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The Story Behind the Ritual that Still Haunts Broadway

Leave a light on for, you know, ghosts. (Photo: aerogondo2/shutterstock.com

 For fans, lights are a vital part of the theatergoing experience. Rows of expectant ticket holders wait for the lights to go down and then they wait for them to go up so they know the journey is over. Plenty of tourists trot down New York’s Broadway just to gawk at the marquees.

But for lots of cast and crew, the most atmospheric of all theater lights is a bare bulb called a “ghost light”.

Stage manager Matt Stern has worked almost two dozen Broadway shows over nearly 20 years and in May he held the first ever Broadway Stage Manager Symposium in New York. As the person responsible for ensuring everything stays on schedule, including musical cues, Stern ran “Full Monty” and “The Little Mermaid”. He’s worked on “Wicked”, “Phantom of the Opera” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Les Miserable”. And for every single show he’s ensured that there will be a ghost light burning through the night.

“The ghost light is basically a lamp that’s left onstage when all the work is finished in the theater, and everyone’s gone home for the evening,” says Stern. The orchestra pit, he explains, can be around ten feet lower the stage. “So when they power off everything in the building, that’s the one little globe that’s left on so that no one walks in the theater and stumbles off the stage and breaks their neck.”

Of course, that’s just the practical reason.

“The superstition around it is that theaters tend to be inhabited by ghosts,” says Stern. “Whether it’s the ghost of old actors or people who used to work in the building, and ghost lights are supposed to keep those ghosts away so that they don’t get mischievous while everyone else is gone.”

The exact origins of the ghost light is murky, although there are some popular theories. Theater scholar James Fisher writes in Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings that the ghost light “comes from the days of gas-lit theatres and refers to dimly lit gaslights used to relieve pressure on gas valves”. In another tome The A to Z of American Theater: Modernism he relates a popular legend that a burglar once snuck into a Broadway theater, fell from the darkened stage, broke his leg, and then sued the theater. And of course there is the pervasive belief that the light will either ward off ghosts or distract them. 

The ghost light is also sometimes called the “Equity Lamp” which implies that it was once required by the Actor’s Equity Association but Stern says he does not know of any official mandate requiring ghost lights today.

For such hallowed objects, the lights  are humble often just a bare low-wattage bulb on top of a staff. (In keeping with the times, energy efficient halogen or LED bulbs are becoming more common, says Stern.) But despite their unglamorous nature, Stern says that every theater he has ever traveled to maintains one, except in very rare occasions.

A ghost light in a darkened theatreA ghost light visible in a darkened theatre. (Photo: Ellwood jon/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stern stage manages both Mandy Patinkin’s one-man show “Mandy Patinkin: Dress Casual” and his duet show with Patti Lupone, “An Evening with Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone”. In both, the ghost light becomes part of the performance. In Patinkin’s solo act, he interacts with objects on the stage, including the ghost light, which becomes “like the moon” says Stern. In the duet show, Patinkin and Lupone share the stage with 29 ghost lights, which glow in different colors. The most recent season of Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” featured a ghost light- themed routine. Theater critic Frank Rich called his memoir “Ghost Light”. Plenty of theaters have incorporated the tradition into their name; there is a Ghostlight Theatre in Sun City West, Arizona and in North Towanda, New York. Seattle has a theater company called Ghost Light Theatricals

 “The idea of the ghostlight on the stage in a dark theater is very, very magic,” says Stern. “You see that little glow on stage, you can see the edge of the proscenium, like ‘Wow, we’re in this place where anything can happen, who knows what ghosts are lurking around and what wonderful shows have been here before.’”