Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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Center Stage

Who ya gonna call?



Do ghosts of the night roam area stages?

When Wanda Sykes came to Hoyt Sherman recently, she wound up in a horror show.  A bat swooped down on her onstage. Sykes kept up the patter, but she got out of town that night.

Now the bat turns out to be just the beginning. Lately, strange visitors have been drifting, uninvited, into shows all over Des Moines.

At the Kum & Go last weekend, performers found themselves working around figures who — though colorless and see-through — looked a lot like firemen.

“They had the helmets, you know?” said actress Katy Merrimam. “The big old-fashioned helmets?”

“Plus the boots,” put in co-star Jami Bassman. “Plus the slickers.”

The apparitions took shape like clouds of vapor, and so the players tried first to fan them away.

“Staying in character, of course,” said Merrimam.

But then the groaning started. “Fire hazard! Fi-rre hazz-zrd!”

The things groaned and looked unhappy. They tried to point, though their hands kept turning to smoke. They seemed to fear the theater might burst into flames. With that, the flesh-and-blood players understood.

“These were the firemen,” Merrimam explained. “Ghosts of the firemen.”

“Totally,” said Bassman.

The Kum & Go was originally part of a Des Moines firehouse.  Now, somehow, with all the human activity — especially the drama onstage — the sprits of the old place were coming back.

“It’s like the 1930s called and they want their garage back,” said Bassman.

Over at the Playhouse, meanwhile, they get a different spectral clientele. Theatergoers find themselves sitting next to blurry couples in coats and ties, or in ankle-length dresses. Insofar as they can talk, the ghosts have a question.

“Whe-en,” they asked, “does the mooo-vie sta-a-art?”

The Playhouse, after all, was originally a swank movie theater. French Quarter GhostThere, many Des Moines couples enjoyed their first date, dressed in the more elegant manner of the times. Now these young folks have come back, expecting maybe the Marx Brothers.

“But then, the moviehouse was just one end of the building,” pointed out Playhouse Director John Viars.  “The other was Red’s Barbecue.”

Viars claims a chef from Red’s has floated across the stage more than once, offering sacks of ribs for a quarter (“Great prices in those days!” he added). But the first time, the ghost appeared during “The Addams Family.”

“That show, it’s got so many ghosts already…” Viars said.

Otherwise, he says, he’s just made sure to fill the stage with big dance numbers.

“You get enough teenagers up there grinning and kicking, nobody’s going to notice a visitor from beyond,” he said.

Others in the theater community are hammering out their own solutions. Todd Buchacker, Director of StageWest, believes he can work with the apparitions.

“Nine-tenths of our stuff features either someone who just died, or someone who’s about to die. So what’s one more,” he asked.

Even Buchacker, though, worries about what might turn up at Hoyt Sherman.

“Those ladies in the Women’s Club. They fought for Prohibition. They carried hatchets,” he said. CV


John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See


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