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The Phantoms of the Operas: The Haunts of Wellington

Duncan McKinlay



When I was growing up, I helped a friend out by modeling her costume in an Outrageous Fashion-type event conducted at the local theatre. My costume was a horrendous green wire contraption; I was half frog, half dragon and apparently a Tane Wha to boot. My instructions were to walk up and down the catwalk ferociously, waving my long green tail back and forth. Unfortunately no one had told us about the seating plan for the event, which consisted of many round tables situated to either side of the catwalk, each with a white table cloth topped by several candles. As I stalked my way up and down the catwalk, wheeling my tail around I smacked several elderly ladies in the face, spilt several glasses of chardonnay, and knocked over several candles, in one case dramatically causing an entire tablecloth to go up in flames. We didn’t win any awards that day.
I remember backstage, removing my uncomfortable wire mask, embarrassed by what had happened, when an elderly stage hand came up to me and said, “It wasn’t your fault mate, this place is haunted, there is always unlucky stuff going on here.” Whether the calamity was caused by the supernatural or plain idiocy, I’ll let you be the judge, but his comment did leave me with a fascination and realisation, that almost every theatre worth its salt has a ghost or three rattling around inside it. I decided to see what I could scare up in two of Wellington’s oldest theatres: the Opera House and the Saint James Theatre.
I came across a nice man named Pat Shields, who turned out to be just the right person to ask. Shields started at the Opera House in 1959 as a stagehand and from 1977 to his retirement in 1991 was the full time manager of the theatre.
Shields is quick to point out the fact that he is somewhat skeptical himself, and that theatres in general often draw a certain type of imaginative personality, therefore they could be more prone to supernatural events. “The common belief is that if you don’t believe then you’re not a believer. How can you see something, if you don’t believe it? It’s a self-defeating argument. I used to run a program for school kids, and I always told them the theatre was haunted because no self-respecting theatre would not be haunted. And I can prove that to you quite simply – how many haunted supermarkets do you know? They are not places of imagination. I have heard some astounding stories which are a tribute to the imagination of the person that is telling them, although who am I to say?”
Whether or not Shields believes in the supernatural, he does tell one heck of a good ghost story. The Opera House is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a suicidal architect, and Shields is somewhat of an expert on the matter.
“The story with the Opera House was that the supervising architect when it was built in 1912 had been terribly worried or put out by some aspect of it. He got very depressed and he hanged himself in the theatre. The question was where in the theatre had he done that, having accepted the story.”
During the time that Shields was initially employed as a full time stage manager, three people had really bad accidents, all in the one area and all were people who had bad-mouthed the design of the theatre in some way.
“One was a dancer who slid off a piece of scenery and sprained his knee; another one was a chap who had rigged up an explosion effect, and it hadn’t worked and he came back the next day and he poked around it with a screw driver and it went off and he nearly lost the sight in both his eyes. To this day they are speckled, it is quite unnerving. The third one was a member the lighting crew from a television company and he fell head first into the seats. I used to say dramatically to the people I was telling this story to, ‘and where did it all happen? There!’ and point dramatically to the second tier of boxes.”
After recounting this story to various parties over the years, it wasn’t until he told the same story to a reporter, who then decided to research it more thoroughly, that at least some of the truth in the matter came to the surface.
“They went off to the Coroners Court to check if there had been a death in the Opera House. She came back with the report that the architect in residence had indeed killed himself. He hadn’t hung himself, he’d shot himself in a shed out the back of the theatre, first in the wrist and then in the head.”
“The reason for this was that he was in fact married to the architect’s daughter. The architect was a man named Sir William Pitt, who was a very prominent Australian architect. There is a very famous man in the history of Wellington called T.G MacArthy. T.G MacArthy was a driver of many good things that happened to Wellington, and one of them was the building of the Opera House. But he died months before the theatre was finished and they couldn’t pay (the architects) until his estate had been settled, because it was an immensely complicated estate, it took a year to settle it. So here’s Sir William bouncing up and down in Australia, saying, “where is the money?” and the son-in-law couldn’t handle the stress and….. Kapow!”
As well as the accidents, Shields says there have been many alleged sightings of ghosts in the theatre over the years.
“The best one was from one of the usherettes who was seen talking apparently to herself in one corner of the theatre just before the curtain went up, immediately followed by one of the exit doors on the western side of the theatre opening. So somebody said,’what the heck was that about?’ and she said, ‘didn’t you see them, the two fellas I was talking to, they said they wanted to complain about something and I said I haven’t got time right now, see me at the end of the show and we’ll sort it out.’ At which point they marched straight across the theatre and out through the damn doors. I was most annoyed because I had to go and shut them. She was only person who saw them.”
“On another occasion the house electrician was setting a show up and it was about two o’clock in the morning. His job at the end of the day was to check the exit doors, it means they have to go right up into the gallery, into the gods (the highest section of the theatre), and walk all the way down the stairs to the bottom of the gods. He came into the crew room at the back of the theatre and he looked very pale and very shaken and I said ‘what’s the matter Tom?’ and he said ‘I brushed past someone in the passageway, and there is only you and I here’.”
Theatre people tend to be a superstitious lot, particularly about a certain Scottish play. The final story Shields tells revolves around this, and might just be the best ghost story within a ghost story I’ve ever been told. “I was standing on stage when we were setting up for a visiting company and the wardrobe mistress was standing next to me, it was two o’clock in the morning. She’d just told me how she’d been in a Scottish play, (MacBeth, of course – but funnily enough the performance in question also happened in Scotland) and she’d been unhappy with rehearsing her lines, so when the rest of the cast had gone, she got on stage and started to declaim the lines, at which point all the seats in the front row went up and down. Being a staunch lady she tried the speech again, and they moved up and down again, only more gently, so she kept at it until they didn’t do it any more.”
“The opening night she performed and people came back and said ‘gosh, that was wonderful performance you put on.’ When she asked if the theatre was haunted they told her it was, by an old Shakespearian actor. She’d just finished telling me this, and then she said, ‘is this theatre haunted? Is it a short balding fella with glasses?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, possibly,’ and she said, ‘well he just walked across the gods.’ At which point the hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
Opened in 1911, the St James Theatre is not to be outdone when it comes to ghosts. Since refurbishment in 1997 there have been less supernatural disturbances there, but in 2000 a theatre manager reported hearing a strange hammering sound one night and his computer being turned around 180 degrees when he returned to his office. One of the ghosts thought to be housed in the St James is a Russian ballet dancer called Yuri.
He was part of a ballet troupe that played in the theatre in the 1930s. The season came to a crashing halt when Yuri fell to his death from the ‘flies’ above the stage. His death is apparently thought to have been a suicide, brought on by the fact he had recently discovered his partner was having an affair with an electrician.
Soon after the Russian’s suicide, staff in the building started to apparently witness paranormal phenomena such as cigarettes floating around in mid-air, doors flying open for no apparent reason and the sound of spectral footsteps. Peter Freighter, who has worked at the St James for many years as a custodian says that the fact that Yuri’s girl took off with an electrician may have some part to play in the nature of Yuri’s hijinks. “With the old theatre people always used to have unexplained electrical problems,” said Freighter. “That was quite a regular thing, I’ve seen days when, equipment would be brought in and set up, run fine then go cranky and so another piece of equipment would have to be brought in and the same thing would happen again.”
Another staff member named Jim Ahearn was the projectionist at the St James in 1977 when he had his own encounter with Yuri. He states he actually saw the ghost, who appeared before him as a tall, thin man dressed entirely in black.
“I was pulling aside the masking for the cinema scope screen,” he recalls. “It was freezing, though it was a hot day. I had heard stories about Yuri. I saw this tall thin man in a black suit, aged about 30. He was walking straight towards me. I said, “Hello Yuri.” He vanished. I didn’t tell anybody at first, in case they thought I had gone mad.”
John Blake was theatre manager from 1972 to 1977. He spent his day from 11am walking around the darkened theatre with a torch, until he switched the lights on for the 5pm session. In the dark Yuri was always alongside.
“When I started there,” Blake says, “I heard the ghost stories and I admit I was a bit scared. I used to tell myself they were just rubbish. But after a while I got used to Yuri and his habits – like tugging the curtains back, throwing a row of seats down, pulling light bulbs out. One trick of his was to sit till I’d turned all the house lights out at night and I was over the road getting into my car, then he’d turn all the lights on again. The whole place would be ablaze, and of course I’d have to go back and turn everything off again. That was his sense of humor.”
He is also somewhat of a hero, having saved the lives of several people during his tenure at the theatre. Freighter tells of one such occasion: “One of the projectionists was walking backstage one night and a force pushed him back, and when he’d recovered from that he looked down and saw he was about to fall off the edge of the stage. Yuri had saved him from that.”
Another ghost said to haunt the theatre is called the Wailing Woman, also known as the Woman in Red. She is believed to be the ghost of a local lady who had acted there in the 1940s to make a comeback, was booed off the stage, and gassed herself in one of the little dressing rooms off the mezzanine.
John Blake recalls that, “a cashier called Vi was sitting in the ticket box one day when a lady came in, walked right by her into the theatre. She ran after her but there was no one to be seen. That could well have been the failed actress.”
Legend has it that she can still be heard sobbing in her dressing room, (although this was in the old St James Theatre, these dressing rooms no longer exist). This female ghost has been blamed for calamities which have befallen other women appearing at the Westpac St James: Ana Veitch, who broke her foot in The Sound of Music; the lead who lost her voice half way through the rock opera Jennifer; and Barbara Windsor who sprained her ankle on the last night of Carry On Barbara.
There is also the account of a woman manager who once had cause to check flooding in the basement when the pumps seized. The water was several metres deep. She saw a woman in a red dress going along the corridor and turning into one of the downstairs rooms. “No one could have walked there,”she said, “because of the flooding.” A cleaner with her also witnessed this apparition.
Freighter believes that the emotion left behind in the theatre after a performance may have a bit to do with supernatural type occurrences. “You put on a show and some people believe that all you have left is a bunch of lolly papers underneath the seats, but there is also something of what happens there that stays there, and that just builds up over the years. It is probably comforting for these theatres to have ghosts, but neither of them need it because they are both being looked after.”