The idea of letting actors loose after hours in their own playhouse is enticing and inspired.
The Hippodrome Ghost Tour started at 10:30 p.m. last Thursday. A group of us (a young married couple and some Hipp employees) were led upstairs into what looked like a dance rehearsal room. We sat in chairs for about 10 minutes, wondering. A door that looked like it belonged in an Old West bank from a Clint Eastwood movie opened slowly and Rusty Salling, a seasoned actor, shuffled out precariously. He was bearded and dressed in all black. He moved cautiously but fancifully around us like a modern Vincent Price. He warned that people have a tendency to get locked in the vault, so try your best stay away from it.
The legend goes like this: In 1914, Clement Boyle, a young man, may or may not have committed a murder. From his cell in the depths of the Hippodrome, he wrote a heartfelt letter to his mother, Lucinda. The letter begged her to help him, for he was facing death by hanging. A makeshift gallows was constructed in the courtyard for the purpose of the dastardly deed. The mother made the difficult journey by train, over thousands of miles, to Gainesville only to find out her son had been hanged the day before. Distraught and overwhelmed with emotion, she went insane. She still haunts the Hipp to this day.
We were led around a dark hallway to the women's restroom where she sometimes can be heard weeping. Sitting on the playhouse floor in pitch black is unnerving. The basement of the Hippodrome is wide and open. Dark spaces take on new meanings late at night under the right circumstances. Salling sold us on the story and fed us morsels of it crumb by crumb leading up to the frightening "reveal" at the end of the tour.
The highlight of the evening includes getting to see the inner workings of the Hippodrome elevator room in the basement, which resembles an electricity room for an electric chair, 1920s style.
According to Salling, this is the tour's second year. He's been with the Hipp since its inception in 1973, but he swears he was 5 at the time and playing children's roles. When I ask for his age, he tells me he's "old enough to do a ghost tour."
Since he is the mastermind behind the whole production, I am inclined to agree.