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.
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.