Sentimental “ghost light” ceremony brings tears, signals changing times for UT’s cherished Carousel Theatre

Jenny Boyd, after whom the new 20,000-square-foot Carousel Theatre will be named, extinguishes the ghost light at the old theater building.

A “ghost light” in the theater world is a single incandescent light that remains lit when the theater is unoccupied and would otherwise be completely dark. It is usually placed center stage on a portable stand.

The practical use of a ghost light is for safety. It enables one to navigate the theater to find the lighting control console and to avoid accidents such as falling into the orchestra pit or tripping over cords or pieces of the set that might remain on the stage.

On Tuesday, in a touching ceremony, theater-lovers witnessed the switching off of the ghost light in the University of Tennessee’s 73-year-old Carousel Theatre for the last time. The building is about to be disassembled and taken away to make room for a brand new theater building — one that will have state of the art sound and lighting technology, space to hold receptions, and, perhaps most important of all, restrooms! Until now, patrons have had to go next door to the Clarence Brown Theatre to avail themselves of toilets.

Carol Mayo Jenkins, a veteran TV, stage and film actress who retired last year after 22 years as an artist in residence in UT’s Theatre Department, spoke at the ceremony about the significance of ghost lights to theater people.

“We theater people are a fanciful lot,” she said. “We attribute spiritual meaning to our ghost lights.” Jenkins said some think the lights ward off mischievous spirits, while others believe they light the way for the ghosts, who are believed to inhabit every theater. Some even say the lights provide opportunities for the ghosts to perform onstage when no one is watching, thus appeasing them and preventing them from cursing the theater.

“I prefer to think of them as benevolent sentinels,” Jenkins said, “guarding this precious space, protecting all the work, the creativity, the passion that has been unleashed in these walls.” She barely held back tears while concluding her remarks.

Dale Dickey brought herself — and many in the audience — to tears with her sweet comments about the Carousel Theatre.

Likewise, another famous Knoxville actor, Dale Dickey, nearly lost it as she spoke. “The people who work in theater are both rank sentimentalists, and often more than a little superstitious,” she said. “We fall in love with the buildings in which we work.”

“Together, actor and audience, create memories,” she noted. “Memories to take home. There is magic in those memories. Inside these walls, people have cried, laughed, been engaged — and been enraged!”

Other speakers included Ken Martin, Clarence Brown Theatre artistic director; Tom  Cervone, its managing director; David Brian Alley, head of undergraduate studies in the Theatre Department; UT-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman; UT President Randy Boyd; and, finally, Jenny Boyd, after whom the new Carousel Theatre will be named to honor the $5 million commitment the Boyd Foundation has made to the $20 million construction project budget.

Plowman drew applause when she said, “At a time when other universities are moving away from supporting arts and humanities, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is doubling down! From launching the new College of Music to investing in academic hubs like the Humanities Center, to, of course, building this new performance space.”

Jenny Boyd, who performed at the Carousel Theatre as an undergraduate in a production of “Brigadoon!” caused many in the crowd to dab at their eyes when she spoke directly to the theater building itself.

“Here’s to a job well done, our special friend,” she said. “We’ll see you soon, with your lights shining bright. Now, we need to turn off the Carousel ghost light for the last time to make way for a new beginning.”

With that, she turned a switch and the entire room went dark.

From left, David Brian Alley, Tom Cervone, Ken Martin and Carol Mayo Jenkins prior to the ghost light ceremony.

Dale Dickey, center, with her brother, Chuck Dickey, and Jenny Boyd.

From left, William Fox, UT President Randy Boyd, and Wes Stowers.

Chancellor Emeritus Jimmy Cheek and his wife, Ileen.

From left, Liz Stowers, who is spearheading the fundraising campaign, Steve Drevik, and Michelle Geller, interim assistant vice chancellor of advancement for the UT  Foundation.

Chancellor Donde Plowman, center, with her husband, Dennis Duchon, right, and Andrew Sheehy, assistant vice chancellor.

Jessica Barfield, left, and Tomi Robb prior to the remarks beginning.

Kate Jones, left, and Diane Fox.

Dale Dickey speaking at the beginning of the short program.

The crowd assembled in the empty theater.

Clarence Brown Managing Director Tom Cervone recounted the history of the Carousel Theatre, which was built in 1951. At that time, patrons had to use the bathroom in nearby fraternity houses!

David Alley first attended a show at the Carousel when he was 8 years old. The experience made a great impression on him. After becoming an actor, himself, he has performed in the facility in 15 productions.

Carol Mayo Jenkins invited guests to return in 18 months when a new ghost light will light a brand new theater.

Chancellor Donde Plowman.

UT President Randy Boyd even got a little emotional when talking about his wife, Jenny. “She’s beautiful, smart, talented — and she has a PUB!” he exclaimed. (She is the proprietor of Boyd’s Jig and Reel in Knoxville’s Old City.)


Jim Grossen and Sara Phillips after the program.

Photo op!

John Winemiller, left, and RJ Hinde, interim executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Alan Carmichael, right, with David and Sandy Martin.

Mike, left, and Chase Strickland of Bandit Lites.

As we headed next door to the Clarence Brown Theatre for a reception, I took a picture of the outside of the Carousel Theatre. That’s Carol Mayo Jenkins, in the photo second from left, and Dale Dickey, center.

At the reception, the tables had centerpieces featuring little ghost lights! Clever.

The food offerings were plentiful!

I joked that Robert Redford had come to the ghost light ceremony! It actually was Kent Farris and his sweet wife, Susan. (They put up with me always making Robert Redford remarks!)

Delores and John Sorey.

Georgiana Vines and LeAnne Dougherty.

Lee Riedinger and Mary Zuhr.

Will and Becca Brewer with Alexander Waters, right.

Jeff Pappas, left, dean of the College of Music, and Brian Gard.

Alan Carmichael, left, and actor and teacher Jed Diamond.

John and Margie Nichols Gill with Tyvi Small, right, vice chancellor for access and engagement. Margie has been actively involved in the fundraising campaign.

From left, Jan Simek, Wayne and Sylvia Davis. Simek has been both acting chancellor and interim president of UT. Davis is chancellor emeritus and dean emeritus of the Tickle College of Engineering.

From left, Elizabeth Weatherly, Liz Stowers, Margie Nichols Gill, and Theresa Lee, the soon-to-retire dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Weatherly is the new executive director of advancement for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Tom Cervone with Jill Brock, left, and Hana Sherman.

Jenny and Randy Boyd pose in front of a portrait of Clarence Brown.

As we left, Mother Nature provided her own ghost light!





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19 Responses to Sentimental “ghost light” ceremony brings tears, signals changing times for UT’s cherished Carousel Theatre

  1. Wanda McMahan, on January 25th, 2024 at 5:21 pm said:

    Sweet memories of Carousel. Thanks for sharing the dimming of the light.

  2. Kathy Brennan, on January 25th, 2024 at 6:44 pm said:

    Brings back memories of early ’60s. The Carousel Theater was a roundTent. In the summer the sides were rolled up and tied and in the winter it was very cold, but as always the show must go on!
    I was a volunteer hostess for the plays.
    Fabulous, I got to see the plays for free.
    Fond memories, Kathy Brennan

  3. Cynthia Moxley, on January 25th, 2024 at 6:47 pm said:

    Wanda: I thought about you. Hope you can come for the opening of the new version!

  4. Cynthia Moxley, on January 25th, 2024 at 11:25 pm said:

    Kathy: I bet those are great memories. Hopefully there will be many more in the new and improved Carousel!

  5. Mary Linda Schwarzbart, on January 26th, 2024 at 7:17 am said:

    My love of the imagination of theater began by attending plays at Carousel as an elementary school student. Later, a favorite performance , “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” More recently, “People Where They Are.” Directing, acting, and set design in the round are a challenge, always done so well. Summer or winter, sweet memories.

  6. Georgiana Vines, on January 26th, 2024 at 9:23 am said:

    You captured the wonderful event that the ghost light ceremony is and was.

  7. Eric Smith, on January 26th, 2024 at 10:47 am said:

    I hate that I missed this event. I was house photographer for both the CBT and the Carousel Theatre for about 16 years. I think the first show I photographed was Bus Stop with David Keith, Melissa Gilbert and others. That was about 1986. Started with the 1986-1987 Season and ended with Babel in the 2003-2004 Season. Photographed a few productions after then, Tommy and Man of La Mancha. About 100 productions. Hundreds of memories!

  8. Mimi Turner, on January 26th, 2024 at 11:45 am said:

    I loved my time at The Carousel Theatre first taking Saturday acting lessons there as a teenager, then as an actress in several productions of The Children’s Carousel Theatre program. The experience led me to pursue my degree in Theatre at UT where much of my study was done right there in The Carousel! I always loved the dark , cozy ambiance of the wooden domed structure whose sliding paneled walls could instantly transform it to an open air theatre venue. It was pure magic for me!

  9. Cynthia Moxley, on January 26th, 2024 at 1:34 pm said:

    Mary Linda: Those sound like wonderful shows! They always do an excellent job.

    Georgiana: It was fun seeing you there!

    Eric: I didn’t know you were the house photographer there — but I should have guessed! What a great experience that must have been!

    Mimi: I didn’t realize you had that much of a connection to the Carousel! I can tell it was a special place for a long time by the strong emotions it elicits among folks today.

  10. Gay Lyons, on January 26th, 2024 at 2:16 pm said:

    Aww. How sweet. What a lovely event.

  11. Cynthia Moxley, on January 26th, 2024 at 2:32 pm said:

    Gay: It was very special! Perfect, really.

  12. Frank Harris, on January 26th, 2024 at 2:54 pm said:

    This tugs at my heartstrings. My first performance at the Carousel was in 1964 in a production of “The Snow Queen.” I was 8. This was one of the three-shows-per-year schedule put on by the Children’s Theater program. It was a child actor’s dream – every show ran for two weeks, and they bused in all the 3rd-5th graders from the entire city school system to see them. Each show was double cast, and the actors got to miss school every other day for two weeks. I was in at least one children’s show every year until I was 15.

    I was in other shows there, too — from Macbeth in 1965 to The Physicists in 1980. I met my late first wife during that one; she was appearing next door at CBT in Mother Courage, and both casts were using the CBT green room.

  13. Monique Anderson, on January 26th, 2024 at 4:30 pm said:

    The Carousel was a wonderful venue. Nice event for a closing.

  14. Lisa Beckler Gentry, on January 26th, 2024 at 4:50 pm said:

    All of us at Fountain City Elementary School loved our field trips to the Carousel. I do hope such programs continue for local children.
    Goodnight, Ghost!

  15. Jennifer Tipton, on January 26th, 2024 at 5:49 pm said:

    As a junior or maybe senior in Central High School I worked on props at the Carousel. I also lit OEDIIPUS REX there as an adult. It is a theater that will always mean so much to me. I will miss it.

  16. Kathryn King, on January 27th, 2024 at 9:14 am said:

    Thanks for sharing this nice farewell to a memorable facility.

  17. Gail Comer Pierce, on January 28th, 2024 at 1:01 pm said:

    My childhood home was on Lilly Ave, only a block away from The Carousel Theatre. As a young girl totally enthralled by anything in the world of performance, theater and dance in particular, I would talk my sister into walking to the theater on summer nights and we would literally sneak under the heavy curtains that surrounded this theater in the round and watch the performances until it was getting dark, when we would then walk back home. I have many but these are some of the best and most cherished memories of being so very fortunate to have grown up in the U. T. area. Thank you for sharing this very sweet story.

  18. Rada S Rolison, on January 28th, 2024 at 4:51 pm said:

    I am blessed to have been able to see plays while in grade school and later perform and work on productions in the Carousel. Many good memories that will never be erased from my mind. I can even still smell the dirt they hauled in for Tobacco Road’s set. Always a theatre experience like no other!

  19. Cynthia Moxley, on January 28th, 2024 at 5:14 pm said:

    You all: Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories. No doubt about it – the Carousel was a very special space.

    We are told that unique aspects of the old Carousel will be incorporated into the new design. I hope everyone will visit and see for themselves. I know I can’t wait to see it.

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