There was something magical about stage.
Henry Creamer believed this with every fiber of his insurance-man's being. For more than 20 years, he patronized the Treegreen Community Theater. He watched, amazed, as townsfolk of Treegreen sang, danced, and acted their way through musicals, dramas, and light comedies. His wonder at the grace and beauty of these entertainments bordered on astonishment.
He knew these people, you see.
He grew up with them; went to school with them; sold most of them insurance. No way these schleps can do this stuff, he thought, without some kind of metaphysical help.
Take Nash Brenner, for instance. Nash was an antique merchant: a fussy, affected curmudgeon in a three-piece business suit. Despite this, he somehow wowed audiences with his recent, impassioned portrayal of King Arthur. Henry had watched the performance in awe. He'd dealt with Brenner. If pressed, he might picture Nash addressing the Knights of the Round Table like this: "Use the coasters. Use the coasters. You know how much this thing's worth?"
Or take Millie Dawn. Millie was, perhaps, the clumsiest human on the face of the earth. Henry had refused to renew her accident insurance after her fifth teaspoon impalement. Known to trip over dust motes, Millie had nonetheless led the theater's ballet troupe in a critically acclaimed rendition of 'Swan Lake.' Reviewers had likened her performance to the great divas of the continent. Henry had been surprised the sets survived.
Something happens to these people, Henry reasoned, when they step onto the Treegreen stage. Something magic. And if I can find out what it is, it could be worth a fortune in insurance premiums.
Awash with visions of sales awards, Henry devised a plan. His first step was a visit to the Treegreen Theater's Board of Directors. There, Henry offered to underwrite the cost of a musical extravaganza. He promised all gate receipts and other profit to the theater's general fund. His only stipulation was that he cast and direct the show himself, with no interference or help from the theater's regulars.
He met resistance, but handled it with his usual tact.
"Before you decide," he told the assembled Board members, "Remember this: I hold the fire insurance policy on your theater."
A dull silence filled the room.
"Is that a threat, Mr. Creamer?" Treat Collins, the Board's chairman, asked.
Henry smiled. "Well, gee, yeah."
"There are other insurance agents, sir," Collins said.
"Lots of them in the Seven Counties," Henry agreed. "Most of them work for me. The ones who don't, know me well enough to talk to me before they take over one of my accounts. Of course," he waved a hand nonchalantly, "You could go with a firm from one of the big cities. Big cities, big prices, long waiting periods before the policy goes into effect . . . "
"So you're saying that unless we let you do your show, you'll cancel our fire insurance," Christine McGraw, another Board member, said.
"Absolutely." Henry replied.
"And without fire insurance, we can't open to the public," MacKenzie McGraw (Christine's sister) said.
"Absolutely." Henry replied.
"This is blackmail, Mr. Creamer!" Carter McGraw (no relation) shouted.
"Absolutely." Henry replied.
And so, after much wailing and shrieking and name-calling, the board bowed to the inevitable. It fell to Treat Collins to raise the white flag.
"Very well, Mr. Creamer," he said. "You may do your show. But let me make it quite clear that it is not to be advertised as a Treegreen Community theater production. You can expect neither our aid nor our support in your doomed endeavor. And I--and I think I speak for everyone on this board--shall do my best to see that no one, no one, from the local theater community auditions for you or attends a single performance."
A fine speech, sonorous and cadenced and declaimed with all the passion of a Barrymore or a Tracy. Applause died quickly, though, when Henry stood, smiled, and said:
And that was that. Next day, Henry posted an audition notice in the Treegreen 'Daily Leaf.' Despite the Board's predictions (and Henry's hopes), all of the usual suspects showed up. This was okay with Henry. He simply dismissed anyone he had seen on the Treegreen stage before. He wanted no one with experience; he wanted no one with talent. Indeed, the more tone deaf, addle-pated, two-left footed, and dyslexic an auditionee seemed, the more likely they were to get a part. His one exception came when he cast Millie Dawn as the female lead. Her triumphant dance audition, ending with a head-first plummet into the orchestra pit, was too ridiculous to resist.
Before rehearsals began, Henry borrowed three books from the theater's library: 'Stage Directing for Nincompoops,' 'An Introduction to Theater,' and 'Forbidden Fairy Tales.' (Don't ask.) Going by the book (that is, 'An Introduction to Theater'--this is a family story), he started rehearsals with a read-through. This took a bit longer than he expected because less than half of his cast could read.
"This script makes no sense," Phil Bolton, the male lead, complained.
"That's because you're holding it upside down," Henry said. "Look, let's forget about this read-through and start rehearsal with the first three scenes tomorrow night. Theater magic, here we come."
And so, next evening, Henry sat third row, center. He began his directing career with Act One, Scene One: a street scene that established the first locale for the play. 'Stage Directing for Nincompoops' suggested: "When you block a street scene, keep things lively. Move shoppers, joggers, cops, kids, hucksters, and hustlers through the scene before during and after dialogue. Try setting the scene to music and having the actors move to the rhythm."
Henry chose "The William Tell Overture."
"O. K., where's the magic?" Henry asked after the paramedics cleared the last member of his cast off the stage.
After a two-week delay for rehab, Henry addressed his bruised and bandaged performers.
"I know we got off to a rough start," he said, "But maybe we were trying too hard. Tonight, we'll keep it simple: Act One, Scene Five: the buggy scene."
This was a key scene for the show. In it, Millie Dawn and Phil Bolton were to ride across the stage in a horse-drawn buggy. The two would engage in brief dialogue, and then Millie was supposed to sing. Henry once again consulted 'Stage Directing for Nincompoops.'
"Never use" (he read) "live animals on stage if you can avoid it. Their charm and cuteness are outweighed by the potential for accidents."
So Henry bought a life-sized, wooden horse from a local riding academy. He mounted castors on its hooves and harnessed it to a buckboard. Finally, he tied the horse to the theater's winch system with the toughest, thinnest rope he could find. He perched Millie and Phil on the buckboard off stage right and pressed the switch to start the winch.
Millie and Phil survived because the wooden horse smashed a hole completely through the outer, stage-left wall of the theater. Their buckboard sailed through the hole, across the street, and into the Treegreen Memorial Fountain.
"I repeat," he said, watching Treegreen's SCUBA club rescue his two water-logged stars, "Where's the magic?"
He sang this refrain many times as rehearsals crashed, thudded, staggered, and limped toward Opening Night. A dance routine that had the cast build a house on stage hospitalized 12 when the structure collapsed on the kick line. The wedding banquet scene became a food fight when Millie fell into the punch bowl and soaked the ingenue to the skin. The last straw, though, came three weeks before Dress Rehearsal. A violinist tried to retrieve an earring that one of the chorines dropped into a tuba. The entire orchestra suffered hernias from trying to pull tuba and string-man apart.
As Henry watched his musicians hobble back to their chairs, he lowered his head to his lap and groaned in despair: "Where’s the magic?"
And a tiny voice behind him answered: "In the director's hat."
Henry snapped his head up and whirled in his seat. A glowing blob of ectoplasm sprawled two rows back and three seats over.
"What . . . who . . . where?" he stammered.
"That about covers it," the blob agreed, slowly resolving itself into a long, thin, goateed gossamer. "Let's handle one at a time: 'What did I say?' I said 'In the director's hat.' 'Who am I?' I'm this theater's ghost. 'Where . . ."
"Ghost?" Henry shouted, "What do you mean, 'the theater's ghost?'"
"Easy. Take it easy," the ghost soothed. "Every theater has a ghost. If you had any stage experience at all, you'd know that. I got the job here."
"But, how . . ." Henry started.
"And you might want to give your cast and crew a break," the ghost suggested, lowering his voice, "If we're going to continue this conversation. You're the only one who can see me or talk to me. So right now, everyone thinks you're gabbing with thin air. That might seem a bit flaky . . . even for a director. "
Henry turned toward the stage. "Take ten," he said.
"Make it twenty," the ghost said.
"Make it twenty," he called, and watched the performers flee to the wings.
"That's better," the ghost said, and filtered into less transparent focus. "Now, for the past six weeks, I've watched you and your group of stumblebums. At first, I thought: 'Great! A beginner's seminar!' and I sat back and enjoyed the fun. But nobody learned anything and you kept asking: 'Where's the magic?' So I figured two things. One: you guys really are as bad as you look. Two: you really don't know where the magic is. So I decided to tell you about the director's hat."
"What," Henry asked, "Is the director's hat?"
"Where the magic is," the ghost replied. "Look, just like every theater has a ghost, every theater has some magic. In this theater, it's in the director's hat. C'mon," the ghost floated out of his seat, "Let's get it." And he started to move toward the rear of the auditorium. Henry, still a bit dazed, followed.
"Most of the regulars here," the ghost explained, misting his way through the aisles, "know about the director's hat. It's been here since goodness knows when; supposed to be the property of the first director who ever worked here. Tradition says that the director of every show should wear the hat during performances."
The ghost stopped when he heard a thud behind him. He turned and stuck his head back through the wall.
"Sorry, guy," he said, as Henry struggled to his feet, "I forgot you couldn't just shimmer along behind me. Try the door." He waited while Henry pushed through the nearest door.
"Everyone thinks it's just superstition," the ghost continued, leading Henry up the Balcony stairs. "But most of the directors wear the hat, at least for opening night. When they do, the show's always better. Maybe the songs stay on pitch; maybe no one misses a line; maybe they get all the light cues right. Something always happens to improve the show. And, if the show's a little weak, more than one something happens. Ahhh, here's the Green Room." The ghost stopped. "The hat's on a hook just inside the Green Room. Get it and put it on."
Henry grabbed the knob on the Green Room's door and stopped. "But we're still in rehearsal," he said. "Shouldn't I wait until we open?"
The ghost shook his head. "The hat works magic, not miracles," he said. "Start now. You need all the help you can get."
Rehearsal ended two hours later. Cast and crew left the theater excited. They had managed to finish the first act without incident. Even Millie's big dance routine worked. This involved "flying" her--costumed as an angel--from one side of the stage to the other. There, she landed and, stripped of her wings by other members of the troupe, she danced her set without kicking anyone.
"See," the ghost said, when he and Henry were alone. "Things are better already. With the director's hat, you should be able to open without endangering the audience."
Henry wore the hat to every remaining rehearsal. He took some ribbing, but disasters disappeared and rough spots smoothed out. While never approaching excellence, cast, crew, and orchestra reached competence. He was about to leave the theater after an error-free Dress Rehearsal when the ghost appeared to him again.
"So," the ghost asked, "How do you like the hat?"
"Terrific." Henry replied. "Couldn't have gotten through this without it. Thanks a lot."
"Yeah, right, thanks," the ghost said, drifting in front of Henry. "Where's the hat now?"
"Back in the Green Room," Henry said. "I leave it there between rehearsals."
"And what's this about the audience for tomorrow night?"
Henry had invited every insurance agent he knew to Opening Night.
"Isn't it great?" Henry asked. "Everyone in tomorrow's audience knows I'm no director. When they see how well the show goes, they'll have to believe in theater magic."
"What difference does that make?" the ghost asked.
"Well, I'll need their help to buy the theaters." Henry said.
"To buy the theaters?"
"Yeah, the idea can't miss." Henry enthused. "We'll buy this one first. Then, we'll close it and bring in a team of scientists. They'll unravel the director's hat strand by strand until they find the secret of its magic." Henry was pacing as he became more excited. "Once we isolate that magic, finding it in other theaters should be easy. Then we'll capture it, synthesize it, and find a way to distribute it with insurance policies."
The ghost was stunned.
"But why would you want to do that?" he asked.
"Think about it," Henry replied, "With theater magic as part of an insurance policy, we'll never have to pay a claim! We can sell as many as we want, promise anything at all. Hey! We'll even save the print costs for claim forms. We won't need claim forms!" By now, Henry was hopping with excitement.
"So you're going to close all theaters everywhere?" the ghost said, trembling.
"Oh, not everywhere," Henry said. "Just here and maybe throughout the Seven Counties. That should be enough to find and duplicate the theater magi . . . hey!"
Henry's cry came as the ghost swung an ethereal fist at his nose. It felt like being mooshed with a musty pillow.
"You rat, you wretch, you no good so-and-so," the ghost shouted, punctuating each insult with another fierce but harmless punch.
"What on earth's wrong with . . . aaaaachoooo!" Henry sneezed. The punches didn't hurt, but the paranormal dust motes they raised tickled his sinuses.
"You close those theaters and me and every other theater ghost ends up in the old spook's home," the ghost screamed. "That's what's wrong with me, you . . ." and the ghost continued both assault and invective.
"Look, you're not hurting me," Henry said, holding a handkerchief to his nose, "So you might as well calm down. And you have only yourself to blame. If you hadn't told me about the director's hat, I would have given up that night." The ghost slumped, defeated. "The old spook's home won't be so bad," Henry said, "Especially if all those other theater ghosts are there. Besides," Henry said, pausing in the exit, "We won't keep the theaters closed forever. After we perfect the theater magic extract, we'll open them again."
"But the ghosts won't come back," the ghost wailed. "The magic will be gone!"
"You can't make an omelet . . ." Henry shrugged as he quoted the cliche. He closed the door behind him. The ghost shimmered for a few moments, then faded away. Just before he winked out completely, a strange grin appeared on his face.
Opening Night's excitement was a bit different from usual. Treegreen Theater was sold out, but the crowd consisted of insurance agents. The buzz of conversation filled the hall, but the talk was of "annuities" and "shelters" and "amortization." Still, cast, crew, and orchestra felt the thrill of a full house and butterflies multiplied in tummies all 'round.
Henry circulated backstage among his troupe. He wished everyone good luck and was puzzled by the surly replies of Millie Dawn and some of the orchestra. Shrugging, he called places, gave the house five minutes, and went to the Green Room to get the director's hat.
Which wasn't there.
Shocked, Henry stared at the vacant hook as the house lights started to dim.
"Gone," he murmured. "It's gone . . ."
"Well, whaddya know about that," said a familiar voice from a far corner. Henry looked there as the ghost glimmered into being. "Looks like someone sent the hat to the dry cleaners again. You know, they really shouldn't do that on an Opening Night . . . "
Several thuds, a clatter, and an "ooof" sounded from the orchestra pit.
The ghost turned to Henry with a smile. "You didn't wish your people 'good luck,' did you?" he asked.
Voices from the house:
"The conductor fell off the podium!"
"His leg's broken!"
The ghost's smile widened. "Of course you did."
But Henry was gone. He was running pell-mell for the dry cleaners and counting on a delay from the conductor's mishap. Unfortunately, the conductor was a trouper.
"Get a splint on this thing and get me back up there," he said, "My arm's not broken and the show's going on!"
Henry was just leaving the theater when the Overture began. He opened the door to the sounds of three different keys and several rhythms. He winced and hoped the audience liked avante garde.
Henry ran across Treegreen's town round, leaving the theater's door ajar. Thus, muted crashes and muffled shrieks carried to him across the evening air. He panted to a stop outside the dry cleaners just as the first scene ended. The cries "Turn off the lights!" and "The switch is stuck!" galvanized him. He kicked open the door.
He heard "Well, pull the plug, then!" just as he found the light switch. An instant of illumination, and then every fuse in Treegreen blew.
Wrapped in darkness, Henry began stumbling through the dry cleaners, groping for the director's hat. He fell over the front counter just as the night's odd acoustics brought more sounds.
"We can't see!"
"Every light in town is out!"
"The candles! Get the candles!"
Henry crawled frantically through the darkness into the racks of clothes. Plastic clung to his arms, his back, his face.
"The candles are lit."
"So's the front curtain!"
"Get the extinguisher, quick!"
Clutching a bridal gown, Henry pulled himself erect just as the power came back. The clothes rack started to move, carrying Henry with it.
"The lights are back!"
"Great! At least we can see!"
"Look! Millie's stuck to the horse!"
Henry dragged the bridal gown off the clothes just short of the front counter. Fifty pounds of clothing fell atop him in a dry cleaned cataract.
"We got her free!"
"Never mind that, the fire's spreading!"
"Pull the fire alarm and clear the theater!"
Caught in the pile of clothes, Henry reached up to the counter to pull himself out. The first sirens sounded just as he tipped the cash register onto his head . . .
Henry woke next evening in a hospital bed. He was surprised to see the ghost shimmering in the seat next to him.
"Am I dead?" he asked, muzzily.
"Naw," the ghost replied, "Not even badly hurt. The cash register was empty and the clothes cushioned your head. You got a mild concussion and a burned out theater."
"Burned out!" Henry cried.
"Pretty much gutted," the ghost said cheerily. "Luckily for me, it's even more spooky that way. So thanks a lot." The ghost paused as Henry rubbed his head and groaned. "Cheer up," the ghost continued. "Nobody got burned. And with the money from the fire insurance, we'll build the best theater in the Seven Counties."
"Fire insurance . . . " Henry moaned, dropping back to the bed.
"Yeah, that's something else to thank you for: all those insurance agents in the audience. They said they never saw so many freak accidents. Most of them think that the theater can probably get double the value of the insurance policy."
"Double . . . " Henry sobbed, and pulled the covers over his head.
"Well, gotta go," the ghost said, dissolving. Then he stopped. "Oh, the director's hat . . . the dry cleaner finished it that afternoon and put it in the theater's mailbox. He usually does that, but you ran out before I could tell you. Bye!"
The ghost winked away.
Henry recovered from his head injury the next day. His nervous breakdown took a bit longer. Under doctor's orders, he avoids theaters and ghost stories. All of his fellow insurance agents, though say he's doing just fine, except for one thing:
Even on the coldest winter day, he refuses to wear a hat.