Are they still dancing when nobody's there? Rooting and tooting to a
band nobody else hears? Swilling champagne and sipping bathtub gin when
the place is empty and the doors are locked? Has the echo of long-ago
laughter collected in the corners? Did those blithe spirits leave
invisible fingerprints on the walls? Are there really any ghosts in the
old place at all?
Or is it just Larry Bryan who feels the presence of those merrymakers
who danced, and partied, and kicked up their heels many decades ago in
this marble-floored old ballroom that once was a speakeasy?
"It's here! An energy! Do you feel it?" says Bryan, as he opens the
industrial wire door that separates the storefront lobby from the
backroom theater at 4139 N. Broadway. Bryan heads National Pastime
Theater, and the lobby of the place is Chicago-style Bohemian, low
budget with a few persevering plants, beautician chairs, old couches --
and hanging from the ceiling, all aglow, a maze of commercial neon signs
of yesteryear including the "WASH 20 CENTS, DRY 10 CENTS" sign over the
one small bathroom.
"I get excited every time I come into this room," says Bryan, who does
not necessarily believe in ghosts but believes in the ghosts of this
place. "I'd say this place is full of them. You walk into the room and
you feel that there is a magic here. It has the smell of notorious about
it. There is a life to this room that embraces you. The actors feel it.
The audience feels it."
Bryan was looking for a home for the theater several years ago when he
stopped into a storefront--now the lobby--called the Neon Shop. He was
talking to the owner and saying he was looking for space--good
space--for a theater.
"He said, `Looking for space, huh?' and he led me through a small door
at the back into a huge, dusty ballroom," says Bryan. "For years no one
knew it was there. I loved it immediately and the neon man was leaving
so we leased the storefront and the ballroom."
Once Bryan moved in, he discovered 10 hidden doors leading out of the
old ballroom, which had marble floors, terra cotta moldings, a four-foot
marble clock over the bar and ornate drinking fountains set into the