but a living space as well, packed with apartments four stories high. Lives have come and gone in this building, and May said the ghosts of dwellers who died there still tread its floors late at night. Ushers have recounted the story of a little girl named Jeannie, who sometimes appears after the lights have been dimmed just before a performance. Jeannie is apparently quite fond of untying her unwitting victim's shoelaces while they stand (or sit) unaware...a deliciously mischievous mark of her presence. May revealed another story about Jeannie, though, far more somber in tone, reported by an AT&T worker who was installing cable at the time. After finishing his duties, the worker asked the manager if a little girl lived somewhere in the theatre. When asked why, he reported hearing sad, desperate whispers of a little girl, over and over and over again: "Help me! Please help me get out of here...I've got to get out of here!"
May also mentioned a weird, dark fog that supposedly enters the women's bathroom from time to time, although no such fog has ever been reported on the men's side. If the ghosts are sexist, then this is one time I am squarely on their side - I prefer to do my business in peace, thanks very much.
The evening's storytellers were entertaining and occasionally spectacular, putting their hearts and souls into every uttered word. Carol Birch had the duties of conveying Ray Bradbury's "Exchange", a ghost story set in Waukegan's old Carnegie Library. Bradbury has quipped in the past, "I never went to college - I went to the library instead", and his deep, almost preternatural connection to books has never been more apparent than in this story, a moving twilight encounter between a librarian and a lonely ghost who has returned to the one place that provided him solace as a child.
The evening truly ended with a bang with Megan Wells, though, as she recited Oscar Wilde's story, "The Canterville Ghost." The story begins with an American family that has recently moved into the Canterville Chase estate in England. The previous owner warns of hauntings and terror that have resided there for centuries, but the family laughs it off - they simply do not believe in spirits. Soon after the family moves in, though, the resident ghost (Sir Simon) dutifully treads through the vast spaces of the mansion's halls, his heavy, loud chains clanking mournfully all through the night. The patriarch of the family (Mr. Otis), with typical American pluck, decides to diplomatically take the matter into his own hands, and he approaches Sir Simon and helpfully offers some of his Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his chains on the hope that his family can get some sleep. The ghost is grossly insulted by the gesture - don't these people know who he is? Why are they not responding with an appropriate level of terror? For much of the story's middle portion, the ghost makes a go at raising the stakes by summoning every trick up his sleeve, but the family only seems to respond with rude laughter and bemusement. The final indignation comes when, after a night of hearty wailing, Sir Simon is approached by Mrs. Otis with a bottle in tow. "I am afraid you are far from well," she says, "and I have brought you a bottle of Dr. Dobell's tincture. If it is indigestion, you will find it a most excellent remedy."
This is a ghost story that only Oscar Wilde could have written, richly humorous and clever throughout, then ending with an odd poignancy as the ghost seeks to atone for past sins and finally lay down to eternal sleep.
Wilde himself died sadly at the age of 46, wasting away in a flophouse in Paris. He was defiantly witty to the end, though. In his final days, he reportedly gazed at his bedroom walls in contempt, sighed heavily, and then announced, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go."