SPOOKSTERS OF MAGIC PAST AND PRESENT
by Bob Nelson
Halloween month and the season for witches, goblins, and spook shows! October has always been an exceptionally favorable period for the ghost show operator, as it seems to endow the young of heart and the teenagers with a spirit of mischief, and a desire to participate in scary situations.
Ghost show workers not working at Halloween time are hardly worthy of their salt. The appeal of ghost shows appears to run in cycles, and present conditions are good for the experienced performer, with a good show, and who is selective in his bookings. Ghost show business has been hurt. by many factors, principally the ill equipped amateur, who throws a few magic tricks in his bag and does a blackout with a couple luminous rags on poles. Shows of this type are not conductive to audience satisfaction and repeat business. Perhaps there is no other phase of entertainment business so badly abused as the ghost show. True, ghost shows are consistent money makers and are easy to book because the managers can visualize a sure profit.
The movie horror industry is in the throes of what may be the biggest necromantic revival since 'Count Dracula' was a nipper. (Current for this Fall - Black Sunday, Curse of the Werewolf, Dr. Bloods Coffin, The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, Blood and Roses, Snake Woman and Homicidal, the latter made at a cost of less than $300,000.00 is expected to gross around a million dollars the first time around). Obviously, these super horror pictures in beautiful color and on the wide screens offer a very competitive bid for patronage, and most ghost shows suffer by comparison.
They whet the appetite of the thrill seeking theatre goer, and even the gory color pictures cannot replace the IN PERSON, on stage Spook Show, where the patrons are brought into intimate contacts with the spooks.
Another factor that has hurt ghost shows is the rise in juvenile delinquency, and many otherwise midnight shows are presented earlier in the evening. Some theaters no longer permit the 'black out', which is the very meat and appeal of the spook show. This ruling is a result of a few unfortunate (and sometimes careless) accidents to patrons, and subsequent law suit. Injuries have been sustained by patrons during blackouts, caused either by other mischievous patrons, or inadvertently by the attractions personnel. There was one incident of an assitant poking a reaching rod in the eye of a patron.
An example of what can unexpectedly occur: The writer was playing the State Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio with several teenagers on stage, the sequence of the show called for the appearance of a monster gorilla, who approached a snake box and withdrew realistic appearing snake. Snake bites gorilla, gorilla goes nuts. Two pistol shots and theatre goes into total darkness as a maddened gorilla starts into audience. One girl and boy on stage were so frightened that they became hysterical and got completely out of control. In the darkness, I grabbed both of them, which only frightened them more, as they surely thought the gorilla had gotten to them. Once the blackout started, due to the mechanics of the show, there was no stopping it and it had to run its three minutes schedule before the lights came on.
I was extremely fearful that the kids would break away from me, fall into the orchestra pit and suffer serious injury. Fortunately, I was able to contain them and when the lights did come on, had two ghost shodred kids on my hands near the verge of collapse. This was the price we payed for employing such a realistic gorilla and snake. In subsequent appearances we cleared the stage of all spectators BEFORE the blackout and cautioned everyone NOT to leave their seats under any circumstances.
However, such warnings are not heeded if you really frighten your audience. Some ghost shows carry liability insurance against any such mishaps, tho the cost is high.
One theatre chain which I had played for years, on my last engagements, inserted a clause in my contract absolving themselves of any liability. Regardless of the clause, this would not absolve them from liability. And as I always played this circuit on a straight fee basis, being an employee, I assumed no responsibility.
Regardless of the frightening consequences that might befall an operator, such risks can be held to an absolute minimum with the proper staging and care.
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