No self-respecting theater House is without its ghost
“Okay, my little Nut, let’s hear it,” Papa says.
I grin and snuggle into my pillow. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
“Amen,” he echoes and kisses my forehead before turning off the light.
“Sweet dreams,” Mamma says as she places a folded piece of cardboard over my nightlight. It’s covered with holes; Papa poked them on it, so my ceiling looks like it’s filled with stars. “Nut will watch over you too,” she whispers and kisses me goodnight.
I smile, looking at my starry ceiling, thinking about my papa’s work—for months he’s been telling us all about it.
My papa is a stonemason, and he was hired by the two Mr. Peerys to build the magical movie palace. He says there is only one other building like it in the whole United States. That is because it has a sky ceiling—an “at-mos-phe-ric dome,” Papa calls it. He says the indoor sky will change from morning to night, and it will even have clouds! And Mamma, who is a schoolteacher, has been explaining to my brother and me about the Egyptian legends. She’s told us all about the tomb of King Tut that somebody found, just a couple of years ago in Egypt, and since then, the whole country’s been in a fever—even us—about mummies, treasures, and gods and goddesses.
My favorite legend is the one about Nut. She is the Egyptian goddess of the sky. In Mamma’s book, the painting of Nut shows her protecting the whole world with her body; she is opened like an umbrella over us, and her bent back is the sky full of stars—yes, she is my favorite.
I close my eyes and see myself drifting through the night sky, dreaming that I can touch those stars.
“Alison, baby girl, are you ready?” Mamma calls.
“Almost,” I say, buckling my shoes and tying a ribbon-like headband knotted at the back of my neck—that will have to do until my hair is long enough to wear in a ponytail; for now, though, it barely reaches my shoulders.
I race out of my room to the kitchen. Mamma’s got the sandwiches ready; she fixed them with the roasted chicken leftover from last night’s dinner. She looks me up and down and smiles. “Don’t forget the cookies.”
I pull out the two biggest from the jar (I baked them this morning) and wrap them in a napkin, frowning at the chocolate chips already staining the white cloth—I’ll just have to scrub it later.
I can’t wait to see what the Egyptian Movie Palace looks like inside; Papa promised I could go in today, so I’m bringing us lunch, and we’ll have us a scaffolding picnic.
Since we live only a block away, Mamma is letting me walk over there.
“Now you be careful crossing the street,” she says.
“Yes, Mamma.” I give her a kiss, and I’m out the door, clutching the lunch basket and a bottle filled with juice.
“And be back by two.” She waves from the front door.
“Yes, ma’am,” I call back, turning to look at her one last time. She looks so pretty in her flowered dress and white apron. She smiles and blows me a kiss.
Skipping on the sidewalk down 25th Street, I don’t even notice the heat and the sunshine—they’re nothing to me because all I can think of is the dark, cool inside of the theater and the ceiling filled with twinkling stars, in the middle of the day!
Looking both ways before crossing Washington Boulevard, I hurry the rest of the way to the movie palace.
As I go by the box office with my basket and juice, I see lots of men working in a cloud of fine dust that makes me want to cough. A couple of construction workers tip their hats at me. I nod politely but dash past them.
Papa said to go to the right of the auditorium, which, just like he said, looks like the pictures in Mamma’s book of the open court of an Egyptian temple!
It’s dark. There are only a few lights, mainly on the scaffoldings where men are working. Something happens to my ears in there, like someone stuffed cotton balls in them, but then I remember what Papa said about acoustics, and I settle down.
Papa is on the scaffolding along the wall, farthest from the stage. I stand there for a few minutes, watching him. He is concentrating hard, with his trowel and mortar handy.
“Hey, sweetie, aren’t you Joe’s little girl?”
The deep voice makes me jump—had the bottle not been capped, orange juice would have sloshed everywhere. “Yes, sir.”
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he says kindly and walks me over to the foot of the scaffolding.
“Hey, Joe! A young lady is here to see you.”
“Thank you,” I murmur.
“Don’t mention it,” he says with a wink.
“My little Nut! You’re here already?” Papa calls down, leaning over the safety bar, and I wave up at him.
He lowers a bucket he has tied to the end of a rope. “Put our lunch in there, and then come up the ladder—I’m on the third floor,” he kids.
I giggle nervously as I place the basket and the bottle inside the bucket. He starts pulling it up as I begin climbing the ladder. The scaffold wobbles, but I tell myself, only two floors to go.
Papa helps me to my feet and steadies me as I look around, feeling a little dizzy—we’re so close to the dome! Papa has pushed his tools to the edge of the boards and cleared the middle of his work surface for our picnic. He sits in the center and pats the spot next to him for me.
He chatters away while I eat slowly, staring wide-eyed at everything: the ceiling, the wet mortar drying next to me, the pink plaster on the wall across from us, the stage, which seems a loooong way down from where we are. And when I look behind me, we are at eye level with the private boxes. I get lost in thoughts of how wonderful it would be to see a show from inside one of those boxes!
“‘Wanderer of the Wasteland,’” Papa says like he was reading my mind. “That’s the feature they’ll play on opening night only two months from now—it’s a silent movie, so the Wurlitzer pipe organ will do the accompaniment,” he explains.
“I would much rather see a play,” I tell him, imagining real people, acting and singing on the stage, and us, sitting in a private box.
When we finish our cookies, Papa smiles and tells me he has a surprise.
“Lay down right here,” he says, setting aside the basket and the empty bottle.
Just like he asked, I stretch out on the boards and stare at the ceiling, waiting. I’m so excited! Papa’s surprises are always good!
When he finishes making signals to someone below, Papa lies down beside me.
“Wait till you see this,” he says, snuffing his work light and jutting his chin toward the ceiling.
“Oh, Papa!” I gasp, and it comes out with a little bit of a sobbing sound.
The blue dome begins to light up at one end, like morning is coming, while at the other end, it’s midnight blue, with lots of twinkling stars. Pretty soon, wispy clouds begin to move through as if blown by a breeze. I want to cry; it’s so beautiful!
Papa squeezes my hand, and I hold tight to his. I want to tell him how much I love this surprise, but nothing comes out—I just keep staring.
“How does the Egyptian prayer go?” he whispers, and I have to clear my throat, or else my voice will shake with all the things I’m feeling. As soon as I’m steady enough, I begin repeating what Mamma had read to me.
“‘O my Mother Nut, stretch yourself over me, that I may be placed among the im-pe-rish-able stars which are in you, and that I may not die.’”
“But if either of us does,” Papa says, “Nut would take us to her star-filled sky and revive us with food and wine.”
“Do you think maybe she would give me milk instead of wine?”
Papa chuckles, and I grin, though a tear rolls down the side of my face because I’m so choked up. I wipe it off quickly and ask him another question, trying to make light of my feelings. “How do you think it would be to live here all the time?”
“Oh… I don’t know about living here as if it were home. How about just sleeping here, every now and then? Like we’re camping in the Sahara Desert,” Papa replies seriously. I know he doesn’t want to make me feel childish. He squeezes my hand one more time and turns to look at me.
When I look at him, he winks, and I decided it would be okay to camp here, although I would much rather live here.
“It’s a magical place, Papa,” I say, turning my head to stare at the indoor sky again. “Papa, do you think the sky really is the goddess Nut, bent over us like in Mamma’s book?”
“It’s possible—the Egyptians sure believed it,” he says reassuringly.
In my head and in my heart, I’m convinced it’s true.
“Well, little girl, it’s about one-thirty now.”
“Yes, sir, and I told Mamma I would be back by two.”
“Then we’d better get you down.”
Papa gets up and loads the picnic things in the bucket. The scaffolding sways a little with his movements, and for a second, I feel like I’m on a raft floating on a river, maybe the Nile.
Papa’s tools are still at the edge of the work surface, so I go put them back in their spot, closest to the wall, where he’ll be using them. That’s when it happened.
It’s what Mamma would call a head rush because, I guess, I stood up too fast. Everything turns gray and sparkly as I bend over the tools, and when I try to straighten up, my head hits the guardrail, and my body falls forward. I try to grab on to something, but there’s nothing.
“The third floor,” Papa had said, and a rush of hot and cold goes through me when I realize the floor is a long way down.
I don’t even have time to imagine the pain I’ll feel when I hit the concrete below.
I hear a hollow sound, sort of like that watermelon made when my brother dropped it on the driveway, and then I know it’s my head that just made that sound. But I can’t feel anything—well, maybe just the cool cement under me.
I open my eyes—there is the starlit sky. There are loud voices all around, and Papa sounds like he’s growling as he comes down the ladder.
“Don’t move!” I think that’s what he says, his voice sounds so different, angry or maybe full of fear.
“I’m sorry,” I want to say, but I can’t, so I lie still like he told me. If he’s angry, I wonder if he’ll shake me?
But when he kneels beside me, he doesn’t do that; he seems afraid even to touch me.
Wishing he could hear my voice inside my head, I think really hard: “Papa—I’m sorry—I got dizzy…” My eyes cloud with tears. He’s crying now. I want to get up but can’t move. “Papa—”
He lifts my hand to his lips and kisses it. “Alison, my little Nut…”
More men tower over me; they’re all shaking their heads gloomily. The lights are on now, and the stars are gone, but they haven’t turned off the clouds—they race so fast across the sky, they make me feel sick.
Papa’s eyes say things look bad for me—I won’t make it home by two like I told Mamma. I look at the sky, and I feel like I’m getting closer to it. The cement doesn’t feel so cold, maybe because it’s not there anymore, or I’m not on it anymore.
I guess someone’s working the lights again. The clouds slow down, and everything is like fire on one side of the ceiling: sunset. And then, there’s midnight blue stretching out forever on the other side.
There are so many stars! I could reach out and touch them if only I could move. For one sleepy moment, I believe I’m back in my room, waiting until tomorrow when I get to go to the magical movie palace.
“I love you, baby girl, my Alison, my little Nut!” Papa cries, and I think it’s strange that I hear Mamma’s voice with his; is she here? Maybe I really am in my room, and I just finished saying my prayers…
Then, there’s another voice, a breezy one I don’t recognize, and she says, “I am Nut, I am here to enfold and protect you from all things evil.”
The stars are all around me now. I close my eyes, and I float for a while, not in my room but in a dream. I think I should go home, but I don’t know how. I’m not worried, though.
When I open my eyes again, the scaffoldings are gone, and the auditorium is full of people. They’re sitting on rows and rows of chairs. The air is thick with perfumed smoke. There is music coming from the organ, and a silent movie is playing on the screen.
It’s opening night—how time flew!
And I never made it back home…
There are people sitting in the fancy private boxes and below them too. There’s a lady wearing a flowered dress; she looks like Mamma! I race over to see her up close, but it isn’t her. The stars in the sky ceiling seem to dim with my disappointment, but they light right up again when I think I see Papa and my brother!
It’s not them either—I should’ve known they wouldn’t come without Mamma.
Maybe they’ll all come for the next show. Of course, they will, and I will be waiting for them!
I see a row of chairs right on the spot where I fell, and there is an empty seat. I sit next to a woman who doesn’t notice me, and I stare amazed at the screen. Music fills me up.
I am home.
I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading this ghostly spin.
The inspiration to flesh out Alison’s story came to me during a private tour of Peery’s Egyptian Theater. The manager at the time did a wonderful job of showcasing the historic movie palace for me. I saw the place where Alison fell; I sat on her favorite chair—dozens of people have seen her there. I went into the bathrooms where she entertains herself, turning the lights on and off, or just letting the water run—per the chuckling janitor who shared his experiences with me.
Because of her innocence and sweet demeanor, Alison occupies a special place in my heart. I hope I’ve done right by her and that you, henceforth, let her tag along—in your imagination.
A factual tidbit about Alison:
Peery’s Egyptian Theater, Ogden’s historic movie palace, is located on Washington Boulevard, between 24th and 25th Streets.
Legend has it that during its construction in 1924, a 12-year-old girl named Alison brought lunch for her father, and at some point during her visit, she died in a fall, either from scaffolding or from a balcony.
The friendly ghost of Alison, described as having shoulder-length hair, reportedly haunts the boxes in the rear of the theater, though there have also been sightings of her playing a piano, turning lights on and off, and occasionally sitting next to a lucky patron in the audience.
Published in the United States by WaterBearer Press
ISBN: 978-1-7325093-0-6 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-7325093-1-3 (sc)
ISBN: 978-1-7325093-2-0 (e)