Welcome to friends of the Silent Film Society of Chicago. While I was writing my first book, Casco Cove, I had one of my characters attend a screening of The Black Pirate, and the announcer mentioned that Douglas Fairbanks was at that theater for the Midwest premiere of the film. The scene was not a major plot point of the novel, but it got me thinking about the theater in the Silent Age. That idea developed into The Opening of the Elysium. Scroll down to read an excerpt.
But not everyone is happy that Odagamig now has the premier movie palace in northeastern Wisconsin. Theater owners in Green Bay and Oshkosh are upset that a rival chain from Chicago is moving into their area and overshadowing their own modest facilities. And the workers who are putting the finishing touches on the new facility have reported strange goings-on in the cavernous auditorium. Some even think the building is haunted.
The Opening of the Elysium is available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle.
Ziggy Sniegowski was the foreman of the crew building the Elysium. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he had a reputation for getting work done on time and within budget, which was the reason Julius hired him and relocated him to Odagamig a year ago. Ziggy was especially good at working with the various personality types who were involved in such a grand project. A huge, barrel-chested man with a mostly bald head and a walrus mustache, he knew how to handle rowdy tradesmen, who did most of the heavy lifting and the dangerous work, as well as the temperamental sculptors and artists who were needed to complete the ornamental details called for on the architect’s plans. Although most of them called him “The Polak” behind his back, they always addressed him as “Mr. Z” when speaking directly to him.
Ziggy had worked with the Schoenstadt family back in Chicago, heading up building or renovating crews in other theaters the family operated. But he had never worked with such a diverse group before. The bulk of the crew was made up of locals from Green Bay and other surrounding towns, mostly Belgians and Germans, but the Schoenstadts brought in artisans from Italy to install the scagliola walls, the imitation marble that was so popular in the theaters in Chicago, as well as sculptors from Greece to work on the statuary that was called for in the plans by the Rapp brothers.
There was also a contingent of local Indians hired for mostly manual-labor jobs, in part to show that the theater would be good for the local economy. Ziggy thought at first that the mix of Baroque columns in front, Italian marble walls and pillars in the lobby, and Greek statuary and some Indian images throughout the auditorium would make for a confusing jumble of styles, but now that the theater was almost completed, he had to admit that it all worked together somehow. Much better than the crew did, anyway.
Ziggy was called in several times to resolve disputes between the men. It had been only a year since they broke ground for the theater, and in order to make the opening-day deadline, and to save money, all the out-of-town workers slept in the theater, in the dressing rooms and storage spaces catacombed under and behind the stage. The close quarters could create a sense of camaraderie within the crew, but it also could cause friction between the different factions. It always seemed that the carpenters were at odds with the plumbers, who were arguing with the plasterers. And everyone was suspicious of the Indians, even Ziggy. But he did his best to keep the peace.
“Hey, what are you doin’ up there?” Ziggy called from the front of the balcony. He was taking his customary afternoon tour of the site when he saw two of the locals atop a pair of ladders in front of one of the sculptures that he thought had been completed. He knew that the Greeks got upset when one of the non-Greek crew did something to one of the pieces, which had been happening with some regularity. He didn’t need any more problems, with the opening of the theater so close.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Z,” one of the workmen yelled back. Ziggy could see it was Bob, one of the electricians, along with Dave, a carpenter. “We noticed that the light had burnt out again over this statue,” Bob said. “We were changing the bulb, and I was checking the wiring to make sure there wasn’t a short.”
“Alright, but be careful around that statue,” Ziggy called back, mentally noting that this was the fourth bulb that had to be replaced in that same spot in recent weeks. Those bulbs were supposed to last longer than that.
He walked to the back of the balcony and down the carpeted stairs. He was about to enter the auditorium when the front door opened, letting in a blast of cold air, and Julius and Will entered the theater.
“Hi, Mr. Schoenstadt,” Ziggy said, walking over to greet his boss.
“Hi, Ziggy,” Julius replied. “You remember my son, Will?”
“Sure thing,” Ziggy smiled. “How are you, Will?”
“Swell, Mr. Z,” said Will. “You gonna be ready for the big day?”
“You bet! We’re practically done now. I was just going around on my afternoon tour. Would you like to join me, Mr. Schoenstadt?”
“That’d be fine,” said Julius, taking off his coat and hat and tossing them on the coat check counter just inside the front door. “You want to come along, Will?”
Will took off his coat as well. “Naw, I’m just gonna look around, if that’s okay.”
“Fine, just be careful. And don’t interfere with the workers,” Julius said as Will dropped his coat down next to his father’s. Julius then turned and walked through the lobby with Ziggy.
“So, we’re on schedule?” Julius asked Ziggy. “No new problems?”
“Not since the last wire I sent you,” Ziggy replied. “We should be done by Wednesday at the latest.”
“That’s good, because there’s a lot riding on Saturday,” Julius said, looking up at the small chandelier hanging from the high ceiling in the outer part of the lobby. They walked through into the main lobby, which contained the concession stand, flanked on either side by stairs going up to the balcony seats. There was paper on the floor throughout the lobby to prevent the workers from tracking dirt on the plush carpet beneath. “What about those other issues you mentioned?”
“Nothing more,” said Ziggy, holding the door open as they entered the auditorium. “There were some … disruptive elements in the crew early on, but they’ve been dealt with.” They walked through the doors, and Julius scrutinized the low roof beyond, really the underside of the dress circle. The ‘dress circle’ was a small balcony underneath the main balcony. Where the main balcony reached all the way up to the very top of the theater, the dress circle was only a few rows deep, but the sight lines and the acoustics of the theater were designed so that those few seats in the dress circle were the best in the house. In most theaters across the country with similar seating, the dress circle was normally off-limits to the general public, reserved for politicians, dignitaries, and other VIPs. The dress circle was where powerful people took in their entertainment.
As they cleared the dress circle, they could see the underside of the balcony and, above it, the entire inside of the theater. It was not well lit, primarily from a few work lights scattered around, but even the dim light reflected off the gold-painted trim around the stage, and along the front of the balcony. There were some workers carrying equipment on the side of the stage, and the main velvet curtain was lowered halfway. Scaffolding was still in place in several spots in the theater.
The statues and the detail around the stage were Greek, but spaced along the front of the dress circle level were bas-relief sculptures of Indian scenes, of fields of grain and Indian camps and warriors on horseback. The ‘Elysian Fields’ of lore were supposed to be the afterlife for the heroic, and the architects insisted on depicting not only Greek heroes, but heroes from American culture as well, particularly natives. A few of the sculptures still had scaffolding erected in front of them. The walls of the auditorium were hung with dark curtains, and every few feet there was an alcove with a statue of a legendary heroic character, either in battle garb or in ceremonial dress. Most of the statues were lit from above by electric bulbs. Ladders were standing in front of a few of the statues. The high ceiling was a dome; it was dark now, but when the theater was opened to the public, it would be ringed with lights.
Julius smiled and nodded as he surveyed all the artistic touches that made up this motion picture palace. He scanned the aisle down to the front of the theater, admiring the intricately carved and colorfully painted ends of the seats. He stopped to fold down one seat and pressed his hand into the deep cushion.
“I’m really happy with the way the seats turned out,” Ziggy said. “Those end-caps took quite a bit of time, because of the multiple colors, but I think it looks really good.”
Julius nodded as they walked down to the front of the aisle. They stopped before a low railing that separated the audience from the deep orchestra pit, the middle dominated by the console for the Wurlitzer pipe organ, the pipes of which were embedded in the walls behind the grates flanking the stage. “Has the organ been tested?” Julius asked.
“The installers ran it through its paces last weekend,” Ziggy said. “It was hard to keep all the men working as they were doing it, because the test went on for a long time. I saw some of the workers stopping to listen.” He chuckled. “I had to remind them that they were not at a concert.”
Julius nodded, and the two of them walked along the railing and back up the other aisle. They walked past where Ziggy had seen the two workers changing the light bulb. The workers were gone, but the ladders were still there. Julius pointed to the ladders with a quizzical look on his face.
“Some men were changing a light bulb earlier,” Ziggy explained. “They were trying to find out why several bulbs had blown out in this section.”
Julius grunted, and they continued along the aisle. They stopped just before they passed under the balcony, when Julius noticed that while the sculpture in the panels over the aisle appeared to be finished, it remained only partially painted. He noted that the panel to the right was also not complete.
“Ziggy, what’s the meaning of this?” he demanded. “I thought all the detail was complete.”
“No, Mr. Schoenstadt, we had a little problem with this one,” Ziggy admitted. “We had a couple Indians working on these panels, as we had all along the front of the balcony, but they left a couple of days ago. Some of the other men will finish these, but they need to finish their own work first.”
“They left? They just walked off the job?”
“They were scared away. They said they heard strange sounds in the night, and that there were some spirits that told them they shouldn’t work here. They didn’t even take their last week’s wages.”
“What do you mean by strange sounds?”
“We’re not really sure. They were bunking in the dressing rooms behind the stage, while most of the rest were sleeping in the rooms in the lower level. A couple days ago, they said they were woken up in the middle of the night by a howling sound, and they claim to’ve been visited by some Indian spirits, who told them to leave the theater immediately. They did, and we haven’t seen them since.”
Julius scowled at Ziggy. “And did you look into this?”
“I did, and the only explanation I could come up with is that if one of the roof hatches were left open, and a certain door upstairs is not closed, the wind over the roof could possibly enter the pipe chamber and blow across the pipes, causing something like a howling sound. We were warned about that by the people who came in to tune the organ.”
“So that’s what they heard?”
“We checked the hatch the morning they left, and it was latched tight. Besides, we still don’t know what it was that they saw to make ’em think there were ‘spirits’ in the theater.”
Julius shook his head. “Ah, probably too much firewater. You know these Indians like their alcohol, prohibition or not.”
Ziggy shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, Mr. Schoenstadt. But the other Indians say that they can get these panels done in time for the weekend opening.”
“See that they do,” Julius said. “And when they do, take the checks that the other men left behind, and divvy them up to the ones who remained.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Schoenstadt,” Ziggy replied, and he pulled a notebook out of his back pocket to write down the instructions. “Let’s go down to the front again, and I’ll show you the backstage area.” They turned and walked to the front of the auditorium.
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