Academy Theatre Manager: Ray Marshall
Interviewer: Dee Jessome Date: March 6, 2002
This interview was a delight to do, I barely had to ask the questions and sometimes Ray would answer a question I hadn't even asked yet. I wish all interviews were so easy. This interview was recorded and is written verbatim.
What are your feelings with respect to psychic phenomena in general?
I believe in spirits, at least that is what I call them. I don't know where that came from but probably with some sort of belief in the afterlife or too many Walt Disney films. I think I want to believe in good, more friendly spirits as opposed to the nasty ones or the exorcist ones and that probably goes way back to when I was a kid and afraid of the dark.
How long have you actually worked there?
My first summer was 1975 and I worked the following 8 out of 10 summers. Then in 1985 I came on full time. I'm going into my 18th year full time.
Wow, that's a long time.
Yes, in this business it is a long time. I thought if I survived the first 5 years as a manager, I would make some sort of move but I like it here too much.
What experiences have you had in the theatre being direct experiences that have only involved yourself?
When I first came in 1975, of course, I was told the famous 'Mary' story by Dennis Sweeting who is the producer/director of the summer theatre. That was the story that he was told at some point in the late 60's. It is still the story I give on tour with the kids from the public schools so that is my introduction to the story or the legend of Mary the ghost. From that point on I was never afraid to be here by myself or lock up. I was told right at the beginning that Mary was our friendly spirit that took care of the place when nobody was here and when I came to understand how simple that was, I basically lived with that.
When I lock up at night or when I'm by myself there is quite a routine to locking up. One has to basically start in the lobby and lock the front doors and that way nobody can come in the front doors. I worry about vandalism, so I lock the front doors first then go down the right aisle; I check the exits on the right side or south side of the stage then I usually go backstage and I check the washrooms and dressing rooms for lights, costumes and stinky things. Then I go downstairs and check the basement, turn off the patio lights and check for running toilets and things like that and then I come back up and close the fire curtain and I bring the fire curtain down on the stage that separates the auditorium from the back stage. Then I come up the right aisle and as I'm walking up the right aisle I have always felt that there is some presence in the booth just looking down or being somewhat aware that I'm there. That is my personal experience with any sort of feelings or impressions or instinct.
There have been other staff members and volunteers who have their different stories right up to seeing somebody laying on the stairs going up to the third floor, which are the famous 'Mary, I fell down the stairs in the early 1900's' story, which aren't the original stairs, by the way.
The history of this building has always, and this is what is special about the story that I was told in 1975, is that she is an inviting spirit. She helps not only taking care of the theatre, but she invites people that have been here to come back whether you are working or watching the show, whether you are volunteering or whether you're just passing through. I know we are not full every night. We only had 6 sell-outs in 2001 over 12 months but I don't mean that she brings in people off the street; what I mean is she is our source of satisfaction or contentment. In some small way people enjoy working here.
I can understand why.
You can talk to a 16 year old who just ushered last night, she said "what else can I do?" or "can I come back and do something else?" Then you talk to a 60 year old who just fixed one of the seats last Friday and says "let me know when I can come back". I mean very few people have walked up to me and said I never want to come back in here again [laughing]. So something has to take credit for that. It's not just the staff; it's not just the previous staff, because I worked with them. It's not just the guys who ran the theatre back in the 50's. I'm sure the aura and the essence of this theatre has always been very positive and I think, I don't know.....you know, where does that come from? It's not the bricks and mortar and it's not the leather seats, it's not the smell. It's a combination, maybe, of all those things. We feel in our element. Even before it was red, black, gold and white [the colours the theatre has been painted] it's always had an inviting feeling.
Have you ever personally, seen any apparitions?
I probably haven't. Yes I have sat still long enough and I've certainly been up the ladder by myself, so there have been lots of opportunities for her [Mary] to jump into my back pocket.
Have you ever seen any corner of the eye movement?
Umm, in the booth, yes.
Everything seems to come back to that booth. That's interesting.
When the place is fully lit too. I mean I don't do this lock-up thing in the dark and you know, I've had a few times where people have said, "I've left something in the booth" [the booth is on the third floor] or " I've left something on the third floor" and I go [laughing] well you're coming with me, so there is two of us going up the stairs. Some people say "well I left my purse backstage", and that's not a problem, we just go back stage and do that. But whenever the third floor's involved after the show, after the audience has left, I usually say come back tomorrow and I'm not the only one with that story. The third floor seems to be a fairly powerful location for that feeling.
I tell the kids, and the kids really want to be spooked, when I'm talking to them, this isn't the spooky kind [of ghost]. This is the sort of hand out, offer of good will; let me show you to your seat kind. At least that's the way I've lived with it all this time.
We've had lots of things disappear, my keys; my full set of keys disappeared for a full two week period, then one of the temp guys who was here in the summer, was sitting in the front row and reached down, and I had checked every logical place including the seats, and he looked down and said "are these yours?" then he threw them up to me, so I credit Mary. I always credit Mary for all the good stuff, but I very rarely blame her.
Prior to our alarm system being installed we have only had two break-ins over 25 years and I think that is due to Mary. Since the alarm system there has been tons of false alarms but it's been because of human error. The curtains are blowing in front of a motion detector or something like that but since the alarm we've never had a break in.
We've had scripts go missing. One of the cutest stories is in the far office downstairs, farthest from mine; there was a script that was sent up from New York, I can't remember his name now. It was all marked up by the author with his notes in it; it disappeared. We took the office apart literally piece by piece and about a week later Di [an employee] looks where she thought she put it and it was right there. We figure things are borrowed and then returned.
Have you ever felt anything unusual in the office downstairs, as others have?
Can't say that the downstairs has ever rattled my chain, I don't know why.
When we were here we did pick up in the office downstairs and especially on the third floor.
There used to be a crawl space, well not a crawl space, it used to be 5 feet deep and in 1964 when the lobby was renovated, we didn't have a lobby originally, we had a center entrance and there was no downstairs offices or anything so they built the lobby and took out the two stores on either side. We had a front-end loader right in the lobby digging out the basement and making the basement deeper then the lobby appeared above that. So the history on the basement is really, as far as offices or usable space, has only been since 65 or 66. But there was a 5 foot crawl space down there which meant, who knows what was going on down there. I'm still waiting for something, but other people have definitely felt things downstairs but I'm sort of still waiting for that.
Have you ever had any experience near the boiler room?
A little, generally the downstairs [at the back of the theatre] it's the oldest dressing room. It's got walls that are just itching to tell you stories from the vaudeville days and when I talk about vaudeville to the students, when I do tours, I'm right down in the dressing rooms and I can virtually feel the gas lights and the makeup, the grease paint and some of the applause, I can almost hear it, like a mini sound track in my head, like it's 1885. That whole vaudeville period right up to the 30's. This place was not that active but it had some amazing stuff coming through. It was on the vaudeville circuit out of Toronto and Rochester, New York. So they would come across the lake and play Oshawa, Port Hope, Cobourg. They would come up here then they would end up in Orillia, Meaford because Meaford has an old theatre, and they'd work their way back down and everything was done on trains. These were professional vaudeville acts and we also had local vaudeville stuff. So that downstairs dressing room is just, to me, is just a buzz of history. Not necessarily of spirit or any kind of connection like that, but somebody is trying to tell me what happened back then, you know. It's almost as if it's like a newsreel going off somewhere in the distance or a little film. This was happening prior to WWI .
Like history replaying itself.
I like that part of history, like we did a show in 98 and it was based on Hy Meehan, one of the original owners and it was a WWI variety show with a splash of vaudeville in it and it was really special. It didn't sell very well, but it was really special because the director put his head together and got some background history on the family and some of the things that were done here and he was able to use some of the names. It was like really early Ed Sullivan stuff, it was really well done. He used all browns and earth tones in his colours just to make it look [didn't catch this part] almost and we had a good time with that. That's the only time that someone has tried to give me or give the audience something that might have been here at one time and I'd love for somebody to do another round of that or a student production maybe.
I'd love to see something like that.
Those shows back then were only about 45 minutes long. They would try to do three a night, like they would repeat the show 3 times in one night and charge 20 cents.
I remember 25 cents at the movies, that's stating my age isn't it? That's terrific Ray that is quite a bit of information. We are really looking forward to coming back in June to take another gander because that is one heck of a building!
Ya, it's pretty special and I think when it's all said and done and you took my job and Marion's job and added up the pros and the cons to a logical human being, we both would have been gone a long time ago because it doesn't make sense that we'd commit as much as we do with our lifestyle and our families. I'm raising five kids by working here and it just doesn't make sense but there is something here. It's not just the age of the building, there is a whole mess of things that really make it happen and that's kind of cool. And it's not really explainable, it's like Christmas Eve, you just have a feeling about Christmas Eve and you just can't explain it.
I'm very lucky and I just pray that my family considers themselves somewhat fortunate [laughing] and they're hard challenged. Like why don't I do 9 to 5 or why don't I go work for a theatre that has a staff with at least the number we deserve here, like 6 people. With a theatre this size we should have 6 people here. I was here by myself for a long time from 85 to 96.
I know it's an inviting building, we are anxious to come back again. We are scheduled for June, but there is just something about it that invites you back.
I'll leave that open if you guys would like to drop in on a casual 'lets's take a drive and go see something' day, come back.
We'd love to. We'd like to come back and just sit and take it in.
We use to have a thing and this has sort of gone by the wayside because we've got different people doing things, but back when I worked summer stock which basically goes from 75 to 87 and then again for 3 or 4 years in the 90's because I was doing both jobs for a while, what would happen is you'd do 5 or 7 shows, or whatever, in the summer and the crew would get very tight and then we'd all say goodbye and all take off to different theatres across Canada. For the last couple of nights it would always be kind of tough, at the end of August or labour day weekend. Dennis [Sweeting] always used to say "before you go, sit in your favourite seat and just sit there, don't talk about next summer and don't think about coming back, just sit there" and most of us didn't understand what he really meant and I don't think some of them even heard him, but I did that. I'd do that on my last night here. I would sit upstairs and just sit there and enjoy it.
We will definitely enjoy coming back to do another investigation because we just seem to be drawn to the place and I want to thank you very much because our team had such a great time; they're still talking about it. (We were invited by Ray to come and see Kreskin on March 1, 2002. After the show we had the privilege of meeting Kreskin.)
Ya Kreskin was pretty cool.
We'll be in touch, thank you again Ray.
Note: When I first heard Ray's name it seemed awfully familiar. When we started speaking, I finally realized why; many years ago in a different town, Ray and I had attended the same high school.