Ghost Search at the Fitzgerald

Looking for spirits at the historic Fitzgerald Theater.

Simply put, I wanted to see a ghost, so when I was asked if I was willing to scour the Capital City for proof of their existence, I wholeheartedly volunteered.

Most cities have communities dedicated to making contact with spirits. Saint Paul is no exception, so after speaking with several enthusiasts, the general consensus was that I should head over to the Fitzgerald Theater and look for “Ben.” Before becoming a friendly ghost, Ben was rumored to have been a stagehand who froze to death in the alley outside the Fitzgerald after consuming too much alcohol.

I spoke with Brian Sanderson, who worked at the Fitzgerald Theater between 1987 and 2005, and retired as their general manager.

Never having met Sanderson, I felt a bit awkward cold-calling to discuss whether or not he believed in ghosts. But my uneasiness was put to rest moments into our conversation when he confesses: “Yes, I’ve had experiences, but to be honest, I feel a bit slighted that I never actually got to see the ghost. But on more than one occasion, I felt its presence,” Sanderson says. “It started with shadows in the corner of my eyes, which were followed with a cool breeze on the back of my neck.” He adds that it’s been his understanding that the ghost or ghosts were more active before the theater was renovated in the 1980s, but claims, “During my tenure we had some incidents.”

Sanderson pauses a moment before continuing. “I remember one night, it was 6 o’clock and one of our box office tellers called to report she saw a bluish-green figure moving through the gift shop area,” he says. “She was terrified and locked herself in the box office until her husband came to escort her home.”

Sanderson admits that he believed the woman’s claim. “That description was verified later when our house manager, who now lives in Colorado, saw it too. He saw a blue-green figure hovering towards Wabasha. That’s where the original entrance was back when the Fitzgerald was the Shubert Theater,” Sanderson says, adding the figure appeared in the shape of a man, but seemed to be shorter. “I guess that shouldn’t be surprising since people used to be shorter back in those days,” he says.

As our conversation wound down, I mention that the following evening the theater was closed, and I was scheduled to camp out onstage with hopes of seeing Ben.

If it’s possible to hear a smile over the phone, I think I did as Sanderson told me about other media people who had tried to make contact. When I asked if they were successful, he says, “You are going to have a great time tomorrow, Danny. Enjoy yourself.”

Behind the Scenes

The following evening as I pulled up to the theater, I must admit that I began having second thoughts. If you’ve ever been to a show at the Fitzgerald, you know it’s one of the most charming venues in the Twin Cities, but as I considered being alone in a building with 1,050 seats, catwalks over 50 feet high and brick walls two feet thick. I decided the night would probably pass more swiftly if I placed my imagination behind pragmatic sensibilities.

As I stepped up to the box office, I called the cell phone of my contact and within moments a good looking guy, built like a blacksmith, came barreling up to the door and greeted me: it was Tom Campbell, the production and facilities manager at the Fitzgerald.

When I ask Campbell how long he’d been working there, he mentions a number close to a quarter century. A number large enough to qualify him as a historian, he announces with a wink.

Before my comprehensive tour began, I start off by thanking him for sticking around to let me in to give me the lay of the land. Before I began dropping paranormal questions his way, I felt it was only proper that I get to know my host better, and I start by asking if he’d been active with A Prairie Home Companion.

“I’ve been very fortunate. Over the years I’ve traveled to nearly every state in the union with PHC,” says Campbell. “Originally, the Fitzgerald was a back-up venue. Garrison Keillor had an outdoor venue at the time and this space was used during bad weather. In 1980, Minnesota Public Radio bought this building and they have done a wonderful job with it. They, and Garrison, have been gracious and taken really good care of us.”

The Search Begins

Over the course of the next several hours, Campbell and I journeyed throughout the building. We started in the basement. “Years ago, there were 20 theaters in the Wabasha area,” he says. “A few of them were connected by underground tunnels, much like the Paris sewer system in Phantom of the Opera, but eventually the phone and electric company redeveloped them.”

Next I was led into an eerie part of the basement that had German phrases painted on the walls. “This used to be a speakeasy years ago. Just from looking at this room, it isn’t hard to tell that at one point in time, this was the place to be,” Campbell says before we headed upward toward the catwalks.

“If you are afraid of heights, it’s better if I know now,” he adds. “In the past, I’ve had to employ the fireman carry to get people down, and you might be too big for that.”

We ducked here and climbed there until I found myself standing on steel beams close to the ceiling and next to the guts of a 1926 Wurlitzer organ. “In 1986, when they overhauled the theater, a group of local pipe organ players came up here and installed this. We were really lucky to have their services,” Campbell says.

Finally, we headed back down onto the stage of the theater. It was lit well enough to see, but was still dark enough to unnerve me as I looked over an ocean of empty seats.

Campbell points toward one of the opera boxes. “In 2001, we did a dry run of a play called The Woman in Black. There were only 50 people watching from the main floor, but at one moment, half of them looked up and saw the star, the woman in black, up in the balcony,” he says. “Afterwards, when I was asked why she was up there, I was perplexed. She was backstage playing cards with me the entire time.”

This seemed like a natural segue for me to pose the question I came to ask: “Do you believe the Fitzgerald Theater is haunted, Tom?” My new friend seemed almost apologetic as he shook his head no.

The Legacy

As we stood under the house spotlight, Campbell mentioned numerous theaters he had visited or worked in. When I asked if most of them had a haunted culture, he thought a second before answering: “Yes, many of them do; not necessarily ghosts, but a culture that permits ghosts to point out things that are screwed up, and usually by people who don’t want to admit it,” he says.

Campbell continues: “The one thing that all these theaters, all these community spaces, have in common is that they don’t need ghosts because legacy, lore and stories will haunt these spaces forever,” he says. “I mean, how cool is it to wonder if John Barrymore walked the boards in your building?”

“Everybody that enters this place leaves a mark. If you look closely on the bricks at the back of the stage, you’ll see signatures from people like Stephen King, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello.”

Then Campbell nods thoughtfully and says, “I have to believe, or hope, that Mr. Keillor will haunt this place forever.”

It was getting late, and I was keeping a good man from his bed, so I relinquished him from his responsibilities and drove home hoping that I would see a ghost, next time.