Great Caesar’s ghost! Or not…

Here’s a flashback to March of 2019, back when theatre was still a thing and the world was (relatively) normal. Ironically, I originally posted this story a day short of exactly one year before ComedySportz was scheduled to leave its space at the El Portal in order to perform as a touring company before finding a new space in the fall. Ironically, that turned out to have been the best decision possible, as it kept the company together while freeing it of the financial burden of the space. A lot of other small theater companies were not as lucky.

As my regular readers know, I do improv comedy for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League on Monday nights, as well as work box office for the company, which is located in the smaller space in the historic El Portal Theater, which has quite a history.

It was built in 1926 and housed both vaudeville shows and movies. It was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, although fortunately restored to become a live theater, with three performance spaces. The smaller one, where ComedySportz is now resident, was originally occupied by Actors Alley and then later briefly by The Company Rep before they moved.

In an ironic full-circle, I joined that company as a playwright while they were at the El Portal, then continued on to act with them as they moved to the NoHo Arts Center and the former location of the Deaf West Theater, where I received a glowing review for my turn as a depressed, unicycle riding bear.

So that’s the background on the building. The other thing to keep in mind is that both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to the place to watch movies when they were kids, and the main space and our theater are named after them respectively. The other is that it is an ancient tradition to believe that all theaters are haunted by ghosts.

Note: I don’t believe in ghosts at all, but I do believe that there are certain psychological and physical factors that can make people think they’ve seen them.

Now to the real start of the story. Recently, I had to pull double-duty running the box office and working as house manager on a night when we had shows at eight and ten in the evening. This meant that I had to come open up at six and stick around until the last show and the notes afterward were over, so I was there until midnight.

As part of the closing up procedure, I have to go up to our booth to shut down the light and sound boards and computer, and then have to make sure that there’s no one still working on the main stage. This means I get to go into the main theater lobby, which is deserted, and then into the main stage itself.

That night, I walked into the space, which was dark except for the so-called ghost-light, and called out asking if anyone was there, and for some reason, I got a sudden chill. You know the feeling, right? It’s like every hair on your body suddenly stands up and you feel that electricity travel from your feet to your head. It’s an ancient reaction common to mammals, and if you’ve ever seen a cat puff up or a dog raise its hackles, then you’ve seen it. It’s a defense mechanism designed to make us look bigger when we’re feeling unsure, although it doesn’t really work as well for humans, mainly because it doesn’t affect the hair on our heads and the hair on our bodies (for most of us) isn’t think enough to make us really puff much.

I wrote it off as the psychological weirdness of walking into a dark, cavernous space all alone late at night, then jokingly waved at the stage and said, “Hi, Debbie!” before heading back out to close up.

The next evening, I was talking to Pegge, the Managing Director, and Steve, the House Manager, of the theater and told them about this, and Pegge immediately told me with complete sincerity, “Oh, no. The ghost’s name is Robert. Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” She went on to explain that he was the theater’s original accountant back in the 1920s, and people always saw him dressed very formally, with a high white collar. According to her, there’s also a female ghost who would escort patrons to their seats and then vanish.

Steve explicitly stated that he doesn’t believe in ghosts either, but that he has had a number of people over the years independently mentioning seeing both of them and giving identical descriptions of each, generally wondering, “Who was that person I thought I saw before they just disappeared?”

It’s all rather intriguing and now I want to experience these phenomena just to try to figure out what could be creating these illusions in people’s minds. It is a very old building, and late at night also tends to be preternaturally quiet because the really high ceilings and carpeted and padded interiors like to eat sound.

Also, the single source ghost light on stage tends to create deep shadows and bright highlights, and high contrast lighting like that can create all kinds of visual tricks. Finally, the place does sit right above the L.A. Metro Red Line subway tunnel and has for 20 years. I can often hear the rumble of trains passing beneath the lobby, and the connection between low frequency infrasound and ghosts has been established. That’s exactly the kind of sound a rushing subway train might create toward the back of a large space.

Back to that ghost light, though. It’s a romantic name, but is also known as the Equity light, after the actors’ union. Its real reason for being there is to keep people passing through the space after hours from walking into things or falling into the orchestra pit. `

As for why there’s such a belief of ghosts in theaters? I’m not sure, but maybe we can blame Shakespeare, because he certainly loved the trope. Hamlet Sr.? Banquo? Richard III’s nightmare before Bosworth field? Both parts of Henry VI and the only part of Henry VIII? A whole family of ghosts who visited Cymbeline? (A rarely performed and underrated play, by the way, that manages to be both gross and funny at the same time.)

And, of course, there’s the titular ghost for this post, who also gave Perry White of Superman fame his famous catchphrase.

So I’ll be keeping an eye out for Robert and the nameless female usher in future days, and will report back on anything unusual I experience. This is definitely going to be interesting.

Have you seen or experienced anything you’d call “ghost-like?” If so, how do you explain it? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Painting, La morte di Giulio Cesare, by Vincenzo Camuccini, c. 1806. Public domain in the United States.

Momentous Monday: Riding through history

Car repairs can come up at the weirdest times, although I have to say that this latest adventure was perfectly timed, since I’m furloughed. On the other hand, there were other inconvenient bits, mainly that the apartment complex I live at just opened two new buildings (that absolutely none of the tenants wanted jammed onto the grounds) and those buildings sit atop parking garages that are technically three stories down, but in reality six.

So, long story short there, about a week ago, I had to move my car from the spot, which for over a decade had been about thirty feet from my back door, to a new one four stories down in a parking garage. That spot is now a good two minutes away by foot and elevator. And I can’t even pull up to my back door to unload groceries anymore because they just fenced off and are excavating the parking lot behind my building to… jam in another building absolutely none of the tenants wants.

Prologue to this adventure. It was the day I went to pick up Sheeba’s ashes from the vet, on a Monday afternoon. Now, when I’d taken her there to be euthanized, I was able to go inside and be with her. That’s the one exception to the vet’s rule of all business being done in the parking lot. Picking up ashes, not so much.

So, I pull into a spot and try to call. But I keep getting… not exactly a busy signal, but a non-answer. I try that a few times, then suddenly lose the Bluetooth signal from the car — and am able to get through immediately just via the untethered phone.

This should have been clue number one.

After they put me on hold for five minutes and didn’t come back, I called again, and when they asked if they could put me on hold again blurted, “Sure, but I’m just here for my dog’s ashes” figuring (rightly) that on somebody’s next trip out to a waiting client they could bring them to me.

Did I mention that this entire time that the car was not running but the ignition was turned to accessory, and I had the AC and radio running? This will be important in a moment.

One of the techs brought the bag with Sheeba’s ashes and etc. to me, I put it on the passenger seat, thanked her, then got in, turned the key to start the car and…

Fwump.

You know that disheartening feeling? The one when you tell your ignition to ask your battery to juice up the starter to turn the engine over and your battery just says, “Meh?” Yeah, that one.

A couple more unsuccessful tries as my car suffers the automotive version of ED, unable to yank the crank and turn the engine over.

Profanities ensue. I don’t have AAA although, ironically, only two days before this, I got one of those, “Hey, we’d love for you to come back” direct mails from them and had been considering it. So I had to resort to the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire rescue known as “phone a friend.”

Three of my closest friends also happen to live physically the closest to both me and the vet’s office, so I start calling and leaving messages, and none of them answers — but that’s when I realize that although I’ve set it for otherwise, my phone loves to only show “Private Number” even if I call someone whose contact list I’m on and vice versa.

I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t answer, either.

So then I start texting, and one of my exes is the first to respond. He’s also the one who lives closest to the vet, although not closest to me. The one who lives closest texts me back moments after I’ve arranged for the ex to come over with jumper cables, though.

Now every spot in the lot is full when my friend arrives, and then it turns out that his cables aren’t quite long enough to reach from his battery to mine, since I’m parked head-in — and keep in mind that he’s got a Honda and I’ve got a Yaris, both of which are pretty short cars.

But… the couple parked to my left is about to leave, as soon as they finish their paperwork. Meanwhile, someone in a truck in the first spot in the lot pulls out, and it’s like some complicated puzzle has suddenly been unlocked. Ex drives out and around the block so truck can leave. Couple backs out and around to take empty spot, ex drives back in and parks next to me and, ta-da, jump succeeds.

And the car keeps starting, if with a hint of sluggish, for the next week and a half, although I still make an appointment with Firestone to get the battery checked. I had intended to make it for Friday, but somehow wound up making it Saturday. Still, since I’m not going anywhere anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

Except that on the Thursday before, I go down to the depths of that damn parking garage, go to start the car and… bupkis. Not even an attempt to turn over the motor, just the annoying chatter of a starter that doesn’t even have the energy to roll over and hit “snooze.”

Well, fuck.

Luckily, right after the incident while picking up Sheeba’s ashes, I decided that it would be a good idea to re-join AAA, so I did. This came in extra-handy on Saturday and, although the tow-truck was 40 minutes late, I got my car started and got it to Firestone.

And yes, the battery was bad and the positive terminal had corroded away to the point that they’d have to replace that, so I okayed the work, and then really felt like I had no choice but to wait, because by the time I’d taken two buses home, it would be time to come back again. Yes, such are the vagaries of a four mile public transit trip in L.A. when home and destination don’t quite line up on the routes.

More on this later.

The good news was that once they replaced the battery, the starter and alternator tested A-Okay, so didn’t need to be replaced. The bad news was that I needed four new tires, but they had to be ordered and wouldn’t be in until Monday.

On the bright side, the tires weren’t that old, and two of them were still covered under warranty. (Two of them were not. Oh well.)

But there were two big snags on Monday, which was Memorial Day. One, I had to be there before 9 a.m. Two, the job would be long enough that there would be no point in waiting, so I had to make my way home.

So on what was ostensibly a holiday, I actually got up far earlier than I had since my last working day over two months ago in March. Second, the only real option for getting home with maximum social distancing was via the L.A. Metro, our local transit system.

What I didn’t realize on my trip home is that there’s one bus that goes right down the street just south of Firestone, which is also the street I live on. I just have to walk a half mile to the stop. Instead, I take a bus up Lankershim to the Metro Station, then another one that goes down another street to the west — where I have to walk half a mile from the stop to home.

Since the Metro is on a Sunday schedule for the holiday, it took me almost two hours to get home — a distance of 3.9 miles. The second bus only runs hourly, and didn’t sync up well to the first.

So I sat across the street from the Firestone and waited for about half an hour before the bus pulled up, and then entered through the back door only to find that there was no way to pay the fair or use my TAP card, which is the payment system we use here — a plastic card that we can add value to, and which uses RFID technology to add and deduct fares.

The one other passenger on the bus told me, “Oh, it’s free now,” and while the bus driver told her, “That’s not totally true,” when I asked her how to pay, she just waved me off to say, “Don’t.”

So I’m guessing that buses are not charging, while trains and express or fixed line buses are, because the latter have TAP terminals at either the entrances or at the rear doors, while the buses only have them up next to the drivers, and the drivers wisely aren’t having us infectious people getting on by them.

On one of the buses today, the driver even had the forward wheelchair seat straps webbed out across the aisle so nobody could get to the front. So no fare box, no TAP device, free ride.

And, again, the only reason I took public transit instead of a taxi or some godawful app-based ride sharing abomination was that I figured it would be much safer.

Generally, that was true. The largest number of people on any of the three buses I rode that day was four, and on that particular ride, the extra two were a couple who retreated to the back. I made sure not to touch anything inside with my hands, instead just hooking my elbow around the upright poles, sitting and standing without using my hands to assist, and banging the stop request buttons with an elbow.

But, for me, the most educational part of the trip involved a ride back down a street where I had spent quite a lot of time over the previous three or four years — and it was like an amusement park tour of a carefully curated disaster zone that comes right before the right turn and into the covered building with the big, scary monster.

This would be the NoHo Arts District. Oh, not the scary monster part. I mean the tranquil, formerly not a disaster zone that the tram steers down while the tour guide — who probably does a lot of shows in the many tiny theatres in this district — hypes up the tourists from Ohio with the corporate approved script.

Goddamn, that just went all kinds of meta.

Anyway… I’ve been a regular denizen of this magic zone for most of my life, at least since my early teen years, and I’ve seen it boom and bust. If the east side of the Valley has a downtown, NoHo gives Burbank a real run for its money.

All Burbank has (had?) are the movie studios. NoHo has (had?) the nightlife, live theatre, art galleries, small VFX houses, and… the Metro — which is the single innovation that brought the place back to life just over twenty years ago.

So  this vital stretch down Lankershim from just above Chandler to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, Riverside/Camarillo, has always been magic — it’s actually the Times Square of NoHo.

It’s the southernmost tip of a place in which I have some really fond memories of living, loving, laughing, performing, and playing here, so that it has always felt like my true L.A. home no matter where else I might have lived, etc. at the time.

But, since mid-March, with the physical shutdown of ComedySportz, I haven’t been anywhere near the district. Today was my first time back, viewing it out of the windows of the bus just like I were a tourist on a Universal Studios Tram, a tourist attraction that’s only about a mile down the street, and the first stop due south from the NoHo Metro station.

It was truly surreal, starting with seeing the old home of ComedySportz, the El Portal, shut down, its marquee with a message thanking the BID and LAFD — our local security patrol and fire department — and something along the lines of “We’ll be back.”

(Note: Considering the way CSzLA was treated when this all went down, I hope they’re not. At least not under the former management. Sorry, not sorry.)

Farther down the block, we came to a series of buildings that were destroyed by a fire about two years ago, and last time I walked by, they were still boarded up and surrounded by scaffolds, in the process of being repaired.

Well, now the buildings that were damaged in the fire show no signs of it. The scaffolds are gone and the storefronts are restored, but none of them are open.

The sushi restaurant that was ground zero for the fire, Tokyo Delves, looks like it was slated to return as something else, a project stopped dead in its tracks. And I didn’t notice any pedestrians on this stretch of street.

It was truly eerie to see Pitfire Pizza closed for reasons other than remodeling or its own fire almost twenty years ago. Yeah, I was right down the block from there one night exactly a week after 9/11 when the place went up in flames and freaked all of the artists in the area the hell out.

Finally, the stretch of Magnolia down to Tujunga was similarly empty and quiet. Still plenty of cars on the road, though.

Yet… this stretch of road that is just over one mile long, with a couple of side branches on Chandler and Magnolia, is one of the most vital corridors in this part of the city. And today’s adventure in “Not getting the ‘rona” really reminded me of that. Not only of how important this neighborhood had become, but how much it potentially has to lose.

I have no doubt that it will bounce back with a vengeance. We just have to give it time.

Image, “Once Upon a Time in NoHo,” © 2019 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved