Cheap ruffles of white satin. Raw, pale pine. Noxious black lacquer. I’d never had the chance to inspect an empty coffin before; when I saw one unattended at the Iao Theater’s Maui Fringe Festival after party, I simply couldn’t help myself.
“I dare you to get in,” said Michael Pulliam, Maui OnStage special events and marketing director, sneaking up behind me. Before my next blink, I’d kicked off my shoes and shimmied inside. Another friend closed the lid behind me.
“Ooh, you’d better not do that!” chided executive director Alexis Dascoulias, playful but earnest. After a few funny photos I rejoined the party, and the topic of conversation turned to the paranormal. And, of course, the resident ghosts of the historic Iao Theater.
According to theater stewards, there are at least two entities inhabiting the historic theater on Market Street. One is a not-so friendly ghost, haunting and “messing up” the dressing rooms (or, as one thespian says, “it could just be a rat—who knows”). The other is mercurial, but decidedly more friendly, and those who’ve encountered her have lovingly dubbed her “Emma.”
It’s said that Emma’s been around longer than anyone can remember (the Spanish mission-style building, designed by Edward Walsh, opened in 1928 and was once a vaudeville house). With Maui OnStage’s production of the musical Chicago slated to open next week (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, July 8-31), Emma has been making her presence increasingly known.
Lore has it, Pulliam says, that Emma is a dainty young flapper girl with a penchant for plays that take place in the 1920s. Lights flicker and boards malfunction for no apparent reason—especially during modern or avant garde theater—but as soon as Emma’s acknowledged, the inexplicable activity subsides.
Emma is also said to have been extra active during a production of Cabaret 15 years ago. So it’s apropos that she’s again clanging chains ahead of Chicago, which was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a young journalist for the Chicago Tribune who based the play on her 1924 reportage of muderesses Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
“During one of our rehearsals for Chicago, four or five of us saw something and turned our heads at the same time,” says Lina Krueger, who recently starred as Grizabella in Maui OnStage’s Cats, and is the stage manager of Chicago. “Our director (Dascoulias) said, ‘What’s going on?’ and we said, ‘Oh, it’s just Emma.’”
But things weren’t always so easy with Emma.
During a production in 1992, Krueger says, “Something was messing with the lights and there was a very irritated presence.” She says the cast and crew started speaking to the ether and collectively determined that the spirit’s irritation might be due to the living not addressing the dead in a personal way (and, for a time, confusing her with the nasty dressing room poltergeist)—and that was “just being rude.”
“So, we started saying different names out loud, and when we said “Emma,” all of a sudden there was a cool, breezy feeling in the air. We all went, “Whoa! That’s her name!” And ever since, we’ve called her Emma.
She doesn’t really mess with anybody since she was named,” Krueger adds. “She just wanted to be acknowledged, that’s my theory.”
No one knows if there ever was a woman named Emma connected to the theater, how she might have died, or if she was a flapper. In fact, the Iao’s old guards keep up the ‘20s-girl mythos, though they haven’t seen anything that specific themselves.
“It’s like a corner of the eye kind of thing. Not any distinct shape, but lighter than the surrounding area,” says Krueger.
Dascoulias adds that Emma sightings could possibly be on the rise because a show like Chicago requires an experienced cast—all of whom are familiar with the theater and its lore, and more apt to “speak up about experiences. It’s one of those things where you’re not sure if it’s real when you see it. If I wasn’t a part of the conversation, I’d think I was hallucinating,” she says. ■