Spooky tales around Halloween have made their way into listeners’ ears across the country since, almost, the birth of radio. In the spirit of this long tradition, we bring you, “Emily and the Haunting of the Orpheum Theater.” Here’s WPR’s A. Emily Ralph as a curious radio reporter.
EMILY: It’s a Friday night in October, and I’m on an American Ghost Walks tour in downtown Madison.
This isn’t for work or anything, just a normal Friday, but it really got me thinking.
With so many reportedly haunted theaters here, I wanted to know which one was the most haunted.
Sfx: More location audio from ghost tour but after tour over, night and more quiet.
EMILY: Built in 1926, The Orpheum seemed to call out to me, so I arranged to pay a visit.
Sfx: Location audio of post ghost walk audio talking with the guide, fading into footsteps.
Exterior sound design of 1940s city street.
EMILY: (On location outside) Looking up at this place, there’s a feeling of unexpected time travel, like if you step in the wrong spot, you’d suddenly find yourself back in the roaring 20s. I’ve been here before, but there’s a strong déjà vu, almost like a magnetic pull.
Anyway … time to go inside
Sfx: Walking up to the front door. Interior ambi. There is a radio nearby playing music.
EMILY: “Hello, Hello?
Sfx: Footsteps as employee approaches.
ORPHEUM EMPLOYEE: (Approaches) Ah, hello, You must be Emily. Welcome.
ORPHEUM EMPLOYEE: We’ve been, waiting for you. Do come inside.
EMILY: I’m so excited to be here, What I was thinking was that I could set up my recorder and…
Sfx: Original score fades up a bit. Emily walks around in entryway and into the theater.
EMILY: If the outside feels like time slipping, the inside is kind of overwhelming. I can almost see all the layers of moments here, stacked on top of each other like sedimentary rock. But instead of fossils, there are, of course, ghosts.
Tonight, I’m hoping to find two of the ghosts: the original night manager and a head usher.
Sfx: Location audio, Emily’s gear and footsteps, setting down a bag.
Keys jingle, pan and approach.
EMILY: I hear keys, which should be the manager, but I can’t, see anything. I need fire up my spectral translator”
Sfx: Will have 1940s sounding electronics. Gears and whirring.
Original night manager appears.
EMILY: Wow, you are right there!
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: Oh, hi! wait, you can, you can see me?
EMILY: Sure, I have this fancy deal I made.
Sfx: Spectral translate deal gets louder briefly.
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: That’s the cat’s meow!
EMILY: Thank you, I think so too! Ok, I have a few questions.
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: Sure.
Sfx: Keys jingling.
EMILY: So you’re the original night manager here?
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: I’ve always been the night manager.
EMILY: Oh, ok … so people know you for the sound of your keys. What’s that about?
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: Well, you know, when you’re bored and need to do something with your hands, and the noise is actually pretty calming.
EMILY: 100%! And this place has so many doors, right?
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: Yeah, that’s the other part. You know that feeling when you lock a door, and later just can’t remember if you did. Maybe you left the oven on, too?
EMILY: That happens to me ALL THE TIME.
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: “Yeah, well, that’s about 90% of my night to night here.
EMILY: So interesting, well, it was nice meeting you!
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: You too, Emily, though I think we’ll talk again pretty soon. (wink in voice)
EMILY: (Awkwardly) Ummm, Ok, well … bye.
ORIGINAL NIGHT MANAGER: (further away then fading out): Bye bye…
Sfx: Walking away.
GHOSTLY VOICE: Emily…. Emmmiiilly.
EMILY: Hello? Hello.. Ok, That’s weird. I hadn’t read about any lady ghosts here.
Sfx: More walking.
EMILY: (Quieter) Now, let’s see if we can find the usher. The legend is that he died falling from the balcony, and spends all his time cleaning the floor where he fell.
It’s fascinating and horrifying. Just the thought of being trapped in a loop like that … doing the same thing over and over again, forever. Eahhh!
Ok, I see a glow, let me just adjust my settings a bit.
Sfx: Emily adjusting settings on her contraption.
EMILY: There he is!
Hello! Are you the head usher?
HEAD USHER: I’ve always been the head usher.
EMILY: Everyone keeps saying that.
So my understanding is that you died here, and just clean this spot every night? What’s the deal with that?
HEAD USHER: Have you ever tried to get blood and popcorn oil out of a carpet?
EMILY: Well, yes, once actually …
HEAD USHER: So you know it’s basically impossible!
EMILY: Sure … this is a pretty big place and you just hang out right here?
HEAD USHER: I just like to finish a task before moving on, but the stain comes back, and, you know …
EMILY: Oh, that stinks… Well it was nice meeting you …
GHOSTLY VOICE: Emily … Emily, can you hear me, are you there?
EMILY: Who is that? Why are you calling me? What’s going on? Everything is fading…
Sfx: Emily fades into a pool of reverb, last words echo…
Ending music fades up.
REPORTER: And after three full nights, that’s as close as our radio team got to communicating with her.
It’s amazing. Every night since her death in 1947, Emily has wandered the theater’s halls with her recorder, always in pursuit of that one last story.
For Wisconsin Public Radio, this has been, “Emily and the Haunting of the Orpheum Theater.”
ORIGINAL MUSIC: Rockstar & Elise
Special thanks to WPR staff who lent their vocal talents to this story:
Lee Rayburn: Orpheum Employee
Steve Gotcher: Original Night Manager
Doug Gordon: Head Usher
Samantha Haack: Ghostly Voice
Sarah Hopefl: Reporter