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Ghost Story

Wednesday, Oct 27 1999
Ghost Story
Supposedly, the Great American Music Hall is haunted.

Paul Cacciotti, the venue's accountant, recalls an experience he had a year and a half ago. "I was in the men's bathroom, doing what men do in the men's bathroom, and it felt like somebody poked me in the back. And I turned around to see who was there, and no one was there. Scared the hell out of me. And that's when I heard that there were ghosts in the hall."

"Not a night goes by where I don't feel like there's somebody behind me," says lighting director Shelli Bohrer, who often works alone on the balcony. "I'm looking over my shoulder constantly."

Claire Brouwer, owner and general manager, had a strange experience a few years ago. "I was here at 10:30, 11 o'clock at night, working in the offices. I finished up here and I closed all the doors. I was turning off the lights, and when I went to walk out into the hall, I just felt this incredible energy out there, the second I opened the door into the hallway from the main office. I just shut the door fast and pulled my cell phone out, because I was shaking. I'm generally not like this, and I've certainly been in this hall enough late. But I just knew that there was an energy out there, and that I really wasn't supposed to be here." She called her husband on the cell phone, telling him -- and whoever might be listening in the hall -- that she was leaving.

This summer, something else happened: Brouwer dropped into the venue early on a Sunday morning to pick up a few things, and turned off the alarm as she entered. Halfway up the stairs to the office, the alarm suddenly went off. Leaving her purse and briefcase on a table, she went to reset the alarm. When she returned to the office, she noticed that the purse and briefcase and purse were missing. "So I just kept walking. I walk to the office, and my purse and my briefcase were leaning against the office door. Moved."

She adds: "I've always felt that there was so much going on here -- whether it was ghosts or history or whatever. I've always had a real respect for it. And I think that's why I've been treated really well by the ghosts."

Early this year, the Great American called in a psychic to look into the matter. Glenda Marie Rock III ("I prefer the term clairvoyant. 'Psychic' has become such a buzzword. There's a lot of negative connotations about it.") says she's walked through the hall and talked with the ghosts there -- on a remote basis from her home in Missoula, Montana.

According to Rock, there are many different kinds of ghosts in the hall, or, rather, disincarnates, another term she prefers. "There are those who don't know that they're dead," she says. "There are those who, because of some emotional fixation -- anger, hatred, lust, fear -- they are too dense in their unphysical bodies. And there are those who have work left to do."

Some places, apparently, are more attractive than others to the undead. The National Gallery in London, says Rock, is "suffocating" with ghosts.

And the Great American Music Hall? Relatively suffocating, too. Rock counts around 30 or 40 presences there, though most of them are simply "remnants or vague threads" of old ghosts, "a troop who fluctuate in and out of the walls." But, she says, there are about 15 or so who've expressed themselves to her in one way or another. "One I encountered was a bit petulant, moody, arrogant, and hurt. And his energy kind of knocked things off. There was another who had been there for a much longer time, who felt a proprietary fixation about the place, wanting people to be very certain that they cleaned their shoes." She mentions another who has dreams of being a rock star and hopes to sell tickets at the Music Hall as a first step.

Why are they there? "I didn't get into that with them."

OK. Now say that somebody -- say, me -- wanted to spend a few hours in the Great American Music Hall alone, after hours, and take a look around. How would the gho-, er, disincarnates, feel about that?

"Would you like me to ask for you?"

If it's not too much trouble.

She's back on the phone in less than a minute. "I think that's going to be well received. They would give you a little bit of a show. They would be there for you. They would be around."

Empty clubs, as the Monday night opening band said to its manager, are boring. It's after midnight. The dance floor is still carpeted from a corporate event a few nights back, and it's dark. No ghosts, just the aural clutter of folks walking -- or stumbling -- down O'Farrell Street, and the hard click of the bar's timecard clock once every minute. Seeing nothing and feeling nothing -- Rock has advised me to "be aware of your innards, that may be where the reception comes" -- I give up on the main hall. I walk down the creaking staircase to the backstage area, and then ...

And then the blood began to flow down the steps.

No, no -- kidding. Nothing down here but the plain tile floors and plain plywood-paneled walls of the backstage dressing rooms. No ghosts, and no relics to speak of, excepting the backstage bathroom door, whose placard proclaims "DAMES." Nothing going on upstairs in the balconies either: dark copier room stage right, dark hallway stage left. Down in the empty kitchen, a switch on the wall is marked "Air Supply," which calls up horrible, frightening associations. But not the sort that Glenda Marie Rock III is talking about.

A box of archives from the Music Hall is sitting on the main stage, which lays out the history of the venue. The brainchild of politico Chris Buckley, the Music Hall was built a year after the 1906 earthquake and opened as Blanco's, a restaurant and bordello that mirrored the best and worst of the Barbary Coast years. The place operated off and on in various guises until 1972, when it opened as the Music Hall we know today. One of the off periods was the Great Depression, though the venue was revived in the '30s by the famous fan-dancer Sally Rand, who operated it as the Music Box. Rand herself and celebrity impersonators performed on the main stage, while other forms of entertainment -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- could be obtained in the Blue Room upstairs.

In the box of archives is a newspaper clipping from Herb Caen's Nov. 2, 1977, column:

Joe Venuti, the 82-year-old jazz violinist who'll play at the Great American Music Hall's fifth birthday party Saturday, walked into the place and asked, "Hey, where's the dame with the feathers?" He meant Sally Rand, who ran that place as the Music Box pre-World War II. The ghost of Randy Sal is still there.

I call out to Ms. Rand and say hello. You would, too. No answer. Guess it's true that a lot of Caen's sources have clammed up since he passed away.

So, then, one more trip around the bowels of the Music Hall. Dark backstage, dark dames restroom, dark kitchen, dark copier room... except the copier's on this time, and its display is lit bright blue. I place my hand on the platen, which is hot. Obviously it's been on for a while. Just missed it the first time around. It is late.

But to hell with this. It's been hours, the place is empty, and if I'm going spend this much time in a club where there isn't even a band playing, I'd damn well better leave with something I can work with. I tell this to the recalcitrant ghosts, but they don't respond.

I pack up to leave, and make one more trip around the hall: dark staircase, dark backstage hallways, dark kitchen, dark dressing rooms, dark balconies. I open the door to the copier room one last time to check in on the machine.

The display flashes off, and then on again.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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