The story behind Bass Hall’s “ghost light”

Every performing arts center or theater has one: a single-bulb light fixture illuminated when the auditorium is empty. The “ghost light” at Bass Performance Hall has been burning brightly, non-stop, since mid-March, when COVID-19 forced Bass Hall to close until further notice.

The origin and purpose of ghost lights have been debated for years.

A popular tale about the birth of ghost lights, according to theatercrafts.com, goes like this: Many years ago, a burglar broke into a theater and, because there were no lights on, fell into the orchestra pit and broke his leg. Even though he was trespassing, he sued the theater for creating an unsafe workplace – and won.

Some think the light is to keep ghosts (or maybe a phantom) away from the stage, where they could do harm to the actors when they return.

Others claim the light is left on for spirits as a courtesy.

“What I was taught when I first started in theater was that the ghost light was left on overnight so that the ghosts of deceased actors would have a lit stage area to use,” says Charles McCormick, the Technical Director for Audio at Bass Hall. “That way, they wouldn’t disturb the real performances.”

Of course many believe the sole purpose of a ghost light is steeped in practicality: to keep people from falling into the orchestra pit or tripping on stage props. After all, ghost lights aren’t usually turned on until all the other lights are turned off.

The Bass Hall ghost light, backed by house lights. Photo: Jill Johnson.

Bass Hall’s ghost light was custom built by the late Steven Truitt, who worked at Bass Hall for 21 years; he was the Hall’s Technical Director.

Truitt’s wife, Debbie Barr, who has also worked at the Hall over the years, says the Bass Hall ghost light is one-of-a-kind.

“Steve built it using old parts that people had discarded,” she says. “The base of it is very ornate. There’s not another one like it.”

On top of its iron base is a wire cage cradling a florescent spiral bulb. “I know Steve used to change it out ever so often so the bulb would never burn out while we weren’t there,” says Andrew Davila, Technical Director for Lighting at Bass Hall.

A backstage view of the Bass Hall ghost light. Photo: Jill Johnson.

Sitting center stage, the ghost light beams light to every nook and cranny in the auditorium, from the front-and-center orchestra level to the outer reaches of the upper gallery.

“It’s like a panopticon,” says Jacob Mobberley, Production Manager & Senior Technical Director at Bass Hall. “It’s one thing in the room that can see everything.”

Bass Hall ghost light. Photo by Austin James.

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