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This article was published 13/9/2017 (710 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been 103 years, but Mabel Hackney is finally returning to perform at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
In spirit, at least.
Hackney, who died in 1914, will be the featured performer when the 110-year-old structure is transformed into a haunted house next month for live-action horror shows to be held in the building’s underbelly.
The actor lost her life just a few weeks after a performance at what was then called the Walker Theatre. She and husband Laurence Irving, also performing in Winnipeg, were lauded by adoring fans. Before the final curtain fell, the Manitoba Free Press reported Irving bade the audience farewell and promised to return from London with a new stage work.
But while Hackney and Irving were travelling to London on the Canadian Pacific ship Empress of Ireland, it was struck by a Norwegian ship on the fog-shrouded St. Lawrence River and sank. In all, 1,012 lives were lost in Canada’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.
According to reports, Irving and Hackney were last seen clasped in each other’s arms as the ship slipped beneath the waves. Irving’s 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 Walker in 1915.
To this day, performers and theatre staff have passed down mythical stories of creaks and shadows which they attribute to the woman they affectionately call Mabel.
"I’m never one to believe in that stuff," said BCT house manager Kenny Jackson, who has been working at the theatre since it reopened in 1991. "But about 10 years ago, I actually saw a black shadow appearing from the floor of the stage. Then it floated off stage left. And this was early, not like after having some cool pops at the end of the day.
"It was a bigger woman in a black dress just rising up and floating off."
So, no, you don’t have to convince Jackson the joint can be a spooky place.
"Absolutely," he said. "I’ve heard things backstage. I know I’ve been in that theatre myself... and I’ve heard footsteps somewhere where I know nobody is there. You just sort of wonder. I’m sure there’s something going on."
Little wonder the Burt, where Harry Houdini once performed — along with the legendary likes of Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Durante — is a fixture on Canada’s most-haunted places lists.
Because Hackney isn’t the only suspected ghost. There’s also Joe, a popular old ticket-taker, who died shortly after returning to Winnipeg from the First World War, where he was seriously injured in a gas attack.
Combine the ghost stories with the building’s dark, turn-of-the-last-century basement, and the Burt is a natural for the supernatural, said Andraea Sartison, the artistic producer for One Trunk Theatre.
"It’s the perfect setting for a large-scale Halloween scarefest," Sartison said. "It’s quite a neat perspective for Winnipeggers because it’s a place most people will never get to see."
True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the theatre, commissioned One Trunk and Fete Jockey Productions, both based in Winnipeg, to present Stage Frights — Mabel’s Curtain Call from Oct. 26 to 31.
"It is unique to Winnipeg," said Kevin Donnelly, TNSE vice-president of entertainment and venues. "You won’t see or hear about this in another building, another city, another country. This is our little corner of the paranormal world."
Sartison said the production will feature 10 actors, along with several volunteers, and the theatre experience of sound design, lighting, costumes and set design.
"It’s going to be very intricately and beautifully designed," she said. "The way we’re creating it is very theatre. It’s not like we’re just trying to pull off an event. We’re compiling an artistic team... as opposed to just trying to make a buck off people at a carnival."
Tickets go on sale Thursday, with shows running from 7 p.m. to midnight. There will be matinees for younger audiences for weekend shows.
Sartison said groups will leave on their tours through the Burt’s basement every 15 minutes, about 40 audience members at a time.
"Well, it starts at 40 people," she added, cryptically. "But it might be less than that by the time you get out."
Randy Turner spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.