Pulse director likes to think ‘angels’ watching over theater these days

Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok talks about the unexplained thumps, crashes and bangs she and others have heard coming from the unoccupied stage of her downtown theater. Elsewhere in the Pulse Opera House, a friendly, protective and sometimes mischievous presence makes itself known to the cast and crew.
Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok talks about the unexplained thumps, crashes and bangs she and others have heard coming from the unoccupied stage of her downtown theater. Elsewhere in the Pulse Opera House, a friendly, protective and sometimes mischievous presence makes itself known to the cast and crew. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok got up from her desk to answer the knock on the office door.

“There was definitely someone knocking at the door,” she says. “I heard the door very distinctly. But there was no one there.”

She went back to work and, a short time later, the knocking was repeated.

She didn’t bother to answer that time.

“Just the ghost,” she thought to herself.

Smyth-Wartzok has gotten used to the voices, the crashes and the occasional helping hand. It’s been that way since she launched a resurrection of the century-old Pulse Opera House in downtown Warren some three decades ago.

Is there a ghost making its home in the theater?

Smyth-Wartzok isn’t sure.

“I don’t know that I believe in ghosts,” she says. “I like to think it’s angels watching over us.”

Or maybe, she says, it’s the energy created by a theater; either the energy from its current incarnation, or energy from performances of a century ago seeping out from the walls.

“There’s a bit of me that wants to believe that,” she says. “Maybe if there is such a thing as a spirit, they’re happy we’re doing a theater again.”

She doesn’t believe the unexplainable happenings can be traced to just one being.

“I don’t think we’ve got one ghost that’s here doing all this stuff,” she says, “but there is something.”

Whatever it is, it apparently means no harm.

Smyth-Wartzok says she’s never gotten a menacing or frightening feeling, even when she’s been alone in the building with the spirit.

Martha Roberts agrees. She felt the presence as she was painting some props.

“Kinda like I had a friend/protector around,” Roberts wrote in a note to Smyth-Wartzok. “Too many times I’ve been accompanied by a ‘friend’ specter/ghost or whatever you want to call them.”

“When it happens, it’s pleasant somehow,” Smyth-Wartzok says. “It seems protective. It seems like it has a sense of humor.”

It could be that the sense of humor is a remnant of Warren’s early days as a rowdy oil boom town — a town with 11 bars and several houses of ill repute, a town that played host to con artists, two-headed women and an occasional unexplained disappearance — the period in which Capt. Silas Pulse, a wealthy merchant, opened the opera house above his stores.

“The opera house has just an amazing history,” Smyth-Wartzok says. “So it could be any of those people.”

The captain ran the theater from 1884 until his death in 1913, and gatherings at the opera house dwindled as the years wore on. Eventually, it was boarded up and used for storage.

Smyth-Wartzok, the founder and artistic director of the reincarnated Pulse Opera House, brought the abandoned theater back to life 30 years ago.

There’s an apartment attached to the theater, and Smyth-Wartzok was its lone occupant in those early days — with no one else living nearby.

“I heard singing,” she says. “But I never told anyone.”

Then, one day, a college friend came to visit and asked who was singing.

“I said, ‘Oh, you hear it, too?’” Smyth-Wartzok recalls.

Over the years, the singing has continued.

Sometimes the singer is a woman; sometimes there’s the sound of a crowd and an announcer.

“It’s just light and in the background; singing, laughing,” she says, almost as if the sound is coming from a far-away radio.

She’s since been joined by her husband, Ron Wartzok, who fills the role of technical director at the Pulse and who once heard a choir singing “Mame.”

Roberts has also heard the singing — faint singing that sounded like it was coming from a television in the downstairs rehearsal hall. She knew for a fact that no one was downstairs.

“The singing is the big thing,” she says. “A lot of people have heard it … but there’s been different kinds of sightings or experiences.”

A host of actors and volunteers are part of life at the Pulse, and enough of those people have had experiences that leave little doubt in their minds that something — a ghost, an energy, a spirit, an angel — has an interest in the theater.

Roberts once felt a hand on her shoulder as she was standing at the light board. When she turned around, no one was there.

Roberts says the scent of rose water often wafts backstage; Smyth-Wartzok’s now-30-year-old nephew smelled oranges as a 6-year-old at the Pulse.

“He said, ‘It’s not a ghost; it’s an angel,’” she recalls.

Long-time Warren resident Lilly Nutter, who was active as a Pulse volunteer before her death about a year ago, had her own encounter with the ghost. A door kept swinging open, and Nutter kept closing it. She was getting exasperated until Smyth-Wartzok told her the ghost was toying with her.

“She said to the ghost, ‘OK, I’ve had it. You stop that right now,’” Smyth-Wartzok says.  “She closed the door, and it didn’t open again.”

It may have been that ghost, or a different spirit, who gave a hand to Smyth-Wartzok one day when she was shuttling costumes from one floor to another, all the while looking for a green tape measure that had been misplaced. She knew she was alone in the building, but she could hear footsteps that were not her own.

“I said, ‘If you’re going to be here, then help me; I’ve got so much to do,’” she recalls.

The plea apparently worked.

On the next trip upstairs, she found the green tape measure opened up across the front row of costumes.

There’s been more than one show when a quick voice tells an actor that he or she has forgotten a prop.

During one performance, a voice came from nowhere to quickly utter the word “chair,” warning an actor about to enter the stage that a chair was out of place, Smyth-Wartzok says.

A search for canes needed as props ended when two canes inexplicably fell out of a closet.

A ghost may have been present during the rehearsal dinner for Ron and Cynthia’s wedding. Cynthia’s brothers had gone underneath the theater and came running back up with a stack of newspapers.

“One of my brothers pulled out a random paper, and it had my mother in her wedding dress on the front page,” she says. “It was their wedding announcement.”

The work of the Pulse ghost? Maybe the same ghost that sent a message through a note in a book?

The note appeared during a show — a murder mystery — that called for an explosion off stage large enough to make a bookcase shake.

One night, Smyth-Waryzok says, a book fell off the shelf and a piece of paper fell out. That had never happened before.

When Smyth-Wartzok picked up the paper, she saw the writing: “The best murder mystery ever.”

An appreciative ghost.

The unexplained happenings at the Pulse seemed to be heightened when the theater staged a play set in the Victorian era — the era during which Capt. Pulse operated his theater.

There have been unexplained bangs and crashes coming from backstage; footsteps and knocking in the hallway at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor theater.

Smyth-Wartzok says she’s looked for possible causes of the noises — neighbors, old pipes — but has found nothing to explain them.

“It’s actually more fun to think it’s a spirit,” she says.

Smyth-Wartzok has had just one “kind of” sighting, but she’s had that same sighting more than once.

She normally sits at the back of the theater during a show.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I always see a woman sitting in this one seat. Every time,” she says. “She’s wearing white.”

But when she looks straight on, there’s nothing there.

Roberts, too, has seen a figure she can’t explain.

She was outside on the street, and saw a shadowy figure wearing a black cape with a red lining, looking out from an upstairs window at the theater. When she went inside, she says, not a soul was there.

Smyth-Wartzok says she’s sure that some stories told about the Pulse ghost have been embellished.

“I think there’s an element of it that people want to see something,” she says. “People listen for it and want to see it, but they never do.”

She’s had a couple of ghost hunters offer to check out the theater, but she’s never accepted that offer. She’s not sure she believes in ghost hunters, she says.

Smyth-Wartzok and her husband no longer live in the apartment attached to the Pulse, and she kind of misses the noisy spirit.

“When we moved into a house, I was surprised at how quiet it was,” she says. “I had not realized how active it was until we moved into a house.”