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Spirited performance: Ghost watchers believe downtown theatre haunted

Acting couple died 100 years ago this week

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Would two of Winnipeg's most famous ghosts show up at the Walker Theatre for their 100th death-day party this week?

"If I'm working, I just might go buy a cupcake, put two candles on and leave it onstage for them," says Kenny Jackson, the ghost-friendly house technician at the theatre, rechristened the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts in 2002. "Then I'll wait for them to get blown out. That would be something if they did."

A century ago this week, notable English acting couple Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney left Winnipeg by train for Quebec City after a triumphant North American tour that culminated at the then-seven-year-old Walker Theatre.

The renowned Londoners -- he was the dapper, 42-year-old son of the illustrious British actor Sir Henry Irving, the first stage performer to be knighted -- had booked passage home to London via Liverpool on the Corsican, but a friend convinced them to transfer to the larger Canadian Pacific sister ship Empress of Ireland.

But disaster struck the Empress. On May 29, at about 2 a.m., it was rammed by the Norwegian collier Storstadt in the fog-shrouded St. Lawrence River off Rimouski, claiming 1,012 lives -- Canada's worst peacetime maritime disaster.

The death toll included Irving and Hackney, the most prominent passengers.

Winnipeg theatre-goers were shocked and saddened by the deaths of actors they had so loudly applauded the previous week during the performances of four plays: Typhoon; The Unwritten Law; The Lily; and the first full production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Before Irving left the grand Walker stage, he bade the audience farewell, saying, as reported by the Manitoba Free Press, that he was departing with only the most delightful memories and he vowed to return with a new stage work.

Irving and Hackney were last seen clasped in each other's arms as the ship slipped beneath the waves. His body was found still clutching a fragment of his wife's nightdress in his hand. The 34-year-old Hackney was never found.

Their deaths are commemorated by a shiny copper plaque, installed in the lobby of the 1,636-seat Walker in 1915.

Irving and Hackney apparently kept their promise to return, becoming the house ghosts of the Smith Street theatre where they last performed together. All theatres are said to be haunted by the spirits of former actors and they were soon blamed for such nocturnal activity as spooky whisperings, clapping and ghostly sightings.

Jackson, the theatre technician, has worked at the Walker for 23 years; most days he's the first in the building and the last out. He has heard about all the things that go bump in the night at the Walker, which was converted into a first-run movie theatre in 1945 and then back into a rental house. It was recently taken over by True North Sports and Entertainment. He counted himself a ghost disbeliever until a night 13 years ago, when he and his sound technician were about to have a beer before closing up.

"We were sitting over there," Jackson, 50, says during a recent interview backstage, pointing to a table upstage right. "I watched something rise downstage left and it was a stocky woman in a black dress. She seemed to rise up from the floor and disappear over there. It was only a second or two. There was no wave, no hello, nothing."

He turned to his colleague, who confirmed he had seen the apparition, too. Both bolted out of the theatre.

"I later checked the plaque out there, because who else could it be?" Jackson says. "Since then, I call her Mabel. I assume it was her."

By nature, stage folk are a superstitious lot, and their rituals go further than simply refusing to utter the word "Macbeth" in a theatre and risk the wrath of the resident spirits. In order to appease those apparitions, every theatre employs a solitary ghost light that burns through the night, allowing any actor-spirits to perform when the place is closed.

Most theatres leave a ghost light on the stage but at the Walker, a single bulb on the fourth-storey fly-gallery level illuminates the stage.

"I leave that on 24/7," he says. "I like to think that they hang out up there. I call it Mabel's ghost light."

Jackson has experienced many eerie, unexplainable moments at the theatre: the sound of someone walking up the wooden stairs in the second balcony known as the gods; sidelights that go on and off; shadows moving in an otherwise empty building; and an undeniable feeling of being watched. A friend's dog suddenly went nuts trying to get into a room on the fourth floor, but when the door was opened, nothing was found inside.

He says a couple of weeks ago a True North employee telephoned to ask whether Jackson could explain hearing a door shut and seeing a hand on a railing in the empty theatre.

"I've heard hand-clapping in the theatre when I was by myself," he says. "Was it a pigeon or a truck going by? I try not to think too much about that and move on.

"She's a friendly ghost. I talk to her and joke with her. If I hear something, I say, 'Hey, Mabel, is that you?' I haven't heard an answer yet, and if I do, I will be outta here in a hurry."

There has been one female staff member who wasn't so comfortable with the creepy presence. She was working by herself when she suddenly felt she wasn't alone.

"She came bolting out of the first balcony and went out the front door and swore she wasn't coming back, because the place was haunted," recalls Jackson, who until April was the Walker's general manager. "She never even came back to get paid."

While most Winnipeggers don't want to have anything to do with the supernatural, others are keen to encounter Irving and Hackney, who met in 1910 when they were both were members of his father's stage company.

"I don't like to say they were the Brangelina of their day, but that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the Lamabel of their day," says Tim Seyeau, a Winnipeg history buff and ghost enthusiast. "They were media darlings."

He would like to be in the theatre overnight Wednesday to see if the couple makes a special appearance.

"I can't imagine any other night they are more likely to appear than May 28, 2014," he says. "I do believe ghosts exist. I would be happy to wait up and see or hear if anything happens. If the Burton Cummings Theatre would be amenable to a ghost watch on that night, I cheerfully and with no shame whatsoever propose myself as the first volunteer.

"No more than five, please. Ghosts are known to eschew crowds."

Chris Rutkowski, an expert on UFOs and the supernatural, included the story of Irving and Hackney haunting the Walker in his 1993 book Unnatural History. He remembers that in the early '90s, some psychics made recordings of a night at the theatre; on playback, voices could be heard.

"I tend to doubt the existence of ghosts," says Rutkowski. "I've been in haunted houses quite a few times and seen nothing."

Tell us your best ghost story in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 27, 2014 D1

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