As Halloween rounds the corner, the city of Philadelphia is coming alive — bright orange, elaborately carved pumpkins sit out on stoops; spooky decorations hang in front yards and adorn the streets; and store aisles boast an enticing selection of candy corn and other sugary treats. A feeling of magic and spookiness pervades the air.
But here at AVA, that feeling is nothing new. Our building on 1920 Spruce Street, built 150 years ago, is the permanent dwelling place of the ghost of Randolph Wood, who owned and resided in the building in the 1870s. Depressed by serious financial losses, Mr. Wood sadly died by suicide here, on the third floor, during the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873. His spirit has allegedly been haunting the building ever since.
Our resident ghost has signaled his presence to AVA staff, faculty and students over the years. AVA’s President and Artistic Director, Kevin McDowell, vividly recalls a creepy interaction with him in the late 1980s. “I stopped by AVA one night on my way home, around 2 a.m. I remember going up to the third floor, getting to the landing and suddenly feeling chills and my hair standing up—I had a strange, eerie feeling that something was there.”
Mr. McDowell is not the only one to have discerned the spirit’s presence on the upper floors of AVA. Master vocal coach Richard Raub, who has been teaching at AVA for 35 years, was once interrupted by the ghost during a coaching session. “I was up in my studio working with a student and I became aware of this big sphere of energy that came into the room,” explains Mr. Raub. “It was invisible, but I could perceive it. My student was a tenor and all of a sudden he felt all tight and couldn’t sing anymore. I slammed down the piano lid and as soon as I got up the ‘thing’ just vanished. I went into the hall screaming after it to get out!”
Both Mr. McDowell and Mr. Raub’s experiences with the ghostly entity date back to before the year 1996, when the room where Mr. Wood passed away was renovated and turned into a library. Mr. McDowell maintains that those renovations led to the ghost’s retreat from AVA. “By converting what we call the ‘ghost room’, which consisted of two rooms, a closet and a bathroom on the third floor in the rear, we think we drove the ghost away,” he says. Mr. Raub agrees: “When the library and bathrooms on that floor were being renovated, there were workers in here all summer long. I think that’s when the ghost decided to pick up and move on.”
However, Resident Artists and staff members claim to have encountered the ghost since then. Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig, who graduated from AVA last May, says she often became aware of the ghost’s presence in the evenings, when she was working the front desk and preparing to lock up the building for the night. She describes a particularly horrifying experience that took place during her third year: “I was alone in the building and the lights were off. I was coming up the stairs and I heard the chuckle of a male voice. I freaked out and yelled …and I heard it again. To be honest, that’s why I didn’t want to be on desk duty my fourth year.”
AVA’s PR and Communications Manager, Camille Mola, attests to the fact that the ghost is still very much around. She recounts of a mysterious episode last year: “One performance night last season I was sitting in the lobby with a colleague. Everyone was in the theatre, there was no one around. And all of a sudden, the lobby lights went out. I got up and I saw that the light switch in the hall, which is pretty hard to push down, had been switched off.”
By now, longstanding members of AVA have grown accustomed to the ghost’s mischievous behavior—the ghost has been playing tricks on people since Maestro Christofer Macatsoris first became Music Director of AVA in 1977. Maestro recollects an experience with the ghost from his early years at AVA—perhaps the most bizarre and frightening of them all. One evening, after being the last person to leave the building, Maestro returned upon realizing he had forgotten his sunglasses. “When I came back in, the lights wouldn’t turn on and I heard orchestral music coming from upstairs,” he recalls. “My friends and I called the police. We discovered a boom box on the fourth floor and when we came downstairs we heard the sounds of a typewriter coming from what is currently my office. The police walked toward my office and as soon as we stepped in, the sounds stopped. We left, and it started again. This is all on the police report.”
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the uncanny events that have occurred over the years along AVA’s corridors make it hard to deny that something spooky is lurking in the shadows of 1920 Spruce Street. We respect the spirit of Mr. Wood, and we can only hope he enjoys the beautiful music made here at AVA.
Happy Halloween from all of us here at AVA!
Written by Tania Bagan