Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don Shanower and the Theater Ghost

Donald Thomas Shanower with a stylish pompadour in 1947.
My third cousin twice removed Donald Thomas “Don” Shanower (born 1921) has been involved in theater most of his life. The first plays I know that he acted in were The Gent and Auf Wiedersehen, two one-acts presented July 21, 1939, at Trinity Reformed Church in Canton, Stark County, Ohio, when Don was seventeen years old. I suspect that this wasn’t Don’s first foray onto the stage, since his father, Merl Frederic Shanower (1893-1949), was active in Trinity Church and had organized a Sunday School orchestra there two years before, in 1937.

After high school Don earned a bachelor’s degree at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. He fought in World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in Belgium in 1945. In the late 1940s he returned to Kent State University as a graduate student and earned his master’s degree. While a grad student Don acted and directed for KSU’s University Theater and held office in Alpha Psi Omega, the national dramatics fraternity. In 1948, when Kent State teamed up with Hiram College to present plays on an old-fashioned showboat on the Ohio River, Don met Hiram student Patricia Ann Gibbs (born 1928). They married in 1951 while Don was a member of the department of speech at the College of Wooster.

Patricia Ann Gibbs Shanower, 1951.
In 1955 Don arrived on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where he joined the department of speech. He was in charge of the theater program at North Central until his retirement in 1986.

In 1966 Don directed his students in a production of a new musical Bligh Me with book and lyrics by Robert E. Lewis, who wrote scripts for such television shows as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The music was composed by John M. Danyluk. Hopes were high for Bligh Me, based on the historical Bounty mutiny, to reach Broadway. Virtually all of Naperville was excited to see the premiere on March 25, 1966, at North Central’s Pfeiffer Memorial Hall.

Playwright Bob Lewis’s ninety-two-year-old great-aunt was in attendance, sitting in seat G-42. As Diane A. Ladley wrote while recounting this incident in her book Haunted Naperville (Arcadia Publishing, 2009), “the lights dimmed. The audience hushed with anticipation. The orchestra began to play, the curtain rose, and the elderly woman in seat G-42—died.”

Don Shanower, right, the lead in Accent on Youth, Kent State University, 1948.
Don, standing in the back of the house, noticed a problem in row G. He and Dr. Glenn Wolf carried the woman out into the lobby, believing she’d fainted. In the lobby, however, they discovered instead that she was dead. They summoned an ambulance, but they couldn’t just leave the body lying on the lobby floor while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. If the body lay unmoved for too long, someone would notice. They didn't want the audience to grow alarmed. For lack of any other space, they carried the body into the cloakroom. It remained there until the ambulance arrived some time later—during the second act (according to Haunted Naperville) of a show that ran nearly four hours (according to a report in the Brookfield [Illinois] Citizen).

The ambulance took the body away, but the spirit of the woman who died during her grand-nephew’s show still haunts the theater on the North Central campus. Or so the story goes. She’s known as the Lady in White, and they say every once in a while she appears in seat G-42 to applaud enthusiastically during performances. Don claims that he’s never seen the Lady in White, but he knows how much the students enjoy the idea of a theater ghost.

Me and Don Shanower, October 2011.
The story of the Lady in White was recounted in the book I quoted from above, Haunted Naperville by Diane A. Ladley. Her version of the story, which starts on page 101, does its best to milk as much drama and spookiness as possible from the event. It gets a few details wrong, but it’s correct overall.

I ran across a comment on Haunted Naperville on the website of Powell’s Books, the huge and excellent bookstore in Portland, Oregon. In her comment, Diane Lewis-Bridge, daughter of Bligh Me playwright Bob Lewis, takes great exception to the incorrect facts in Diane Ladley’s version of the story. But the commenter gets a fact wrong herself when she says that Don Shanower had nothing to do with the production of Bligh Me. Don was the show’s director and was as delighted as his students to be working on the world premiere of a musical that was possibly bound for Broadway.

According to Don’s wife Pat Shanower, Haunted Naperville author Diane Ladley was occasionally associated with the Summer Place, a summer theater Don founded in 1967. She should have gotten the Lady in White facts right for her book. But when Diane Lewis-Bridge’s comment assumes “the rest of the book is a total fabrication,” I find that reaction a bit over the top.

Bligh Me never made it to Broadway, but Naperville is grateful for Don Shanower’s legacy to their community. In April 2002 the Shanower Family Softball Field was dedicated on the North Central College Campus to honor Don Shanower, professor emeritus of speech communication and theater, and his family. The Summer Place Theater, which Don founded, is still in operation. And if rumor has it right, the Lady in White, the single audience fatality in all Don’s years of theater directing, continues to haunt North Central’s Pfieffer Hall.

I visit Shanower Family Field at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, August 2012.

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