Thursday, August 7, 2014


Every theatre needs a ghost. Or ghosts, plural. There's just something about theatrical venues that goes with the supernatural like peanut butter goes with jelly. My theatrical home, the Historic Lowry House in Huntsville, Alabama, has at least a couple. Maybe more. Thus far they do seem to like my shows. Or at least they tolerate them. How do I know? I'll tell you in a bit. First, let me tell you about the House itself.

Wait. before THAT, let me tell you how I FOUND the House. I'll begin with my entrance on the scene, in media res, as all good stories should begin. I had been with a certain theatrical company for about 8 years, during that time investing a lot of sweat and a little bit of blood and tears, and making the owner a whole lot of money while making very little for myself. When a situation arose wherein I felt I was being treated unfairly, I packed up and left, and the majority of my troupe, my steady regulars, my "players" in the parlance, came with me. Thus I found myself with a bushel barrel full of ideas and a handful of talented people willing to help me bring them to fruition, but nowhere in which to stage them. I began a search for a new venue. The first place I hooked up with, the people there ended up being as hard to work with as those at the previous establishment, so I again cut ties and hit the road, this time after only one production. By that point, I'd had my fill of "difficult," and once was enough for me to know I didn't want to be there. Then one day I saw an add in a local magazine for the Lowry House. A pre-Civil War manor house, the ad said, fully restored and available to rent out for weddings, luncheons, etc. Hmmm, I remember thinking. I wonder if you could stage a play there? So I sent them an email. As I had by that time contacted several other locations, and none of them had bothered to even respond to my queries, I didn't expect to ever hear back from the Lowry House, either. But surprisingly they did get back in touch with me, inviting me to come check out the place and discuss things with them.

Now what's ironic is, the Lowry House is located one block over from the theatre where I'd toiled for those 8 years. Within spittin' distance. But there is a big garage blocking it from view from the main highway, and I'd never taken any other road except the main highway, so I'd never known it was there. Well, I met the family that owns the House, the Tippetts, and we hit it off right from the start. They are wonderful people, and I fell in love with the House the first time I laid eyes on it. After my first production there, Bloodless: The Lizzie Borden Mystery, proved to be a big hit, the Tippetts asked me to stay on full-time, and I've been there ever since, serving as "Artistic Director," let's call it, because it sounds spiffy. While the House is not a traditional theatre--no stage to speak of, no curtains, no spotlights, limited seating--it more than makes up it for in its intimacy. The audience is literally on the stage with the performers, almost as if thy are a part of the show. The energy, the "vibe" is like nothing I've ever experienced with any of my productions in any other venue. In short, it works. It works very well.

Now, about the House itself:

The Lowry House has a history stretching back almost two centuries. Originally a log cabin occupied the site where it now stands; when the cabin was torn down in the early 1800s and the House, or the first stages of it, was built, wood from the cabin was incorporated into its construction. More additions to the House were added over the years. The most recent date to the 1920s. The House was the center of what was once a plantation covering several acres. No sign of the plantation exists today, but the House is still there. It was there during Huntsville's days as a cotton mecca, long before anybody had ever heard of a thing called NASA or dreamed of launching human beings into space. The Lincoln Cotton Mill maintained a "village" for its employees, including numerous houses, a school and a company commissary. The Lowry House sat right in the midst of this village, never truly a part of it, predating it and remaining long after the Mill had closed and the majority of those company homes had been torn down. Businesses and highways now cover the land where once the plantation's crops grew.

Louie Tippett, a Huntsville businessman, and his wife, Jane, purchased the House in the late 90s, with the intention to tear it down and use the lot for commercial purposes. But they fell in love with the place, too. It seems to have that effect on people. Despite the fact that the House was literally falling in on itself at that point, they decided to restore it. It was only then that they discovered the historical significance of the place. To have lost it would have been truly a tragedy.

The Lowry House served as a stopover point on the Underground Railroad. The Railroad as you will all remember if you were paying attention back in History class, was a series of safehouses, maintained by abolitionists, set up with the purpose of smuggling runaway slaves out of the South. The Lowry House has a double staircase; the one in the rear served as the servant's staircase, but also a double purpose: people could be brought in from the back door and ushered up these stairs without anybody being able to see it from the street. There is a secret room upstairs, which cannot be seen from outside, that could have held up to a hundred people at a time. Though it is doubtful there were ever so many people hiding out there at once, there certainly were people who hid there. Remember the Dred Scott case? You should, if you were--again--paying attention in US History. It's kind of a big deal. Well, Dred Scott hid at the Lowry House. For this reason and numerous others, the Lowry House is listed as a National Historic Site.

But what you all really want to hear about is the ghosts, right? Sure. Everybody does.

Here's what we know: During the Civil War, while Huntsville was being occupied by Yankee troops, the Lowry family invited a relative, a young woman named Ann, to come stay with them. Ann's husband had gone off to fight with the Confederacy, leaving her alone with just her servant, an elderly black woman affectionately called Aunt Missy. Now yes, technically Aunt Missy was a slave, but the relationship between the two women, Ann and Missy, was more akin to daughter and mother than master and slave. Missy had practically raised Ann and the two loved each other dearly. Missy came with Ann to Huntsville and refused to leave her--even when the rest of the family did.

Word had gotten out that the Yankees were pulling out of town. Anything they couldn't steal they were burning or destroying, and that included the native populace. It wasn't safe for people to be in Huntsville, so the Lowry family left town until the danger had passed. They tried to persuade Ann to go with them, but she refused. She had gotten word from her husband that he was planning to desert at the first convenient opportunity and come home to her. These were the waning days of the war, you must remember, and it had become painfully obvious to most people that the Confederacy as in a fight it could not hope to win, and many men, Confederate soldiers, saw no need in throwing their lives away on a lost cause. Desertions had become commonplace at this time. Somehow--no one knows the specifics--Ann had gotten word back to her husband that she would be waiting for him in Huntsville, at the Lowry House. That's why she wouldn't leave, afraid he would come and she would miss him. She stayed at the House alone. Alone, that is, except for the loyal Aunt Missy. Ann would spend hours standing at her bedroom window, looking out, hoping to see the man she loved coming for her. He never did.

One night, the inevitable happened. A group of drunken Yankee soldiers came to the House. Aunt Missy met them on the front porch and tried to stand them off with an old Cavalry pistol she carried. Often she had used it to bluff her way out of trouble. Not this time. The pistol was incapable of being fired. It had never worked in all the time Aunt Missy had carried it. The soldiers attacked Aunt Missy. Ann, looking out from her bedroom window above, saw it.

What happened next is a little confused. According to one version of the story, Ann screamed at the men to stop what they were doing. One of the men shot up at the window, hitting Ann. The more likely version is that Ann came running downstairs, out into the yard,and tried to physically defend Aunt Missy. Somehow in the skirmish, a gun discharged. The bullet hit Ann, killing her instantly. The ruffians, realizing that they had just murdered an unarmed young woman, lost their appetite for pillage and plunder and took off, leaving Aunt Missy to bury Ann all by herself. Ann was laid to rest somewhere on the plantation grounds. The location of her grave has been lost. It could be underneath one of those businesses, a Chinese restaurant or a dry cleaners, or under a busy intersection.

Time passed. The war ended. Huntsville recovered, changed, and grew. But the story began to circulate, the story of a beautiful young woman seen peering out the upstairs window of the Lowry House--even on those occasions when nobody occupied the home. It was said to be Ann, still keeping her silent vigil for her husband.

Fast forward a century and a half. The Tippett family begins repairs on the no longer grand House. In addition to the structure itself, the grounds had become overgrown and weed-choked, littered with garbage. Landscapers were hired to clean up and refurbish the lawn. One two separate occasions, two different men, working with two different companies, men who did not know each other and had not been in communication, men who knew nothing about the House or its history, asked the Tippetts who the young woman was who'd been watching them from the upstairs window, at a time when the House had been locked up tight and nobody had been inside. Another worker, this one repairing the main staircase, was sitting, working on one of the rails one day,alone in the House, when he felt a surge of wind blow past him down the stairs and heard a sound he described as a "turkey flying over his head."
That workman did not report to work the following day, and has not returned since.

A paranormal research group spent the night at the Lowry House about a year ago. While they did not see anything, their equipment, and their eardrums did record a loud crashing sound in the wee morning hours, roughly the same time the Tippetts used to receive calls from the police that their burglar alarm was going off. (The Tippetts do not live in the Lowry House.) Mr. Tippett would drive down to check on things, only to find nothing amiss. And the group of ghost hunters found nothing amiss, either, after the big crash. But this, coupled with the experiences of one man (He was trying to sleep in a recliner in the secret room when he heard a sound coming from outside the door. A careful examination the next day revealed to him the source of the sound: A cup filled with pens sitting atop a desk, when picked up and shaken, the way one might shake a musical instrument, produced an identical sound to what he had heard.) convinced him, an avowed skeptic beforehand, that there just might be something to the stories after all. As he said to me, "Old houses make noises. I'd expect that. But old houses definitely don't have rhythm." Jane Tippett has heard people speaking her name--when she was in the House alone. During our production of Bloodless, one woman refused to go into the bathroom because, she, said, she wasn't alone in there. (Eventually her bladder overcame her fear and she went anyway, but she didn't like it, she said.) Cynthia, the Tippett's daughter who helps manage the House, has heard the sound of a man whistling, when no men, OR women, were around. "But I don't believe in ghosts," she maintains--even though she doesn't like to spend any time in the House alone at night. There have been other incidents.

I am not "sensitive" to such things. But my better half is. She says there definitely is a presence in the Lowry House, though she has never felt anything negative or threatening. Quite the opposite. She says there is a very "warm" feeling there. The same with my frequent collaborator, Liz, who was my assistant director on Bloodless. Numerous others have reported feeling an unseen presence, nothing hostile, just there, in the House, specifically in the upstairs bedroom, the one that served as Ann's room, the one in which she has been reported seen, standing, looking out the window. In the picture to the left, the top window on the right, that's the window to Ann's bedroom. Every time I pass by underneath it, I always look up.

Myself, I haven't seen or heard anything, as much time as I've spent at the House. I have seen a photograph, taken in Ann's bedroom, of a young woman, one of the actresses who has portrayed Ann at one of the many historical reenactments they've done at the House. The actress is clearly visible, dressed in her period dress. And there is a face also visible, what appears to be a woman's face, in front of the actress, and what appears to be the outline of a child in the background. But have I seen anything directly? Afraid not. But I remain hopeful. And I always make it a point, when I go into Ann's room, to say hello. It's only polite, after all. We believe Ann is still there, and Aunt Missy, too. I like to believe they are keeping watch over the place. There may be others. As I said, a male has definitely been heard. However many there are, whoever they are, I feel downright protective of them. They're a part of the House, and I like the idea of them being there. I hope they like me, too. Like us, us Evil Cheezheads. I kinda think they do.

Why do I think that? I told you I'd tell you, didn't I? It's because, during the week before we opened Bloodless, the week that in the theatre vernacular is called "hell week," when you have to be there every night, and stay a late as necessary, to work all the bugs out, to get the show ready for the audience, at about the same time every night the burglar alarm would go off for no reason. We'd search the House to make sure all the doors were secured. They always were. Then a few minutes later, the alarm would go off again. "It's past bedtime," Jane explained to us. "They're just telling y'all it's time to go home." After we opened, though, and yes, I did go upstairs and explain to "the ladies" that we were staging a show and there would be lots of people in the House and lots of racket, and I told them I hoped they enjoyed the performance--after that opening performance, the alarm didn't go off again. And it hasn't since. (Except for that one time I accidentally set it off because I didn't get the pass code entered in quickly enough. But that doesn't count.) So yeah, it pleases me to think they like having us around,the same way we like the idea of them being around.

Every theatre needs a ghost, after all.