Hidden Places of Music Hall
by Eugene Saenger, Jr.

It was shortly before midnight on a late winter night, the CSO players and audience long departed, Music Hall virtually empty. Except for the three of us. We were nearing the end of our long ascent of a dark, steep, and very precarious stairway, climbing high into the vast ceiling cavity spanning the hall's voluminous auditorium. That's when we heard them.

Noises. Strange noises, dim at first, then growing louder the higher we climbed. We were alone; absolutely certain of it. Everyone else had left the building, we were assured. We were familiar with the tales of ghosts in Music Hall, all bunk and hokum. Yet there could be no denying what we were hearing. And it certainly wasn't the wind!

At first nearly undecipherable, the higher we rose on our climb, the clearer they became. To our complete disbelief, it was abundantly apparent we had company. The noises we were hearing were clearly human voices, one very low and guttural. Argumentative even, with a strong foreign accent. The other, even lower, and more strained, angry, even defensive, also thickly accented. Up here? At this time of night?

To say the hairs on the back of our necks bristled is an understatement. The stairway we were on was nearly pitch black. A timid look over the railing revealed it was a long way down if you fell. And at this height, with the difficulty of the climb, it we had to make a run for it it would not be either a quick or easy descent. What had initially been total silence was now being pervasively punctuated with piercing screams, shouts and howls. Up and up we continued, we had no choice.

Then, rounding a landing, not the last by any means, we saw them, the sources of these awful sounds. Higher still above us, we were not yet at the top, dimly appearing in the faint light, shadowy outlines at first, and then we were able to make them out: two distinct figures. Two men, two very old men, stooped posture, their clothes in tatters, bony limbs, wild hair, what little there was of it, and engaged in heated debate.

Finally we could clearly make out what they were saying. ''No!, it kan't be, you kannot do dis you fool, eet iss nefer played dat vay!'' one figure was saying. ''Vhat do you mean, you blundering eediot???'' screamed the other,''You half no konception ouf dee musik und you never did.'' he spit back in contempt. Way up here, way off the beaten track, late on a Saturday night, hidden well out of sight to the everyday visitor, there could be no doubt what we were seeing and hearing: it was true, these were the famous ''Ghosts of Music Hall!''

Not at all pleased, we had stumbled upon two of these long-rumored ghosts who are known to haunt the building. After all, it is built over a 19th century 'Potter's Field' long abandoned. And it was obvious from their appearance and the discussion they were having these were no ordinary run-of-the-mill ghosts. We had stumbled upon none other than the ghosts of Leopold Stokowski and Frank Van Der Stucken, two famous and long dead Music Directors of the CSO. Yes, here they were, defying all logic, just a few feet above us, blocking our access to the steel fire door that leads to the vast ceiling area spanning the hall's auditorium and our destination, and they were engaged in what appeared to be a long-running, contentious, even bitter debate over some item of music minutiae!

That's when it happened. They told me later, while I was recovering in the hospital. That's when the ghosts suddenly stopped yelling at each other and instead turned spectrally to focus their attention on us. That was evidently when my heart stopped beating and I started to fall down into the darkness below.

OK, perhaps, maybe, there is just a little bit of exaggeration here. Writer's license. Actually, it didn't go down quite like has been recounted above. Not at all. Not even close. Our visit was to the ceiling over Springer Auditorium, yes, as part of a tour of the Hidden Places of Music Hall. But it wasn't nearly midnight when we made our journey, more like noon on a blustery, overcast Tuesday afternoon in March. We were led by Scott Santangelo, CAA's General Manager of Music Hall, who works closely with the SPMH Board. Kathy Janson, a SPMH VP, joined us, our assignment being to visit these hidden places the general public never gets to see and provide readers a brief glimpse of the most interesting.

But let me assure the reader, those stairs up to the ceiling crawl space, they were rickety. And daunting.


The three buildings which comprise the Music Hall complex total more than a quarter million square feet of floor space. The number of individual rooms, mechanical systems, exterior doors, corridors, stairways, it's useless counting them, there are too many. Our tour was constant up-and-down, up-and-down, twisting and weaving through the labyrinth and we elected, before we even began, not to go into the basements. Behind the walls which frame the public spaces with which we are all familiar Music Hall is one vast maze. With more than a few steep access stairs and ladders, not intended for use by 'civilians,' thrown in for good measure! Our assignment: visit and document these areas and share our findings with our readers, ghosts or no ghosts!

the Wurlitzer showcased in the corner of the ballroom One of the first areas we visited, after a long climb from the center lobby, was a small chamber located above and behind the Albee Wurlitzer Organ, tucked somewhere above the Ballroom in the South Wing on the Central Parkway side of the building. The first thing Scott pointed out to us, after cautioning us to be careful not to fall on the steep access stair or hit our heads on the many places we had to duck down to avoid banging into the various mechanical systems ductwork, piping or conduit heading every direction imaginable, was the numerous visible bricked up arched openings. Whether these, when they were originally built and open, were windows, doorways, or even part of an arched exterior decorative colonnade, as well as in which renovation of the building they were covered up was not clear, but they are everywhere.

Spencer Steel Orgoblo organ blower motor The small chamber to which Scott took us is expressly for housing the mechanical systems for the operation of the restored Mighty Wurlitzer Organ from Cincinnati's old Albee Theatre, now ensconced in the Ballroom. There are two separate systems, one for special air conditioning and humidity control necessary to keep the organ's pipes ''in tune'' and the other the rebuilt original forced air blower system which provides the air which flows through, and hence, powers the organ's sounds. The builder's plate proudly identifies the huge blower motor as a Spencer Steel Orgoblo made under patent by the Organ Power Department of the Spencer Turbine Co. of Hartford, Conn., U.S.A. with a date of May 10, 1921. Looking at the size of this marvelous beast, one understands why the Albee organ is such a precious historic resource for Music Hall to have and enjoy.

From here we proceeded to navigate our way past several hidden storerooms used by the various resident companies of Music Hall for all sorts of overflow supplies which backup the full spectrum of performances, benefits, promotions, fundraisers and special events they sponsor. Not necessarily a pretty sight, but in fairness, does the reader want strangers snooping in their closets? The uses to which these rooms were put in earlier incarnations of the building were not clear, and how they might be used post-revitalization is equally unclear.

We rounded a corner like so many others we had already encountered and found ourselves at the foot of an ornate cast iron stairway in a stairwell generously lit from outside with numerous windows, the entirety of which is hidden from view by the non-original ornate archway which was created in the 1970's Music Hall renovation and leads from the top of the current North Lobby stairway into the Ballroom. The lower part of this virtually unused stairway ''to (almost) nowhere'' had been removed to accommodate the archway, but the upper part, complete with decorative cast iron newel caps and stair railings, remains intact and useable. The degree of intricate ornamentation and iron filigree visible in the stairway is remarkable and representative of the period when the building was constructed.

Four-panel Doorway with window From here we climbed to the stairway's upper landing which fronts on a stunning period, double four-panel door-set, capped with an arched clerestory window and surrounded with beautiful moldings, again representative of the building's original period. Standing in front of this doorway at the top of this particular stairway it was not hard to imagine a time when women in bustle skirts and their finest bonnets accompanied by men in long frock coats and wearing string bow ties, perhaps even with top hats, climbed these very stairs and passed through this doorway to attend a social function in the room which is now known as Corbett Tower. As they ascended they would have admired the spectacular views of the Over-The-Rhine area and Mt. Auburn off to the northeast, before enjoying the many splendors of Music Hall.

A secondary door off this landing led to the service corridors behind the walls of Corbett Tower, and from this area we proceeded across a covered interior connecting-way which spans the carriage way separating the South wing from the Music Hall Building itself (a similar carriage way separates the building from the North Wing). We paused at an exterior access door leading, on our left, to the roof of the South Wing and on our right to the south side of the Music Hall building, with its much higher pitched roof line. From this vantage point, looking due west, we could see numerous architectural arched bricked up window openings details largely unseen from the street: huge bricked-in arches aligned in stately rows on opposite facing walls, with detailed brick ornamentation and carved stone details augmenting them for visual relief. The arches on the south wall of Music Hall are the bricked over windows above the Gallery level seating in Springer Auditorium. Looking at pictures of this wall taken today one immediately sees design images and a scale reminiscent of buildings one sees in photographs from the Civil War era. One could almost envision a picture showing a rank of cannon ready aligned in front of these arches, ready to defend Music Hall, a not unexpected view for a building of this era, but still thrilling to experience. Pride of construction craftsmanship and attention to detail is seen everywhere throughout Music Hall, and this area is just one representation.

Music Hall is a true mixed-use development, housing as it does the auditorium, ballroom, Corbett Tower, and offices throughout. As we worked our way through the numerous public reception areas of the facility, where various social are constantly being held, we trudged past more beer dispensing carts, rolling bars, caterer's kitchens, locked (securely locked!) liquor storage cellars, and back-of-house assembly rooms than we could count. It reminded one group member of their days with a hotel operating company. Scott also showed us more mechanical system rooms (there are thirty-three [33] independent heating/cooling systems throughout the complex) than we could keep straight; now what heats and cools what?

Along our journey we were also able to visit one of the special climate-controlled libraries for the resident companies, where neatly organized racks and rows of shelving that seem to go on forever hold tens of thousands of individual scores for classical music of every description, both orchestral and vocal.

decorative cast friezes and supports Then we went down to the Critics Club and through it into the electric shop, behind the scenery shop and almost at stage level - but not quite, the difference in grade being less than one foot but enough to require a ramp to make the transition when large scenery items are moved on and off the stage. This space is also located behind and underneath the Corbett Opera Center, created inside a part of the North Wing as a home to the Cincinnati Opera Association in 2004, and not only accommodates storage for lighting equipment, but also many other scenery items for staged presentations. Amazingly, in this room decorative cast friezes and scrolled supports dating from the construction of the North Wing are visible, high up on the walls, purposes unknown. When the original Music Hall 'complex' was also used for various expositions, meetings and sporting events such as professional wrestling exhibitions, the North and South Halls were where these events occurred, and these items of pure ornamentation are indicative of the pride which was taken in building each of the component parts of Music Hall. Very cool (not!) is the senseless way the sprinkler systems and heating units were installed directly centered in front of the friezes, so it is difficult to find one which offers an unobstructed view. A vivid contrast in the aesthetic standards of the periods, 1870s and 1970s.

the house from stage right

Literally the high point of our tour was the ascent to the ceiling space over Springer Auditorium, as untruthfully described at the beginning of this article. First, Scott took us through the Scenery Shop, then we viewed the hall from the stage, an awesome experience unless, like the writer, you've 'played the boards of Music Hall' numerous times..., OK, a few times, but still, it's awesome to be up there, every time.

Scott had earlier in the tour showed us a vertical access ladder leading to the ceiling crawl space located behind a narrow door at the rear of the Gallery. This ladder rises about forty feet into one corner of the auditorium ''attic'' but is not meant for use by ''civilians'' like our group. So we now found ourselves at the somewhat more user-friendly access stairway located at stage level just behind the electricians control room and near the prop department workroom, downstage left. Following good safety management practices, Scott had radioed our ascent ahead, to make sure the lights were all on 'up there' and someone knew we were going up. A member of the Music Hall staff actually came down to the stage from his office to 'check us out' and having done so, turned to Scott and asked ''Do you think they can make it?'' He was referring to the writer, I'm sure, but being an old stagehand [old], to have the opportunity to be in the ceiling of Music Hall, no one was going to stop me. It was 'Party On!'

climbing up to the ceiling circa 2005 That was before we started the climb, straight up, about 20 steps to a switch-back, rank after rank; we neither counted the number of switches or the number of steps, but there had to be nearly 200, if not more. We took two rest breaks (needed to catch our wind), and there was one fun spot where it was necessary to turn, duck, squeeze, and pivot, all at the same time, in order to wedge around the back side of the Section IV speakerbox, but in short order we arrived at the steel fire door which seals off the ceiling area from the access stairwell. It was necessary to get small and work our way, one-at-a-time, around Scott, then stand on a special perch, off to the side, to let him open the door so one could pass through, then have him repeat the process for the next person.

part of the duct work above the ceiling Once inside the attic it is really impossible to gauge the vastness of the space because of the jumble of mechanical systems, roof bracing, trusses, beams, support wires, conduits, light ports, 'cloud' access hatches, rigging lines, and what-have-you spread out over the entire area. But Scott cheerily called out ''this way'' and led us over cables here, under wires there, up these steps and down those, and then we were headed on a straight, narrow walkway towards what looked, like, for want of any other descriptive term of art, a ''fishing shanty'' set right in the middle of the ceiling.

Being careful where we stepped (one wrong step and you'd fall through the plaster ceiling all the way down into the orchestra seats) we followed Scott into this shack which really is ''Chandelier Central.'' We were able to look through openings in the decorative Chandelier Backing Plate onto a sea of deep red velour, this being the orchestra seats themselves, a stunningly awesome sight. Scott explained that the Chandelier is in perfect working order but that because of its massive size and delicate design, the fewer times it is raised and lowered, the better. The 'shack,' he went on, is simply to prevent any accidents occurring to the chandelier; the fewer stagehands and engineers getting near it, the better.

ladder up the wall to the area behind the Rose Window Then Scott bounded, deftly, out the shack's door and headed further east along the catwalk, towards a prominent brick wall with a twelve-foot industrial foot ladder heading to a still higher elevation. The presence of this ladder led to more bounding, by Kathy and Scott, up and into 'the Rose Window Room.' One member of the party was deputized to stay behind as sentry, guard, and protector ''against possible attack by the Music Hall Ghosts''. Or was this member of the party simply too old (and too tired) to make this last climb? Wearing the wrong shoes for climbing that kind of ladder, perhaps? Best experienced of the group at dealing with the Occult? Whatever the reason for being left behind, this member was not the first from an 'exploration party' to come close to their goal but fail to reach the ''top of the summit.''

ladder up the wall to the area behind the Rose Window Even though not everybody in the party got to see firsthand this last, impressive, area, pictures taken by Scott and Kathy give a good sense of the soaring height of the brick walls up to the heavy wooden trusses supporting the roof, the gigantic size of the Rose Window itself, the overall immensity of this open interior behind the window, and, the room being located directly above the Corbett Tower, the spectacular views through the window to the Mt. Auburn hills beyond.

Now, having reached the pinnacle of our tour, we began the process of wending our way back through the sea of guy wires, struts, braces, beams, and trusses that support the vast Springer Auditorium ceiling, heading to that creaky stairway which would take us back to (relative) terra firma and a solid surface beneath our feet. Along the return journey Scott paused to show us various, narrowly-confining trapdoor access entries through the ceiling leading to various lightwells for spotlights, rigging points for the CSO's acoustic cloud, and the like. Clearly a workplace only for well-trained stagehands thoroughly versed in safety procedures for working in such a high and challenging environment, but based on personal experience, a cozy and exciting place once its work rules are understood and mastered.

Led by Scott, the intricate safety-first procedure for navigating the fire door at the entry to the ceiling was repeated, this time in reverse, and soon we were heading back down the stairway, switchback after switchback, snaking our way around the speakerbox and then, hands well-dirtied from the accumulated grime on the handrails we'd securely gripped heading both up and down, we found ourselves back at stage level. Scott then led us upstage center to see the area behind the stage proper which used to house the Music Hall Organ, removed during the renovation in the late 1960s. There is a large platform about 3-and-one-half feet above the level of the stage, which creates a pocket of sorts currently used for storing various pieces of stage equipment. Scott pointed out four vents high on the rear wall of this space and told us they had led to the original organ mechanical room that supported the original Music Hall organ (not related to the Albee organ in today's Ballroom).

At this point Scott said our tour was concluded, but we asked if we could possibly see his offices, as we had no idea where in the vast building they were. Scott generously agreed, and led us offstage right, where one can head three directions: left, down a corridor to the southside lobby area and escalators; straight, towards the Green Room and Orchestra and Chorus Dressing Rooms, the CSO's principal Library, Wardrobe, and the Chorus Makeup and Wig Room; or right, and up a short staircase which leads to additional dressing rooms, the Wigmaster's Workroom, the Orchestra Lounge, and a backstage crossover which leads to the Large Rehearsal Room and back to the truck dock and stage left scenery, electric, and prop workshop areas.

Scott lead us up this staircase, but then, as many times as one of the group has been in this very spot, instead of heading towards the Large Rehearsal Hall, he lead us up another staircase tucked back in a corner of the building, which led to a second level of the western-most side of Music Hall. Up here is CAA's offices for the building. Entering this large room Scott pointed out the various cubicles housing his staff for operations, booking, catering, and personnel management, as well as his own 'inner sanctum.' He also showed us four vents high on the long wall of this office, pointing out that these were the other side of the vents we had seen in the former organ loft upstage center when we were standing at stage level a few minutes earlier. Scott explained that his office area had previously housed some of the same type of mechanical equipment for the former organ. On another wall in this large open space hang four smaller 'pipes' from the old Music Hall organ, which can be manually ''played'' by blowing through them. The tour was spared a demonstration of Scott's musical abilities owing to the time and difficulty associated with getting the pipes down from the wall.

The concluding part of our tour, and given the looming project for revitalizing Music Hall, one of the most interesting, was our walk along the second level of this part of Music Hall as we were headed out of the building, the tour finally concluded. As we walked, we passed small office after small office, doors tightly shut. These tiny offices reminded one member of the group, who years earlier had been privileged to be given a way way way-backstage tour of the Paris Opera House, arranged by May Festival Music Director James Conlon, who, at the time, was also Music Director of the Paris Opera, of what he'd seen in that building, which of note was completed in 1875, only three years prior to Music Hall's completion in 1878.

In Paris, as the member had worked his way through the hidden places of the famous Garnier, itself, if you will, the iconic ''home of the Phantom of the Opera,'' he had passed through similar narrow hallways lined with similar rows of tiny offices. Behind the door of each such office sat one tiny Frenchman, a dutiful member of the ponderous bureaucracy which famously runs the Paris Opera, hunkered over a bound ledger book, entering by hand figures and tallies in neatly arrayed rows and columns.

As we moved through this hidden part of Music Hall we passed similar offices, slightly larger, their doors slightly shorter and wider, and each jammed to the rafters with administrative staff of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra - I.T., finance, data, etc. So similar in some regard to what had been seen in the Garnier, but different in that they were working in an air-conditioned environment and using the latest hi-tech computers, color monitors, and laser printers to maximize their productivity. We walked so fast and passed so many offices it was impossible to catalog all the administrative functions of the CSO handled in this part of Music Hall, let alone the number of symphony associates who are literally sandwiched into this cramped area of this iconic 19th century building. We had no idea that this space even existed, let alone that it housed so many people and so much modern equipment. It was an interesting contrast to the member's Paris observations, and one more eye-opening look into a hidden space of Music Hall.

Our tour concluded, we left Music Hall two hours after we had started, much richer in knowledge and wiser for the experience, and indebted to Scott for his excellent leadership and generous devotion of time. It was apparent from our first-hand observations that, notwithstanding all the supposed ills and real needs this 'grand lady' has for a long-needed revitalization (after all, is it not true that anything of age 135 can benefit from some 'sprucing up work' inside and out?) Music Hall is nonetheless very well-tended and maintained by Scott, the CAA staff, and the resident companies, and by virtue of its old-world quality construction has the fine ''bones'' of a thoroughbred which will enable it to last for generations yet to come.

CODA: It was just a few weeks after our tour and a group member was wedged in a crowded Music Hall elevator with, among others, a promising young American composer in town to visit one of the resident companies. Just ending a workshop for one of his new works, he was at this moment so extremely excited because one of the staff of the resident company was about to take him to the basement of the building to encounter... the famous ''Ghosts of Music Hall.'' Poor chap, he and the resident staff member, neither of them knew what we all now know -- the legendary ''Ghosts of Music Hall'' -- they're all in the attic!

Eugene L. Saenger, Jr., a long-time Cincinnati arts supporter, has been a long-time support of Music Hall and the performing arts in Cincinnati.


SPMH is looking for volunteers to become tour guides! Call the SPMH office at 513.744.3293 and leave a message letting us know you are interested in training to be a Program Guide in Cincinnati's historic Music Hall! Find out more about being an SPMH volunteer

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