“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
— “Hamlet,” Act 1, Scene 5
Ghosts are as much a part of theater as greasepaint and curtain calls.
With their cavernous, darkened interiors, theaters easily lend themselves to stories of spirits causing strange noises or other unexplained occurrences within their walls. Especially older theaters, where the noise of a settling building can also conjure up thoughts of the supernatural.
Yakima’s Capitol Theatre is no exception. In addition to being the home of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and the Yakima Town Hall series, it has its own resident ghost.
“It’s hard to imagine a historic building without a ghost,” said Charlie Robin, the theater’s chief executive.
The Capitol specter’s name is Shorty, and it’s believed he’s been haunting the South Third Street playhouse for decades. He’s been credited — or blamed, take your pick — with such things as toilets randomly flushing, unlocking doors and hiding papers around the theater.
Nothing on the order of the disembodied spirits of horror movies. More like a smart aleck.
The theater made Shorty earn his keep during the pandemic, giving him center stage for a fundraiser while the theater was closed. (More on that later.)
The theater was the dream of Frederick Mercy Sr., whose family continues to operate movie theaters around the Valley. Mercy envisioned building a grand vaudeville theater on South Third Street, going as far as operating a small movie theater next to the church that stood on the site he wanted until the church leaders gave in to his demands to sell him the land.
The Mercy, as it was known then, opened in April 1920, with the Broadway musical “Maytime” the first show to be performed there.
According to legend, Shorty was a stagehand at the theater and had fallen in love with an actress. But she spurned his love and a depressed Shorty killed himself in the catwalks above the stage.
But Shorty, apparently, didn’t let something like death get in the way of his involvement with the theater. Nor did he abandon his post when the theater was gutted by a fire in 1975 and rebuilt.
(For the record, the fire was started by an electrical short. Can’t blame the ghost for that one.)
One of Shorty’s signature antics involved the door to his “office” in the theater’s old organ loft. If someone were to leave the door open, something would mysteriously close it. And if it were closed, and locked, it would be found open the next day.
Papers that went missing at the theater would sometimes be found in Shorty’s room behind the locked door.
Ushers at the theater have reported the feeling that someone was following them around, and even people with traveling productions have reported experiencing phenomena that old hands at the theater attributed to Shorty.
Robin said one person even took a photo of what looked like a woman on stage. And there’s the story of a man sitting in the audience and getting up, only to reveal he had no lower body.
In 2010, Shorty’s office was removed when the building’s production center was added in that area, but the bricked-up doorway is still visible back stage, and Shorty’s door remains back stage.
So far, Shorty hasn’t manifested himself in the production center, Robin said, but to be on the safe side nobody’s planning to get rid of Shorty’s door.
But does Robin believe in Shorty?
While he hasn’t had an experience with Shorty personally, Robin refers to Hamlet’s suggestion to Horatio, after seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, that there are just some things we don’t know and can’t explain.
“But Shorty’s been around longer than I have been, so who am I to say?” Robin said.
Robin has tried to track down Shorty the man, enlisting John Baule, director emeritus and archivist at the Yakima Valley Museum to research the story of the lovelorn stagehand. Originally believing Shorty’s last name was McCall, Baule was unable to find anything about him, Robin said.
But Robin said a Mercy family member told him that Shorty’s last name was Michaud.
A search on FindaGrave.com of Michauds buried in Washington state found only two men with that surname, both buried on the west side of the state and both in their 70s, which can safely rule them out.
However, Robin did enlist Shorty — or at least his legend — in a fund drive to help the theater when COVID forced it to cancel events.
The theater asked patrons to send funds for “Shorty’s Spirit Series,” featuring imaginary productions such as “The Laugh ‘Til You Die Tour,” “Dead At The Capitol,” “The Phantom of The Capitol” and “The Sound of No Music” among others.
Since the theater wasn’t having live shows, it was thought best to let Shorty have his time on stage, the promotion said.
And like all theaters, the Capitol has a “ghost light,” a single bulb on a pole that illuminates the theater when it’s not in use. But there’s a practical reason for that — it keeps workers from falling off the stage or bumping into furniture in the dark.
Plus, Shorty doesn’t have to wander around in the dark.