But even if you’re spread out on the wood stage with a pile of blankets – as I was – the spot isn’t too uncomfortable, until you start thinking about the theater’s only permanent resident watching you toss and turn on the stage’s black top.
His name is Larry and depending on what you’ve heard, he hangs out in the theater’s balcony, eyeing the action and sometimes casting tricky light toward the stage. He’s also been known to mess with stage props, or send sandbags on the heads of actors. And if you spend the night in the downtown building, he might keep you up with various noises.
Not exactly a theater lover, eh? So why would the Orpheum put up with this hooligan? Well, Larry’s a ghost. And according to various sources, he’s been haunting the theater since the ’50s.
At least, that’s the word in the ghost hunter chat rooms. Because despite his legend being known by almost everyone associated with the Orpheum, Larry isn’t exactly the most visible spectre in town.
“You know, I’ve been practically living in that theater periodically at different times in my lifetime. ... In all these years I have yet to talk to someone who has seen something or heard something,” says Lary Etten, director of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.
It’s a common response to the “have you seen Larry” question. But you have to wonder, is this because Larry is shy? Does he hide during peak hours and from crowds? Perhaps.
There’s also the possibility that Larry isn’t real, that he’s just a fanciful tale passed through the decades.
Curious for the truth during the Halloween season, I convinced my wife, Leah, that we needed to spend a night locked in the Orpheum with a few supplies, a little light and, maybe, Larry.
So we did.
The first thing that has to be said about Larry is that we don’t know this ghost’s real name.
As the story goes, the ghost was dubbed “Larry” in the early ’70s when a mysterious photo was found on stage featuring a man with rosy cheeks and piercing eyes. As “The South Dakota Road Guide to Haunted Locations” says, “Most people speculated that the man in the portrait was the ghost who haunted the theater.”
Somebody called the man in question “Larry,” and the name has stayed with Orpheum’s noncorporeal resident, up to the walking tour of the Orpheum’s innards we were given by operations manager Wyatt Yager.
After taking us through the basement hallways and explaining the story of the Actor’s Studio’s own ghost (read the sidebar), he locked us in with our fears and the advice that if anything seriously spooky did happen we could call him.
An hour into sleepover, the scariest idea was how to deny boredom. After a few hands of cards and a snoopy walk about the building, we slipped under the blankets, staring at the rafters above the ceiling.
According to one story, Larry was a maintenance man who hanged himself in the rafters above the stage. Another history talks about how Larry was an actor so distraught at not getting the part of Romeo that he shot himself in the light booth.
When you’re staring at the stage’s ceiling, it’s hard not to think about Larry’s body swaying above you as the rope creaks and stretches with the body’s momentum.
“The theaters, as far as haunting experiences, seem to be the strongest. I’m not sure why,” says Terry Fisk, co-author of the “South Dakota Road Guide to Haunted Locations.”
“There’s something about theaters that causes these spirits to want to linger there.”
At 11:55 p.m., Fisk’s words suddenly felt viable when we heard a creaking noise coming from stage left. It sounded like somebody walking up or down the staircase. Startled, Leah and I looked at each other and almost instantly dismissed it as a sonic symptom of the heating vent.
As Leah fell asleep, we were without fear. Larry was still silent. And I was fading into slumber almost certain Larry is as real as Winnie the Pooh.
An hour later, my perspective changed with a loud bang.
At 1:13 a.m., I was disturbed by a startling, odd metal clanging sound that came from the Orpheum’s balcony. It sounded like somebody took a metal folding chair, thrust it open on the ground, then slammed it shut just as fast.
The first thing I thought was, “Larry’s here,” and waited for the sound to return. It didn’t. Leah was still sleeping. And I had no evidence of the noise. Eventually, my brain’s rational side convinced me it was the heating vent making noise, and I returned to sleep, but it wasn’t restful.
Throughout the night I was awakened by the same sound, which by itself is kind of spooky when sleeping in a haunted building. But the freakiest thing was that the origin of the noise shifted around the building.
Sometimes it came from the balcony. Later, it moved to the stage left area and varied in pitch and volume. And toward the morning’s twilight, the noise came from the lobby.
This was scary. But was it Larry or just some strange sounds from an old building trying to stay warm?
“Are there noises (in the Orpheum)? You bet,” Etten says. “But I built a home three years ago, and we have noises there, too.”
Still, these weren’t typical sounds. And the varied location and volume of them seemed too suspicious to blame on the heating or ventilation systems. At least, that’s what my head had me believe.
Because while I was adventurous earlier in the evening (although I did sleep with some lights on), the noises froze me. They kept me paralyzed under blankets. And they spawned thoughts of a vengeful ex-maintenance man ready to drop sand bags on my face.
And this is why hauntings are freaky: Given the catalyst of a supernatural legend or myth, our minds hyperanalyze every minute but familiar sound or odd feeling and diagnose it as somehow attached to the unexplainable.
When the morning came and my brave attitude returned, Larry didn’t respond to calls. He didn’t mind us using the bathrooms. And he didn’t make any noise.
I’m still don’t know if he’s real or the exaggerated story of imaginative actors. But what’s real is the idea of Larry. And as long as this persists, people will be spooked by odd noises or happenings in the Orpheum. And they certainly will blame Larry.
Especially when staying overnight in the Orpheum with Halloween just around the corner. Boo.
Reach reporter Robert Morast at 331-2313.