The Haunting of the Union Theater

A favorite UW ghost story involves the Union Theater: Is it haunted by the spirit of Samuel Segal, a Minneapolis drummer, who collapsed and died during a March 12, 1950 concert? Vernon Owen Anderson ’50, MS’51 witnessed that fatal performance.

A spotlight shines on the empty stage at the Wisconsin Union Theater at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on May 27, 2008. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller Date:  05/08    File#:   D3 digital camera frame 2435
A spotlight shines on the empty stage at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Photo by Jeff Miller | UW-Madison, University Communications

One of the most riveting campus events occurred in 1950, while I was a student. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Antal Dorati, was performing at the Union Theater. I was in attendance with friends. While playing the second selection, the timpanist — standing over his drums — suddenly collapsed and fell to the floor.

Uninterrupted, the orchestra continued to play while unseen hands dragged the instrumentalist out beneath the backstage curtains in full view of the audience. At the conclusion of the selection, the front curtains were slowly drawn shut. There was no applause; the audience sat in rapt expectancy. Very soon, a member of the orchestra appeared and announced that the timpanist had been stricken with a heart attack and had died instantly. It was further announced that the program would now be terminated, but the orchestra wished to play their deceased member’s favorite piece as a tribute.

The audience was transfixed. When the orchestra finished playing, the members stood silently as the curtains were slowly drawn to a close. And then, just as slowly and silently, the stunned audience dispersed.

It seemed so unreal — there had been no visible or audible signs of commotion. It seemed as though we had just witnessed what should have been a perfectly contrived and performed drama.

Anderson shared that memory with Badger Insider Magazine in 2001. He passed away in 2004. In Segal’s memory, the Union Theater kept a light on backstage at all times — the “ghostlight.” The theater will officially reopen in fall 2014.

Learn more about the (sometimes) haunted history of the Wisconsin Union Theater, plus share your Spooky UW tales in the comments section below.