The Ghost Light
By: Tim Realbuto
The first definition of “ghost light” that pops up on Google is “Ghost Light is the second serial of the 26th season in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in three weekly parts from 4 October to 18 October 1989.” No, that’s not what I’m looking for. I know what a ghost light is, but I’m curious to see how others define the mysterious object. It’s true that our society puts more emphasis on pop culture (see above definition) than on most other things. It seems as if the actual definition of the ghost light has faded, much like the object itself, which is present in most theatres you step into, but never really focused on. People have been arguing about the true definition of the ghost light for years. I’m not sure if there is a correct answer, but this is the literal translation. “A ghost light is an electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark.” Found it... only seven articles down on Google.
Although 95% of the population would care more about the Doctor Who connection, I’ve always found the lone light, present on stage after a performance, incredibly intriguing; heck, I even wrote a musical about it. Some people will tell you that a ghost light was created solely for keeping the stage bright after audiences leave every night. After all, stage hands and security guards might be creeping around in the dark and safety is important. Sure, that may be so; however, as someone who has been lucky enough to grow up in the theatre (almost literally), I much prefer the superstitious version of the story. Theatre people are known to be quite superstitious and a popular definition of the ghost light is that it is a light that was created to keep the theatre ghosts happy throughout the night. Now, isn’t that much more interesting?
When a person lives for the stage, it is pretty clear that they will want to spend their afterlife in the place that made them feel safe and at home when their physical body was still here on earth. I firmly believe in spirits and there’s just too much evidence to deny that energy is present all around us – and a theatre ghost will obviously be the most theatrical of all. Reports of falling scenery and apparitions of showgirls are whispered about all across New York City. Some have claimed to see Judy Garland at the Palace . . . recently. Others have seen David Belasco at, well, The Belasco. However, as much as I’d love to see Judy sing “The Trolley Song” live, none of these ghosts interest me more than Olive Thomas, the inspiration behind the musical Ghostlight, and the New Amsterdam’s resident spirit.
When my writing partner Matthew Martin read an article about the infamous Ziegfeld girl, he came to me with the idea. I knew that the story of a small town girl who rises to fame in the Follies before becoming a silent film star and overdosing on Bichloride of Mercury at age 25, was a perfect idea to be put on stage. When I heard that she still haunts the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway, I became even more excited. Olive is said to appear to mainly men after the audience has gone home for the evening, sometimes flirting with them, sometimes holding a bottle of poison. When Matt and I decided on the title for the show, we knew that Ghostlight (note: one word) was the only logical choice. We spell it wrong on purpose. In our show, Olive is the ghost light, forever protecting future generations of theatre folk at the New Amsterdam with her warm glow. No matter where Olive went in her lifetime, she always claimed that the theatre was her number one love and now she has chosen to live there eternally. In conclusion, my personal definition of the ghost light is a light that reflects and represents little pieces of every person who ever stepped foot on that stage, the people who are no longer with us. So, the next time you’re at the theatre, wait until the exit music has faded, watch as a stage hand wheels on the ghost light and remember the countless people who have contributed to this crazy business we all love. It may be there to protect spirits or it may be there to protect the living; either way, it’s a lot more interesting than watching Doctor Who on Netflix.
Tim Realbuto was born in Brooklyn, New York and fell in love with film, literature and theatre at a very early age. He has been involved in all areas of performing arts, but obtained a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts from Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York. He is most known for co-writing the musical Ghostlight, which premiered at the Signature Theatre in New York City starring Tony Award winner Daisy Eagan, Drama Desk winner Rachel York and Tony nominee Michael Hayden. Tim also co-directed the production with Matthew Martin. As an actor on the New York stage, Tim has appeared as Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale Project (Fringe Festival- The Village Theatre); Franciscu in White Widow the musical (Off-Broadway premiere); Boyet in Love’s Labours Lost (Shakespeare in the Parking Lot); and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project). Other favorite roles include Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar; Louis Ironson in Angels in America (directed by Academy Award winner Milton Justice); and The Baker in Into the Woods. On film, he appeared as Jackson Pheiffer in The Emperor’s Club (opposite Kevin Kline and Jesse Eisenberg); Sex and the City: The Movie; Deconstructing Harry (directed by Woody Allen); and The First Seven Years (featured opposite Carol Kane). He was also featured on HBO’s “The Sopranos”; “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”; “Ed”; and HBO’s “Strip Search” opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal and Glenn Close. Tim’s play, Blame It On the Oysters, was produced twice, including a fully mounted production at his college (in which he appeared and directed). His screenplay The Hyde Club is currently in pre-production with Breaking Glass Pictures. Tim is also an acting teacher and private coach in Brooklyn.