You may have noticed a reference or two to Penelope taking over our social media this spooky month of October. Who was this Opera House ghost? One of the long time Opera House Box Office workers was doing inventory on the seat plaques in the balcony during the early days of the Opera House remodeling and looked up into the dark lighting booth to see a glow in the window on the left. Suddenly she could see a woman with long hair and a vein wearing Victorian era clothing. The staffer looked away and then looked back and the apparition was still there. The staffer waves and the woman's glow sunk below the window and the booth was dark again.
When paranormal investigators with the Biography channel came to spend the night at the Opera House they interviewed this Box Office staffer plus the Lighting Director who has had several "visits" from someone in the lighting booth. During the dark of the night, they asked the spirit in the balcony what her name was and they claim to have a recording of her saying "Penelope." Our lady finally had a name.
With lights that continue to come on by themselves and seats that will not stay up in the balcony no matter how often you tighten the screws, a few years ago some of the tour guides decided it was time to create a story about our friendly ghost named Penelope. The story below is a work of fiction, but it could have happened that way. Penelope, forgive us for the poetic license. True or not, Penelope will always be "ageless at the Opera House."
Penelope & The Vaudevillian
A Newberry Opera House Ghost Story
Winter in the South is never that harsh, but it is still winter. So, that spring day when the birds were beginning to chirp and shop owners were sweeping their stoops in just their shirt sleeves, everyone turned when the train whistle blew. They knew that spring meant not only spring weather but a visit from a traveling vaudeville troupe.
Teachers let the students go a little early and country folk found a reason to be in town so they could see the parade. After setting up their tents near the train station, the vaudeville troupe paraded down Main St. to drum up business for their show. The musicians played a Sousa march, acrobats tumbled down the center of the street, trained animals fascinated the little children, and teenage girls giggled when magicians “poof” presented them with flowers.
Vaudevillians, as these traveling performers were often called, had engaging and charming personalities. They were, after all, entertainers. And armed with charm and the magic of the stage, they attracted admirers.
One such admirer was a young lady named Penelope, the daughter of a leading and wealthy Newberry family. (To protect the family’s legacy, we shall omit the family name.)
Penelope was a dreamer, and visions of travelling the world meeting famous people filled her head. Penelope was fascinated with Nellie Bly, the famous female reporter who had just traveled around the world in only 72 days. This fact terrified her mother who told her ladies card club that Penelope was just young, but she would settle down and marry well, perhaps to an attorney from Columbia or even Charleston - that would be adventure enough.
Penelope excelled in school, especially in literature. She devoured romantic novels full of witty repartee by Jane Austin and Elizabeth Gaskin, idealized about the perfect society described by William Morris, and dreamed of adventures with Sherlock Holmes. So the day of the parade it is no surprise that Penelope made her way into the book store.
As she searched the bookshelves, she caught the eye of a handsome young man thumbing through a printed copy of Oscar Wilde’s new play “Picture of Dorian Gray.” Someone else who liked Oscar Wilde? No one in Newberry read Oscar Wilde. He must be with the vaudeville troupe. And, he was.
History has not recorded his real name, but he went by “The Professor” – in part because he claimed to actually be a professor who was working on a book about performers, but he was also known by this moniker because every mentalist needs a good stage name. Mentalists were the psychic s of the day – using observation skills to “suddenly know” everything about a person.
The Professor certainly seemed to know just what to say to Penelope. She was smitten. While managing to evade the watchful eyes of her family, she met him every day. She was just going to the book store, which was nothing new. They left notes for each other in the Oscar Wilde book at the bookstore.
Casual walks in a local garden led to closer and closer contact, eventually leading to a kiss. The poor girl was swept off her feet.
In a few days, though, the troupe that had been performing at the Opera House was finishing its run at the theater. “The Professor” told Penelope he would be leaving. He was in love with her, but he had no money to start a family.
Penelope wouldn’t hear of it. She could get the money to start their life together. Her grandmother’s silver was to be hers when she married anyway. She would pack a bag and fill it with the silver and they would run away together and get married. He said he could ask her to do that, but when she checked their book that last afternoon there was a note that read,
“The troupe will be leaving after tonight’s performance. After the show, meet me in the balcony, and we’ll leave from there. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.’ With love in my heart – The Professor”
After much discussion with her mother, Penelope’s mom finally agreed to let her spend the night at a friend’s house. “The friend’s father worked for her dad at the bank. How much trouble could she get into?” she argued.
With her friend’s help she dressed in travelling clothes, including a veil that could be dropped over her face to hide her identity. Dreaming of the wedding gown and vein that would soon replace her traveling outfit, she made her way to the Opera House. “The Professors” act came after the jugglers in the Vaudeville program. But, after the jugglers took their bow, the man with the trained dogs took to the stage. Where was “The Professor”? Maybe he was simply getting things ready for their departure. Maybe he was already waiting for her in the balcony. So as soon as the crowds left, Penelope made her way to the balcony. He wasn’t there. So she waited while the vaudevillians loaded out the equipment. She waited while the ushers cleaned up the aisles. She waited while the stage lights were dimmed – having to slip out just as the custodian was locking the doors.
Penelope had waited in the balcony in vain. Ashamed and heartbroken, she made her way back to her friend’s home. She would never be seen in polite company again for in just a few weeks she would weaken and die.
Some remember that soldiers from Fort Jackson were in audience the vaudevillians last night. Fort Jackson would soon become the epicenter of an influenza epidemic. Others claim that Penelope simply died of a broken heart.
Since the rumors had started about her and “The Professor,” her family discretely buried her in the old village cemetery. And, it just so happens that late at night a woman in a wedding dress has been seen wondering the tomb stones. Could it be Penelope waiting for her wedding?
If you’re in the balcony at the Opera House late at night, you may see a seat that for no obvious reason drops down as though someone is sitting in it. And you just may see, in the corner of your eye a lady dressed in 19th century clothing, including a hat with a veil. No one knows for sure whether the apparition is real. But some say that Penelope is still there in the balcony, still waiting for “The Professor” to come and take her away. Like Dorian Grey she is ageless at the Opera House.
And, what happened to “The Professor”? Was he just a con man like so many mentalists? Did Penelope’s banker daddy buy him off? Or, did the mentalist never see the father’s henchmen coming?