This article is featuring art by Mike Bass of Wisco-Mythos. You can order any of these images directly from his Zip-Dang art website!
Madison’s Orpheum Theater was built in 1926 at the extraordinarily expensive cost at the time of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It originally featured both vaudeville shows as well as films. Old theaters are usually rife with stories of hauntings and ghosts. With so many people that pass through the those buildings, and the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into making a production happen, it’s often a theater where those who we thought have passed on seem to leave a psychic mark on the world.
According to the old overnight housekeeper, spooky things would always start happening as soon as he was the last one left in the building. When the bar closed down and all of the shows were done for the night, it was his job to come in and handle the cleaning of the theater alone. One time he heard a couple having a conversation in the middle of the night at the bar when there was no one there. He mentioned other employees that said they could hear the original night manager walk through the halls and jingle his keys as if he was walking through to check on the building.
He claims that he even saw a few times a shadowy figure cleaning up the theater while he was doing it as well, thinking that it was the head usher from a different era still handling the night-time duties. The head usher is rumored to have fallen from the balcony onto the floor below and died. And people have reported seeing a man sitting down in the main theater right underneath the balcony and if the turn away and look for him again, he’s disappeared.
The one ghost that they know here by name though is Pete the Projectionist. If you’d like to eventually become a ghost, it seems like one of the most popular ways is to take your own life. And it is rumored that Pete hanged himself in the projection booth. Modern projectionists have said that Pete will move things around in the booth behind them. But they feel like he’s a benevolent ghost. Others though that work here though, that have encountered Pete don’t quite feel so warmly towards the spirit. Our overnight housekeeper had to clean both projection booths and it’s the one that’s in the Orpheum stage door where Pete is most active. Since the lights are in the projection booth, that was always the one place that the night housekeeper had to go and he made sure that it was his last stop for the night. One time when he had left the booth and was walking through the bar area doing cleanup, he could feel the breath of what he could only describe as “someone shouting in his ear”. He felt like it was Pete following him. He turned around and cussed the spirit out, begging to be left alone. When Pete heard this, he didn’t like it one bit and threw some dishes that were sitting on the bar onto the floor, just doing his part to make the housekeeper’s job more difficult. The former manager of the Orpheum also reported that Pete would make suggestive comments to her in the dressing room, whispering at her to “get back over here” when she would walk out of the room.
And another time, our intrepid housekeeper was walking towards the door of the dressing room from the hallway when he heard someone say “Shhhh… He’s coming.’’ this naturally made him suspicious and he grabbed a folding chair as protection, right like he’s going to some kind of professional wrestling match, and brought it in to the dressing room to investigate thinking it’s either one of two things, a surprise party or a couple of guys are about to jump him. I think it goes without saying that once he entered the room, there was no one there.
However there’s more to the Orpheum than that; there’s the weird tall man with stringy hair that’s said to appear and disappear in the basement near the bathrooms, and the mysterious mist that might be the ghost of a child. We’ll keep our ears open and see what else we can learn about this Madison institution. With over ninety years of history and hundreds of thousands of people that have passed through its walls, I’m sure it has more stories to tell us.
If you are interested in a ghost tour of Madison, please check out our King Street Spirits Ghost Tour!