GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE

HAUNTED WISCONSIN

GRAND OPERA HOUSE
Oshkosh, Wisconsin

On the shores of Lake Winnebago in eastern Wisconsin is the town of Oshkosh. Located here is the Grand Opera House, an imposing structure where ghostly activity is commonplace. In other words, If every good theater has a ghost...then the Grand Opera House must be a very good one. 

The Grand Opera House first opened its doors on August 9, 1883 and the first production here was called "The Bohemian Girl", a popular opera of the period. There were four different periods of entertainment during the heyday of the Grand. The first was grand opera, followed by traveling road shows, vaudeville (which ended in 1930) and then motion pictures. 

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The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh has long been known for its
stories of ghosts and strange activity.

 During the early days, the theater played host to performers like Houdini (who grew up in nearby Appleton), Enrico Caruso, the Marx Brothers, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and even Susan B. Anthony appeared here during her touring days in favor of women's rights. But as time passed, the theater fell into decline and by the late 1970's had become an X-rated movie house. Luckily, in 1979, fund raising and restoration efforts began to save the old place. The theater finally re-opened in 1986. 

When the theater did re-open however, there were new stories to tell about it's past. These stories were more on the mysterious side and involved the numerous ghost sightings and bizarre happenings that had taken place during the restoration work. Not surprisingly, the tales of ghosts and spirits still continue to be told today. 

Members of a local theater group called the Drama Lab had many strange encounters here in the 1980's with slamming doors, mysterious footsteps and other happenings. One actor rushed into a dressing room one night and came face to face with a man in old fashioned clothing who was holding a playbill from a show done in 1895.

Another man was working in the balcony one night when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. When no one appeared, he looked around the corner and saw that the staircase was empty.

Recent reports claim that the ghost here is the spirit of a man named Percy Keene, a stage manager of the theater. In 1977, a film crew reported that they saw a man standing in the balcony looking down at them with a friendly smile. The apparition matched the appearance of Percy Keene from his haircut to his small, round glasses. He had been the stage manager at the theater from 1895 until his death in 1967. He is said to still be watching over his beloved theater.

The film crew itself had more than their share of strange experiences. In 1977, Bob Jacobs, a Hollywood producer who was also a professor of radio, television and film at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, made a fictional movie about a haunted movie theater and used the Grand as the location. During the shoot, Jacobs became convinced that the ghost of Percy Keene saved one of his student's lives. Larry Schroeder, a young assistant of Jacobs, had been hoisted high over the stage and was left there for about an hour for a scene. When he was lowered back down, the rope that supported him broke as soon as his feet touched the stage. Jacobs believed that this was impossible. He watched as the rope literally snapped with nothing pulling it. He had to consider the idea that the student had somehow been suspended by other means and when lowered, the rope finally gave away.

Other people connected with the production had encounters of their own. Jan Turner, an assistant producer, claimed to see an apparition in an underground passage and also said that an unseen hand grabbed her by the ankle. John Jansen and Dennis Payne, two workers on the set, said that they saw a man in the orchestra pit who disappeared out a small door. The man never came back out and when they went to investigate, they found the room was empty.

Jacobs also said that two days before the film was to be released, he and a group of others met at the theater for a private screening. When the film was over, Jacobs looked up at the balcony and saw a man wearing a white shirt and small round glasses smiling down at him. Jacobs was certain that it was Percy Keene. A short time later, a cinematographer that Jacobs had hired from California was passing the theater at night and saw the same face that Jacobs described looking out of a window at him. He assumed that the man was a night watchman for the Grand. He was later told that the theater employed no night watchman! 

As time passed, more reports of ghosts began to filter out of the old building. Staff members and visitors told of lights turning on and off, weird temperature drops and sounds that cannot be explained. Those who claim to have seen or have felt a presence here always say that the spirit seems friendly and there are no reports that anything unfortunate has ever happened. 

And while the ghosts were apparently more active before (and during) the restoration efforts of the 1980's, they are apparently still present today. In 1996, a group of researchers, including Timothy Harte and Mike Hollinshead of Springfield, Illinois discovered some strange anomalies in the building and actually recorded a glowing image that moved across the stage. The spirits here are apparently benign and most believe that they were more restless in the past because they were unhappy about the way that the theater was being run and what it was being used for. 

These days, Percy Keene (and whoever else may be lingering at the Grand) just stays around to watch over the place... perhaps hoping to be part of the act one last time!

Oshkosh, Wisconsin is located in the eastern part of the state. The opera house is at 100 High Avenue in Oshkosh.

 

Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Special Thanks go to Annie Baivier for Additional Information

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